One of my staff members has a request for every event, conference, and convention I attend. “Hey boss, bring me swag!”

Who doesn’t love free stuff? And seeing what other organizations give out to promote their institutions and brands is fun.

Most libraries and vendors stick to items like pens, notebooks, candy, cups, and stickers. We spend a lot of money on this free stuff, in the hopes that event attendees will love it and use it. We also use swag to increase awareness of our library and build loyalty with current cardholders and new folks!

When your budget is limited, picking the perfect swag is a big deal. Your swag has to be interesting, but it should also align with your strategy and helps your library achieve its overall marketing goals. That’s a tall order.

When a guest walks away with your swag and can’t stop raving about it, you will have done your job. And if it’s something a library cardholder or community member can use over and over again, and that makes them think of your library, your money will be well spent. A study done by Schreiber & Associates found 39 percent of all people who have received a promotional product can accurately remember the name of the company that it’s associated with as long as six months after the event!

There is another important reason for swag: it’s a conversation starter. Great swag can be a talking point for volunteers working your table to share information about services, collection items, and other related events at the library. Marketing studies show us that you have to get your message in front of your cardholder an average of SEVEN TIMES before they’ll be compelled to act on it. A direct conversation with a community member about your library counts as one of those “touches.”

A conversation between a library worker or volunteer and an event attendee is a highly effective means of marketing. According to Nielsen, 75 percent of people don’t believe the advertisements they read but 92 percent believe brand recommendations they receive from trusted sources.

Finally, giving good swag gives people a positive memory of your library. Memorable and useful items given freely and generously leaves people smiling and prompts sentiments like, “I love my library” and “I’ll always support my library.” You can’t beat that!

How to Pick Swag

Pick something functional and useful. I like to make sure the items I choose are necessary and can be used over and over again. That means that my library’s logo or name is an integral part of the life of my cardholder. I want them to constantly be seeing my library’s name or website. Some great ideas that fit this category are water bottles, kitchen utensils, ice scrapers, and pop-stoppers.

One word of caution: be aware that some attendees will take issue with certain types of swag. Many people don’t want to take a plastic bag at events because of environmental concerns. I’ve also had people turn away plastic bottles because of the possibility of harmful chemicals leaching into their water. Kids toys can be tricky because of small, removable parts.

Make sure your swag is unique and something that other organizations aren’t giving out regularly. Head to any library event or conference and you’ll find no shortage of pens, notebooks, stickers, tags, and buttons. And while all of these items are useful and cheap, I don’t want to buy any for my table because everyone is giving them out. Hand sanitizer, lip balm, license plate frames, and pet bandannas are all great examples of fun, useful swag that will set your library apart from other organizations.

Make sure your swag is relevant to the attendees of an event. Be sure to ask the organizers before you go who their attendees will be, how many people they expect, and what the event is focused around. Don’t bring all your swag to all events… pick and choose carefully. At my library, we buy different swag for different age groups. We have earbuds and multi-function charging hubs for teens, piggy banks and temporary tattoos for kids, and aluminum water bottles and drawstring totes for adults.

Make sure your swag can be branded. Check the space where logos or text can be printed on items to make sure your particular logo, tagline, or library website will fit and be legible. I’ve totally made this mistake: you spot a great piece of swag at a great price. But the area where your logo or tag line is imprinted is too small or oriented the wrong way. No one can tell it’s from your library! Pay special attention to the imprint area, especially if you have a long tagline or a logo that can’t easily be resized or re-oriented.

Watch The Library Marketing Show to see some of my favorite choices for swag and talk more about why it’s so important for marketing!

No budget for swag? Do a giveaway. I’ve often had leftover donated items like gift cards that I use as giveaways at events. A giveaway, when promoted ahead of time, will drive attendees to your table. Ask people to give their email address and add them to your newsletter or email subscription list in exchange for an entry in your contest.

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