Written by Mindy Feih, Skyline Southern Wisconsin.

How many t-shirts, mobile device chargers, water bottles, umbrellas or other items have you received at trade shows? How many of them do you still own, and how many of them have actually changed your view of the company that produced them?

Custom imprinted swag (aka stuff we all get) has been a marketing staple for decades, despite the fact that much of it ends up being lost, tossed, given away, or otherwise forgotten shortly after a conference. Today, more and more brands are ditching the plastic trinkets in favor of less tangible, more experiential premiums.


While it seems counter-intuitive that a one-time event actually is more enduring than a physical object, psychological studies prove otherwise. While we all delight in a free gift, we tend to become accustomed to—or even bored with—our physical possessions. In contrast, experiences live on in memory long after an event has past. The emotions we attach to those memories color our perceptions of the people with whom we shared the experience.

For this reason, more exhibitors are offering in-booth experiences ranging from photo booths to contests to lectures. Outside the hall, VIP events such as mixers, tours of local landmarks, or other quality-time experiences offer attendees experiences they won’t get anywhere else. Such experiences thus offer more lasting brand value than a custom printed keychain.


While attending a live event, attendees increasingly share their experiences on their social channels. One of the most popular recent forms of virtual swag has been the custom social media filter. From animated selfie masks to digital photo filters, lenses and frames, brands are developing their own tools to help audiences customize their social media photos. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram all offer sponsored ways to blend your logo and logotype with user-generated content.

Because social audiences use these tools to show their friends they support your brand, these social filters can have much more collective visibility than an imprinted pen or USB stick.


Some businesses can actually see a negative return from using premiums. A Yale study found that thank-you gifts like mugs and totebags can actually decrease the amount of contributions that nonprofits receive. The reason is that the selfishness that recipients feel upon getting the gift “crowds out” the happy feelings of donating to charity—thus reducing the average donation! Since for-profits similarly want their customers to feel good about doing business with them, it makes sense to ensure your premiums should impart a sense of community, rather than appealing to negative emotions such as greed. That’s much easier to accomplish with an experiential freemium.

Physical swag will never disappear. But before you invest in your next purchase of booth premiums, spend some time thinking of creative ways to incorporate your swag into a true interactive experience. Your giveaways (and your company image) will enjoy much more longevity.


Since 2001, Mindy Feih has been helping her clients navigate the challenging world of exhibit marketing with strategies that help them meet their objectives and increase their trade show profitability. She is currently the President of Skyline Southern Wisconsin, located in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. According to Mindy, the trade show world is like frosted mini wheats. The adult in her loves the challenge and the heat of competition on the trade show floor, while the kid in her loves coming up with creative and fun ways to help her clients succeed. She takes a very consultative approach to this business, educating her clients about trade shows, how to save money, and creating strategies that win.

Catch up on more exhibition tips on Skyline’s blog.

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