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How to Develop a Good Promotional Product Strategy

Heidi Thorne is the author of "SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business."

Promotional products can include imprinted bags, calendars, notepads, mugs, hats, pens and so much more!

Promotional products can include imprinted bags, calendars, notepads, mugs, hats, pens and so much more!

How to Use Promotional Products Effectively

Promotional products can provide long-term advertising exposure. Learning how to develop a good promotional product strategy can build a business' brand and save marketing dollars by only buying what is appropriate for your purpose and your market.

Like most advertising, measuring results from using promotional products can be challenging. But their greatest value is in building awareness through increased advertising impressions.

The One Simple Rule to Promotional Products

There is one simple rule when it comes to buying promotional products:

If you don't know why, don't buy.

The biggest factor in any promotional product strategy is to know your "why." Why do you even want to use them in the first place? Why do you think they will work?

8 Questions to Help You Find Your "Why"

As mentioned earlier, if you do not have a good "why" to use promotional products, don't buy. But how can you figure out your why? Ask yourself the following questions when considering adding these products to your marketing mix:

  1. Will they use it often? Why do I think they will (or won't)? You might need to do some marketing demographics research to get a handle on the life or work styles of your group to find an appropriate choice.
  2. Do I want to use this item to reward current customers? Do they want to be rewarded in this way? Or would they appreciate something else more? If they'd rather get discount coupons, they'll resent getting a promotional item and will not use it.
  3. Do I want my customers to use the item privately (such as a desk item)? Or do I hope that they will use this item in public (such as wearing a T-shirt at a health club)? Will I be able to find a way to encourage them to use it in the manner that I choose? Both private and public use are acceptable, but, again, a marketing demographics review of your group will help determine if they have a high potential to use as you desire.
  4. Will I be able to afford an item of acceptable quality for my recipients? Giving out items that are a lesser quality than your recipients expect will damage your brand.
  5. What is the potential life of this item? Will it just be used once and discarded? Can I find another way to gain this exposure without a promotional product investment? Carefully determine whether a one-time-use item will provide enough impact and exposure to warrant purchasing. This may be unavoidable if you're providing items as part of a sponsorship program or in conjunction with a trade show or event.
  6. Does this item align with my other marketing, advertising and branding efforts? Similar to the acceptable quality issue, if an item is completely out of sync with the style or type normally used, it may not hurt your brand, but it won't build it either.
  7. Is this a promotion that could be turned into a tradition (i.e. annual distribution of imprinted calendars)? Using the same, but maybe just updated, item year after year helps save time by eliminating the search for a new choice. As well, customers often anticipate receiving your annual promotion and are disappointed when you skip it. Having customers wanting your promotion is a huge benefit!
  8. Is my item choice easy to distribute along my normal customer contact channels? If you are a pure-play Internet business, having to mail a physical promotion may dramatically increase costs. In that situation, a digital download item may be a better choice. Conversely, if your sales team visits customers in person regularly, you have a built-in distribution channel that can accommodate even some larger items.

Impressive Advertising Impressions

According to ASI (Advertising Specialty Institute) Global Advertising Impressions Study 2012, promotional products (also known as ad specialties) have a lower cost per advertising impression ($0.006) compared to ads on national prime time television ($0.018), national magazines ($0.018) and newspapers ($0.007). Only radio spot ads ($0.005) and Internet advertising ($0.003) have better cost-effectiveness.

Because promotional products are kept and used and are non-interruptive (unlike interruptive television commercials), 52 percent of consumers feel favorably towards the advertiser after receiving an item. Even more impressive is that 87 percent of consumers can recall the advertiser who gave them an imprinted promotional item.

Especially for small businesses, imprinted promotional items can be a very cost-effective medium to keep their names in front of target audiences for an extended period of time, in spite of the items' cost.

What ROI Are You Expecting?

Unlike other marketing efforts such as direct mail, infomercials or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, measuring return on investment (ROI) for promotional products can be difficult and sometimes impossible. It is unlikely that people will receive a promotional giveaway and immediately run to a store, phone or computer to place an order. However, marketers need to determine ROI expectations, whether that means actual sales or something else.

Sales are often the result of multiple contacts with prospective buyers. So other metrics can and should be employed to measure the progress and effectiveness of marketing efforts, including:

  • Website traffic (number of visits, trends, traffic sources)
  • Number of shoppers (not only buyers) visiting a store location
  • Number of visitors to booths at trade shows or events
  • Positive (or negative) feedback from recipients on the item given

These are metrics used to measure the effectiveness of all marketing efforts, including promotional products. Ideally, promotional products would be the only thing added to a program to determine if they had an impact over time. However, this rarely happens. Continuous changes are often made to multiple elements of a marketing and advertising plan.

Some have attempted to get a handle on the promotional products ROI situation by integrating direct response vehicles with or directly on the giveaway itself. Examples would include:

  • Special phone numbers other than the business' primary contact number.
  • Special domain addresses, websites or landing pages so that traffic can be tracked via Google Analytics or other Internet traffic measurement tool.
  • QR codes that connect to a specific web address or phone number. Some QR code generator sites, such as, can provide statistics on the number of times a QR code is scanned.

These strategies would work for some products, but not all, due to imprint space limitations or practical reality (for example, people are unlikely to visit a website because they saw it on someone's hat).

Regardless of how results are measured, promotional products primarily serve a supportive role in any branding or advertising effort. They offer advertising exposure for both the person who receives the item and for any others who may see the item in use (such as when observed on someone's T-shirt). However, they are not direct response advertising, and expectations for them to perform as such are unrealistic.

The Promotional Product Plan

Though it can be launched at any time, usually, setting up a promotional product plan for the coming year should be done in the fourth quarter of each calendar or fiscal year.

A plan would schedule promotional product use according to target distribution opportunities, including the following as appropriate for your business:

  • Trade shows and conferences
  • Other events such as golf outings and fundraisers
  • Sales calls
  • Gift given in exchange for purchase or participation
  • Retail distribution at checkout or welcome areas
  • Direct mail
  • Contests
  • Holidays
  • Customer appreciation

On a calendar (paper or electronic), note each promotional product distribution opportunity and note the following:

  • Budget (total annual, per distribution and per item, including shipping, tax, cost to mail to recipients and set up costs)
  • Promotional product
  • Quantity to distribute
  • Method of distribution (hand out at trade shows, mail, etc.)
  • Qualifiers to receive (purchase required, must register for conference, etc.)
  • Method of determining ROI (web or store traffic, downloads, total sales, etc.)

Then quarterly or at least annually in the third quarter of your fiscal or calendar year, determine if your efforts gained the results you wanted. Then adjust your plan as needed for the following year.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 18, 2018:

So true, Elena! Thanks for adding that exclamation point to the conversation. Have a great day!

Elena Michelson on April 18, 2018:

When used correctly, promotional products can be crucial for a business. Promotional products not only expose your brand to those that receive them, but also to those around them, which can lead to a greater return on investment.