The evolution of swag

Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

Those vendors heading into a myriad of fall conferences have plenty to worry about. The exhibit space, making sure all parts of the booth are shipped properly, staffing and making sure no one drinks too much at a reception.

But months ago, most companies probably had a serious debate about what swag to offer at their booths.

Many years ago, John O'Connor gently criticized nurses who swept through conferences as if they were kids in a candy store. Last week, I asked some nurses at the AADNS conference about their approach to exhibitor swag, and what they use it for. As we are in the middle of conference season, I thought it was a good chance to reflect on why companies give out gifts.

The biggest question related to swag is the return on investment. Does it draw in a potential client or make an existing client feel good, or is it merely one more thing someone has grabbed? Vendors should ask about the longevity of the gift and its travel pattern: Nurses at AADNS reminded me that they often took the gifts as trinkets for certified nursing assistants or administrative staff who may not have the opportunity to travel for professional development.

Of course, the flip side of that is any conference attendee who takes the gift for his or her child or home use. One vendor told me this is why her company stopped making stuffed animals wearing a shirt with the company logo: The goal had been for that stuffed animal to sit on someone's desk or in the long-term care facility. Instead, they ended up under children's beds or as dog toys. Similarly, canvas bags are a mixed, well, bag. They are excellent for branding at a conference as people fill them with papers and other items, but then may well end up in someone's car after the show.

As a general rule, journalists don't take any expensive swag, but will take small items. Here is what I've observed as being the most practical and useful after a conference:

• Pens. Whether you are a journalist or a nurse, there will never be enough pens. The flip side is I become irrationally angry when a pen is so cheap it runs out quickly.

• Post-It notes: No matter how much we do electronically, I'm a huge believer in Post-It notes as a way to flag a print magazine article I'm sending to someone, or as a note on my computer. I have seen them in facilities noting a machine that is out of order, or, less commonly now, as a reminder to call someone back.

• Lip balm: I'm still using chapstick from a rehab company that has since been bought, but you better believe I think about them when I use it.

• Notepads/notebooks: Like many people, I am picky, but a reporter's style notebook (spiral flip style) is gold. I met someone at a conference who liked mine so much she asked me for a link of where to buy her own.

• Hand sanitizer: Simply practical for those at a conference or getting on an airplane. The downside is they will tend to stay in a purse at a facility, but also are the most likely item to be pulled out at a reception or other event with many people, and potentially shared. Cleaning wipes also may sit on someone's desk or at a nurse station, offering invaluable exposure.

Should you provide food?

Food at conferences is, in my opinion, tricky to pull off successfully. When you have a popcorn stand, coffee or other snack, and zealously monitor who is allowed to have it, it doesn't create an, “Oh, aren't they special!” feeling. Instead, it creates, “I'm hungry and I hate those people eating” feeling.

With regards to candy, many of us running around the show will sustain ourselves on chocolate. The downside is a) it disappears quickly and b) someone is far more likely to take candy if there's nobody watching, if only to avoid judgment. This means you have no chance to engage with your starving potential client. The upside is that candy requires no planning, no branding and offers a quick fix.

Also, remember that some companies think outside the box and create exhibit space that draws in people for fun reasons: Witness Omnicare's celebrity impersonators or OnShift's puppies. While both required legwork, those tactics were far more likely to create buzz. Stay tuned as to whether the McKnight's booths will ever feature live animals. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Not likely, Elizabeth. Unless it's a fishing tank. But nice try.]

At the end of the day, it would be rare for someone to make a decision about buying your product based on the best booth in the world, even if it includes a great giveaway. Far too many companies blow their marketing budgets on gifts rather than make strategic decisions around a year-long multifaceted plan. The swag allows a start, but they are merely an entry point to introducing yourself, perhaps getting someone's card, and following up. Then when someone sees you again, or sees your advertisement, webinar or email, it feels as if they already know you.

Follow Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.












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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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