Swag and marketing “gifts”

On IndieWeb Chat, the topic of conference swag came up, in the context of a bigger discussion about freebie giveaways and the apparently unending demand for free t-shirts.

I have multiple drawers stuffed full of free t-shirts that I have no intention of wearing. And I can’t imagine anyone else wanting to wear them, either, and donating them to thrift shops just feels like it’s offloading my problems onto someone else.

Much of the swag that places hand out (be it at conferences, first days of work, awareness campaigns, or whatever else) seems like it’s at best well-intentioned but at worst a gigantic environmental burden, both in terms of peoples' environments and the environment of the planet as a whole (materials, energy expenditure, landfill, etc.).

So here’s some thoughts on common bits of swag that I’ve received and my personal usage of it. This applies both to conference swag (provided by conferences and vendors thereof) and employee swag (i.e. given out on employees' first days or during internal events or the like).

Writing stuff (pens, notebooks, etc.)

I am in favor of things like this. I’m always losing pens, and taking notes on things is a lot easier if I have notebooks to take the notes in. So, I generally do use this stuff. But I preferentially use ones that are on the nicer end of things; spiral-bound notebooks with hard covers, pens which aren’t just crappy ballpoint pens, that sort of thing.

I definitely prefer paper that is either unlined or gridded/graph paper. I’ll use lined notebook paper but it’s not as useful to me as a sketchbook or something with grids.

And of course, some people don’t care for this stuff and won’t use it. So, make it opt-in.

Clothing items

Clothes almost never come in a size or style which is comfortable for me. I hate wearing shirts with large swaths of non-breathable logo printed on them. I also hate wearing shirts that are just plain advertising for other things.

I also do not wear polo shirts. Even when I was male-presenting I didn’t care for that style.

Also, “unisex” t-shirts really mean “men’s.” Worse, if I show up at a place and people tell me the shirts are “unisex” (and don’t tell that to other people in line) I just feel called out for being visibly trans. You might think you’re being inclusive, but you’re not.

If you’re going to have t-shirts as a thing to give out, please make sure to have both crewneck and scoop-neck styles; crewneck are more masculine, scoop-neck are more feminine. And provide a complete range of sizes for both styles; there are small men, and there are large women. And make the shirt something that people want to wear on its own, rather than being purely a marketing vessel for your thing.

Like seriously have you ever seen some random person on the street wearing a t-shirt saying “Do everything, believe more! IT IS WHAT WE BELIEVE” and then decide to look into rackmount server hardware or whatever?

Hats are similar; some people love baseball caps, others can’t stand them. Same goes for knit caps, beanies, trilbies, fedoras, and so on.

Also, in this day and age, it seems likely that going forward a lot of places are going to be handing out face masks. In addition to the t-shirt issues (especially regarding breathability — that is obviously way more important here!) you’ll also probably want to make it obvious that they’ve not been handled directly by people at the conference (for example, being in a sterile plastic bag), and of course different people have different head sizes/shapes and material preferences. They should also probably have flexible metal for shaping around the nose, and a pocket for a removable filter.

So basically: give people choice, make it something that people would want to wear, and make it opt-in.

Water bottles

Oh my god I have so many reusable water bottles that I never use. These seem to be especially favored by companies where they have disposable paper cups and want to discourage people from using them. When I worked at HBO we got a new reusable water bottle pretty much every month. Some of them were nice, some of them were crap.

All of them go unused.

Like, I get the intention behind reusable water bottles: Hey, let’s be good to the environment, let’s not use single-use drink containers like disposable cups or single-use water bottles.

But look at it this way: anyone who’s going to not use disposable drink containers probably already has a reusable drink container they really like. And unless this drink container is better than an average one, it’s probably just going to take up space in a cabinet or landfill. This is especially true for low-grade “sports” bottles where they aren’t even usable in a sports context (for example, being made of a rigid, thin plastic but having a squeeze-bottle top).

Like, don’t try to replace single-use bottles with never-used ones. That’s not actually helping anything.

And I don’t know about other people, but if I’m in a situation that I’m using a disposable container, it’s because I don’t have my reusable container with me. Giving me another one to not have with me isn’t going to solve the problem. If I’m visiting an office I won’t have my own personal coffee cup. Maybe just have reusable drinkware available for visitors to use, or something?

As far as bottles go, different people have different tastes for what sort of material and shape and so on makes for an acceptable experience. Especially among folks with various sensory sensitivity issues and so on.

Basically: make it opt-in.


Some people love stickers. Some people don’t. Some people will take the stickers and never have any idea of where to put them and they just accumulate in a drawer somewhere until the backing falls off and they make a big mess and oh god why didn’t I just throw them out oh no now there’s gunk all over the place

Make it opt-in.

Random cosmetic items

There’s a tendency at women-focused conferences especially to provide random “girly” things. They seem to always focus on the audience being women, and not aspects of the audience itself. I’ve been to women in tech conferences where the swag bag is full of things like press-on fingernails, makeup mirrors, nail polish (usually in gaudy, branded colors), and so on, never anything to do with the audience of the conference.

What’s even worse is when someone makes a gendered comment when they hand me the bag, in a way which implies that I wouldn’t want this stuff because I’m not a “real” woman. (Which also implies that men shouldn’t want these things, either.)

So, basically: make it opt-in.

Pronoun pins

I love pronoun pins. They’re great. I especially like ones with a write-in spot and which can be rewritten (such as being able to write on them with a “permanent” marker and then erase that with an alcohol wipe or something).

These go into a bigger category of thing but it’s good to at least consider the following things:

  • Make the pronoun itself the central focus
  • Make it easy to read at a distance
  • If you use color as a shorthand, don’t use commonly-gendered colors (e.g. pink or blue), and also consider colorblindness for readability
  • Offer at least he/him, she/her, they/them, and “ask.”
  • DO NOT PROVIDE A JOKE PRONOUN OPTION. I cannot stress this enough. Joke pronouns as an option only serve to delegitimize the entire thing (although it’s handy to see who to avoid by who’s wearing the joke pronoun badges, I suppose).
  • Also, it’s nice to let people take more than one, as a shorthand for “these options are all fine.”

And make it clear that this isn’t just for trans people! Encourage everyone to have one. But encourage, don’t force — some people are still in the closet or otherwise aren’t comfortable disclosing.

Basically, do what you can to normalize the idea of cis people declaring their pronouns, and to make the pronoun declaration obvious, but also accept that people might have reasons not to declare them, and at least make allowances for the fact that not everyone’s pronouns are going to be in the set that you consider.

(This obviously applies more to conferences themselves than about individual vendors at conferences.)


So, the summary I have on marketing swag in general:

  1. Make it opt-in
  2. Make it opt-in
  3. Provide utility
  4. Provide choices
  5. Don’t treat everyone as an external marketing vessel, especially when your goal is just to market to the recipient
  6. Make it opt-in


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