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.)