The anti-schwag movement

Are you a conference organizer? Then you’ve probably had to deal with schwag – the endless pile of branded leaflets, cup-cosies, and badge lanyards that your sponsors want to “give” to your attendees. It’s a huge pain to the conference organizers – it has to be trucked in to registration, sorted into little baggies, and then handed out during registration. It’s a huge pain to the conference-goers, who nearly universally hate conference schwag and throw most of it away at the first available trash can or trash-can-like receptacle. Have you ever heard a conference-goer say, “Oh boy! A beer-can cozy with the AnnoyingCompany logo! I’m so excited!”? To complete the cycle of uselessness, schwag is a huge pain to the sponsoring company too – choosing it, getting the designs in, paying for it, etc. – and for what? The good will of conference-goers? Perhaps not – frequently, a particularly useless logo-branded piece of schwag incites feelings of anger and hatred in me towards the sponsoring entity.

The great thing is that we can do something about schwag. I thought that Linux Plumbers Conf did a really good job of cutting down on schwag in a way that made sponsors, conference organizers, and attendees happier.

First, they cut down on pure conference schwag. No bag, no paper schedules, no pens. Instead, they got a sponsor to pay for branded USB keys and put all the conference information on the USB key. Most people are happy to get a USB key and will use it long after the conference. (The downside of the LPC 2008 key is that it features epilepsy-inducing blinkenlights of multiple colors and stunning brightness. The kids will love it.)

Now that they had a USB key, they could then handle the sponsors who want their leaflets given to attendees. Sure, you can have your leaflets – in electronic form on the USB key. In fact, you can make them multiple pages and full-color at no additional cost.

Conference t-shirts are an interesting problem. Some people really love them. Some people (me) really hate them. LPC did a good job of getting high-quality, comfortable, attractive t-shirts in both men and women’s styles. What was really awesome is that the women’s shirts came in L, XL, 2XL, and more. Women’s shirts are sized absurdly small these days; usually the largest available women’s shirt will fit me but be too skimpy to wear in a professional situation. I usually hate conference t-shirts, but I took the LPC t-shirt because it looked and felt great and came in 2XL. I even wore it at my next conference. So the summary for t-shirts would be: Make them optional, make them pretty, get high-quality t-shirts, order men’s and women’s shirts, and order the women’s shirts in large sizes.

LPC did have one obvious piece of schwag: the IBM/LPC logo travel mug/thermos. I was grumpy when I saw it (“Dammit! They’ve SOLD OUT!”) – and then I realized that I had “travel mug” on my shopping list. It’s a great mug and I’ve used it many times since then. So the lesson learned here is that if there is a really great, really useful piece of schwag, go for it – but make it optional.

(Update: Obviously I think a laptop bag can be a really great, really useful piece of schwag.)

21 thoughts on “The anti-schwag movement

  1. Dude I LOVE schwag. I will agree that a lot of it is stupid or ugly, but things like bean bag chairs (Oracle and some Linux org Mark used to work for) and tote bags and backpacks are awesome. I just use the tote bags for grocery shopping. I think it really just depends on the quality and type of things the company decides to go for.

    But then I just really like free stuff.

  2. I’m with you — I hate schwag. I like the t-shirts, but only as souvenirs. (As a side note, I usually get a men’s small for the t-shirts — they are snug and also long enough for our amazon torsos.)

  3. I’m in two minds about the schwag.
    The good:
    – Nice USB keys are good – OLS2008 AMD keys with datasheets and specs pre-loaded – rip it out of the armband and it’s great to build an embedded system.
    – Some bags (I have an excellent bag from the Tyan stand at LWE2006, that gets my grocery shopping practically every day, for the ~2km I walk)
    – Some tshirts – the best I own is Barcamp Vancouver 2006. It fits your requirements listed above.

    – Google-branded puesdo-Moleskine notebooks from OLS 2008.
    – Good quality reusable nametag holder. Again nice pouches from Barcamp Vancouver 2006, and you were encouraged to re-use it for future conferences (discount on paid-in-person registration).

  4. As an additional bit, if you end up with lots of shirts on the same theme, Zak Greant’s wife, Mandy (yarnageddon) made a nice patchwork shirt using just the logos.

  5. Back when I was with Ingram Micro we used to have vendor fairs that were nothing but essentially trick or treating for various branded crap and I loved it. :) Didn’t have to buy a tee-shirt or pen or coffee cup for years. Even kept a lot of the less practical stuff – like a stuffed Imation disk with a disturbing grin on it – just because it was cute.

  6. One thing I see is that the people who attend one or two conferences per year see it differently than those who go to a lot more of them.

    If you only go to one conference a year then that T-shirt, laptop bag, pen, universal modem plug, note book, etc a likely to be useful. Multiple the same gear by a dozen conferences and it’s just a waste of time.

  7. T-shirts

    And if you really *must* get only men’s t-shirts, don’t make Large be the smallest you’ve got! I don’t need a giant nightgown, and I’m not going to wear something that could fit 3 of me out in public. Men’s smalls will fit women that wear a women’s medium. Women that wear a small are SOL though.

  8. Bean bag chairs? I’m trying to picture conference-goers carrying around bean bag chairs (at least the first day when they pick ’em up at the registration table), and I can only picture a hilarious scene of bulky mayhem.

