Trade show freebies: a user guide

Having been lucky enough to attend countless trade shows, symposia, developer conferences and exhibitions over the last decade, the allure of a free T-shirt has long since worn off. Somehow though I still seem to pick up pens, USB sticks and all manner of show ‘collateral’ to clog up my travel bag at most events that I attend.

Having been lucky enough to attend countless trade shows, symposia, developer conferences and exhibitions over the last decade, the allure of a free T-shirt has long since worn off. Somehow though I still seem to pick up pens, USB sticks and all manner of show ‘collateral’ to clog up my travel bag at most events that I attend.

With summer supposedly here and the trade show ‘open season’ officially running, I thought it would be prudent to offer this user guide to what I like to call ‘show-scooping’ in order to make sure you come away from your chosen exhibitions with only the best freebies.

It was actually at my first ever developer show that I was dumbstruck by the appeal of a giveaway. I think it was at Microsoft Tech.Ed 2002. It was really tough to get inside the entrance at the evening drinks event due to a glut of developers blocking the entrance of the auditorium. After 15 minutes wait, the crowds subsided to reveal a stand handing out plain white T-shirts in those silly shrink-wrapped packets to make them the size of a burger bun. This was grown men, with a free beer hall not more than 200 yards away, stopping for a T-shirt. OK? You get the picture.

For a professional opinion on this subject I spoke to a superb chap called Frank Enright who is a marketing specialist at CAM Incorporated, a company that describes itself as one of America’s leading promotional products agencies.

“You might consider show giveaways to be a frivolous piece of periphery, but in reality they are a central part of the science behind show branding and marketing. Attendees often feel truly connected to the technology being presented at these trade shows, so giving them an additional branded item of any shape and size serves to penetrate the brand, one layer deeper,” said Enright.

Spoken like a true marketing man Frank, thanks for that! My personal advice for what to show-scoop for is to take a planned approach using a military-grade strategic analysis of the show floor. Look for items that you can pick up and use during the show and yet still discard: limit yourself to chewing gum, small note pads and one (repeat - one) show T-shirt with minimal logos and decals.

Caffeine enriched sweets and candy is a good option, as are ‘show mints’ to ward off that coffee-breath smell that nobody likes at all. Free USB sticks now come at an 8 Gb minimum level if they are to be considered worthy of retention. Sharpie highlighter pens are acceptable too, limit yourself to one in each of the core primary colours.

“People sometimes dismiss promotional items as junk, but they’re really not,” said CAM Incorporated’s Enright. “Try going to a show yourself and not picking up a few branded items, it’s infectious. I don’t know if this sounds obvious, but the best way to use this customer contact opportunity is to give people something they can derive real value from. Yes that could be as simple as a bottle opener, but it’s more likely to be something that results from a well-considered thought process.”

I think I know what Frank Enright is trying to say there. The best show freebie I was given in 2009 so far was an AMD-sponsored “Virtualisation for Dummies” book excerpt. The reason it was so good was that I was at a Parallels technology summit and all manner of cloud-computing technologies were being discussed. The book made great reading for the plane ride home and it probably wasn’t as expensive as printing up a whole batch of T-shirts and paying for matching USB sticks.

So go with me please on my show scooping mission – and if you’re really clever, take an extra bag along too!

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