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Virtual Swag - Should You Use Digital Promotional Products for Marketing and Events in a Socially Distanced World?

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

Should You Use Digital Promotional Products for Marketing and Events in a Socially Distanced World?

Should You Use Digital Promotional Products for Marketing and Events in a Socially Distanced World?

What Is Swag and Virtual Swag?

The slang term “swag” typically refers to any physical product that has a logo, message, tagline or some form of personalization on it, usually with the intent of advertising or raising awareness for a business, event, organization, person or cause.

Physical promotional products have one important attribute that trumps all other forms of advertising: longevity. Some promotional products are retained by recipients for years. I have a letter opener that I received from a client in 1998, and I think about that client whenever I use it.

But as the internet and social media developed, a new type of swag emerged: virtual swag. These items aren’t products in the physical sense. They’re eBooks, audio or music files, videos, articles, PDFs, screensavers, games, and other content that offer informational or entertainment value to recipients, while promoting the advertiser.

I was a distributor of physical promotional products for 17 years, and I'm the author of SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business. So I’ll be sharing insight from observing the transition from physical to virtual swag options.

Virtual Swag for Virtual Events?

Once the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, events around the world had to pivot to online events to avoid travel and in-person contact. This completely upended the live events world. Meeting facilities, hotels, transportation, and physical promotional products were no longer needed.

I was invited to speak at one of these live-turned-virtual conferences. The event organizer said they were going to collect physical swag items from their sponsors and speakers and ship them to individual attendees. The price for attending virtually already had to be dropped from that for the live event. Most attendees expect to pay less for an online event, even if the material is exactly the same as would have been offered live. And now, the cost of shipping an unknown quantity of items would have to be deducted from the bottom line, too. Ouch!

Virtual events are not like the live events at all. And the swag to go along with it shouldn’t be the same either. But is virtual swag the answer? Not always.

Why No One Wants Your Virtual Swag

In the early 2010s, I observed virtual (or digital) swag bags making the scene in the events industry. Lower cost and no shipping costs, when compared with physical swag, made it very attractive to event organizers. And the novelty of it made it attractive to attendees, too.

The concept does have merit for marketers. For physical swag, it’s challenging to measure the ROI of an imprinted pen, mug, or T-shirt. With digital swag, the number of downloads or link clicks can easily be tracked. At live events and trade shows, marketers could even post a QR code that attendees could scan to claim their digital goody bags after providing their contact information.

Fast forward to now. Let’s be honest, do you get excited these days about yet another eBook from a vendor or marketer? Or “exclusive access” to the type of video you could have watched on YouTube? Maybe a limited-time “free trial” to a service that will require your credit card to access? When I see offers for digital swag, I just ignore them.

Another part of the problem is information overload. I feel there’s just too much content and too much competition for digital swag to be special anymore.

What Virtual Event Attendees Really Want

If digital swag bags don’t excite online attendees, is sending them physical promotional items the answer? I don’t think so.

In 2020, I recall seeing a physical swag bag that would be sent to attendees who would now be attending virtually. Standard promotional product fare: tote bag, water bottle, notebook, pen. Why do you need these items if you’re working from home? Tote bag for toting your materials from your kitchen to your home office? Water bottle when you can use—maybe even prefer to use—your own dishes and cups at home? And attendees probably have their own preferred notebooks and pens. They might even just do digital note taking, eliminating the need for these items altogether. Waste of marketing money.

I think virtual event attendees really want valuable online experiences. That is a tall order! With so many formerly in-person interactions going virtual, people are getting online event or Zoom fatigue. A virtual swag bag, or even a physical one, isn’t enough to put up with yet another ho-hum online event or conference.

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.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 26, 2021:

Mary, I wonder, too, if this virtual world we now find ourselves in will return to the in-person one we knew. In many cases, I don't think it will. But we shall see. This moment in history is so unique, we'll be studying for years!

Thanks for chiming in! Hope your New Year is off to a great start!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 26, 2021:

I remembered all those promos in conferences but you have identified the problem today. How do we do it? Shall we just abandon it? Maybe, this is just temporary so we'll let it pass. You made me think.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 20, 2021:

Flourish, if you get any extra digital coupons for Amazon or desserts, I'll take 'em. :) While I was in the swag business for many years, I always encouraged my clients to use promo that people can use... or didn't have 1,000 of already.

The phone cards used to be a thing. But now with so many phone unlimited plans, they've lost some of their appeal. One thing I used to try to push with my clients was free song downloads. That's virtual swag that resonates with the college crowd, too.

Sadly, though, most digital swag--like the glut of pens and water bottles--is just not useful or high value for recipients.

Thanks for adding those great points to the conversation! Hope your New Year is starting out healthy and happy. Cheers!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 20, 2021:

Peggy, that is sadly the case that many promo goodies at live events also find their way to the landfill. The only positive thing with virtual swag is that it's less of an environmental cost. Thanks for making that great point!

Hope your New Year is starting out healthy and happy! Appreciate your support, as always.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 20, 2021:

Bill, thanks for weighing in before you checked out! Indeed, today is the start of a new era of hope for our country and world.

Thank you for your support, as always. Stay safe, stay well, stay positive!

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 19, 2021:

If they want to send me a digital coupon for an Amazon purchase or a piece of dessert from the restaurant of my choice I would certainly remember their company’s name. But I don’t want any physical items like pens or water bottles these days (green concerns and I have 1000 already) or unsolicited ebooks (no time). Back in the day phone cards used to be big promo items with corporate college recruiting because they were as close as possible to money as giveaways. People want what they can use.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 19, 2021:

I think you are correct, Heidi. Even swag items collected in an in-person event are often not desired and are discarded.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 19, 2021:

I got lucky with this one. It popped up as I was getting ready to shut down for the day.

Any words of advice you can give writers, hopefully, is greatly appreciated. There seems to be a ridiculous number of them out there who don't have a clue what they are doing. Don't tell anyone I said that, my friend. lol

I hope this finds you well. A new day dawning tomorrow. Hopefully we can return to some normalcy in this country. It sure would be nice.