  9. My own thoughts:

    I’m happy to do without mug holders, pens, notebooks. Especially notebooks! I receive more paper at conferences than I use in a year. But I note there is a dedicated minority of mind-mappers out there who use them keenly. Leaflets are useless, I only read them for the amusement value. (Eg, Google’s insert into the lca2008 stuff, which tried to describe Google as an investment/partnering opportunity aiming for an audience presumed not to have heard of it. Classic.)

    Conferences differ on access to laptops. I’m not surprised that LPC, as a working conference, had such high laptop penetration that the issue didn’t come up. (I myself still use a heavy enough laptop that I don’t habitually carry it around.) Other conferences likely need to stick to essentials on paper, although possibly they could stop handing them out routinely.

    I would probably prefer conference shirts being an optional extra. I always convince myself that I like them, but actually I (a) seldom wear t-shirts and (b) come in the most unlikely size in the world (hourglass shaped and very long, meaning I need attributes from both the men’s and women’s t-shirt sides). Conferences need to push up against their suppliers on the women’s size issue: it’s quite common to find blank stock being S-L for women but S-4XL for men. The idea that people who don’t appear in magazines never buy women’s clothes seems quite pervasive.

  10. LPC schwag

    I recall thinking that it was very well chosen, and indeed I’ve used all of it. My only complaint is my desktop wants to boot from the USB drive if I leave it in. What with that and the light display, I keep it unplugged.

  11. Vendor branded socks and underpants would be very welcome indeed. I never say no to socks and underpants, as it saves me having to go shopping for them.

  12. MySQL used to sell branded mens briefs – however they weren’t very comfortable, and they got LOTS of complaints about not selling female underwear.

  13. Some of the goodies I do find useful. Decent cloth bags for the schwag have become useful as re-usable shopping bags for trips to the supermarket. I like the t-shirts as they make good souvenirs as longs as they are not too sponsor logo happy.

    The paper, well all I really need is URL’s but I understand why sponsors want to get the paper in your hand. Maybe the organisers could help out more by providing better recycling and “unwanted freebies” facilities at conferences so less of the stuff ends up in landfills.

  14. I totally agree on the schwag front. I end up giving pretty much all of it away. Of all the stuff I’ve received that confs, I liked the following: hat (great idea in Au), sunscreen (even better idea in Au), canvas bag (always useful), tote bag made from recycled PVC banners (makes a good handbag), that cable winder, drink bottles (although I now have enough to last a lifetime), usefully-sized USB keys (put your sponsor ads on here).

    I’ve often thought that tech conferences have the right sort of people organising them to set up a low-footprint conference. One aspect of this would be cutting down on all of that paper and plastic. Instead of sponsoring a laptop bag, they should get someone to sponsor Green Power for a conference.

    “Laptop” bags are never useful to me. I gave up on them after having too many break, so went and bought a real bag that will handle the rigours of everyday use. Free T-shirts are also something I’ve gotten over, unless they’re the sort you can wear out in the real world (there are a few that I’ve kept).

    What’s disappointing is that I’ve suggested a cut down in cruft to people like the l.c.a groups in the past; only to be labelled as a troll.

  15. It’s really hard to find schwag that pleases all or even most of the people. Yay for LPC 2008’s efforts to limit the drifts of unnecessary cruft.

  16. Love it

    I do love the hundreds of pens – I share them with my hubby, and now we never have to buy pens! I agree, female sized t-shirts are a MUST if you want me to actually wear it. Grace Hopper had great and useful stuff this year, and additionally had “donation” boxes around for anything you didn’t want that was going to be sent to schools and Africa. The giveaways included a hand powered flashlight, binoculars, pedometer, pens, notepads and a cool “notebook” of post-it style notes. I use those a lot for when I’m doing shows, so it’s useful to me. :)

  17. Men’s don’t go S-4XL

    Men’s go like… L-4XL. And then they often don’t have women’s at all. And then normal-sized girls swim in them, and petite ones drown in them.

    Ohio Linux Fest supposedly had 3 (only 3!) men’s smalls and no women’s sizes. They were unfindable when I went to ask for one. I have a rather too-big medium instead. Hopefully I can shrink it.

  18. Re: Men’s don’t go S-4XL

    At Australian conferences my husband has had no trouble finding men’s M. (Of course, it did take him some years to work out that L was too big for him, but that’s not the fault of the conferences.) I don’t have a good account of the availability of S.

    (ETA: re-reading my parent comment I am reminded I was actually talking about t-shirt stock itself, not the shirt sizes that conferences actually then go on to buy and print on. I looked into stock last year to do Chix miniconf shirts for and the sizes I quoted are more or less what I found available in Australia. I should also add that not providing shirts small enough is a definite problem for petite people, although one I’m not very well informed about for obvious reasons.)

    Also, probably better to avoid terms like “normal-sized girls” if only because it invites a contrast with “abnormally sized girls[/women]” which, while strictly true about me — I’m no kind of median — is not especially pleasant phrasing. There’s nothing medically diagnosable about my height. Aside from that I’m not really sure the characterisation of women who wear men’s M as “normal-sized” is actually true in the main in any case: approximately half of women tech conference attendees I know personally have trouble getting shirts large enough to fit their bust size, so it isn’t only the edge cases we’re talking about here.

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