The $100 “Make Like a Sponsor” Conference Swag Trick

At last week’s Big Omaha conference, I wanted to boost Shopify’s presence there, in spite of the fact that we weren’t sponsors. In exchange for big money, sponsors get to have their logos plastered on all sorts of things, they get name-checked by the MC and theirs are the names that you often remember after the last attendee staggers out of the last after-party.

Not everyone can be a sponsor: in some cases, you don’t have the money or have other, higher-priority things that you want to spend it on, and in other cases, you have the money and want to sponsor, but you’ve missed the deadline and the conference’s sponsor rolls are full. My own case was a little bit of both, and I decided to come up with an inexpensive way to leave a sponsor-like impact at Big Omaha — aside from playing the accordion, of course. Feel free to borrow this trick from me — and let me know how it works!

I started with the usual Shopify promotional swag. I keep a stash of Shopify stickers, coasters and bottle openers. These are, for the purposes of this exercise, free.

I created a one-page flyer that said “Hello from Shopify!”, introduced me as the Platform Evangelist and announced my presence at the conference. The flyer also provides some useful information for attendees: a quick list of tips on how to “work the room”. Finally, it presented an offer to all attendees and their friends: three months of Shopify free if you sign up for a shop at an URL which I’d had set up earlier.

I printed and made 200 copies of the flyer at the FedEx Office near me. If you’d like a copy of the flyer, click here (it’s a 218KB zipped PDF file)! The cost of printing and copying came out to about $25.

Next purchase: 150 paper lunch sacks. I was staying in downtown Omaha an uncertain how close the nearest grocery store would be, so I picked them up at a grocery store close to home and along with the swag and flyers, packed them with my luggage. The total cost for 150 bags was $7.

Final purchase: chocolate! I had a word with the people at my hotel’s front desk during the afternoon lull and got them to give me a lift in the courtesy van to the nearest Walgreen’s where I bought $60 worth of Dove chocolates — the little ones wrapped in foil that come in bags. They’re usually available on special, so I was really able to stretch my dollar on this one, and the courtesy van ride — to the drugstore and back (the driver waited while I quickly made my purchase) — was free.

I spent an hour and a quarter assembling the loot bags in my hotel room the day before the conference. I folded the flyers first. Then I popped open the bags and sat them upright in rows, after which I stuffed them with the flyers, swag and about 4- 8 chocolates each.

I attended the evening party, after which I returned to the hotel around midnight and asked the front desk for a ride to the conference venue in the courtesy van  in the morning, as well as whatever large boxes they could spare (to carry the loot bags). They were happy to help out. (The trick is to make your special requests during lulls — they’re not being deluged with calls for help from other guests and are probably bored and looking for something to break up the monotony.)

In the morning, I found that some other guest who hadn’t reserved the van but needed a last-minute ride to the airport or else he’d miss his flight had commandeered it. After explaining that I couldn’t carry several boxes of loot bags to the conference without a vehicle, the general manager decided to give me a ride in his own car.

“It’s a little unusual,” he said. “D’you mind if there’s no doors?”

“Sounds like fun. What kind of car do you have?”

“Wait,” he said, and moments later, appeared in this beast:

So this is how I came to Big Omaha: large, in charge, and bearing 150 loot bags.

I dragged the boxes in and positioned myself in a spot where people were making their way to their seats and handed out the loot bags.

It made an impact on at least one person:

So there you have it: all the reach of a sponsor swag table or big logo on a wall, complete with whatever message you want to send, for about a hundred bucks. As I said earlier, feel free to borrow this little conference trick, and tell me how it works out for you!

8 replies on “The $100 “Make Like a Sponsor” Conference Swag Trick”

As a frugal self-promoter I admire all the resourcefulness you show here in your guerrilla marketing efforts.. and in your generosity in telling others how to do the same.

As a long-time non-profit conference organizer, though, it irks me. Conferences (for profit or not) need to make money to succeed and to recur. They make money, in part, by giving sponsors good access to people they want to reach in an uncluttered environment. We could offer more sponsorships, but that would dilute the value of the ones we do offer. Or we could charge you more for tickets, or have a smaller event with crappier food and worse speakers, etc. etc. None of that sounds appealing.

When you give out swag at the door to every attendee without being a sponsor, you capture some attention and good will that those attendees might otherwise give to the sponsors. Does it help you? Yes, especially if it’s a well thought out, useful, novel swag bag — or stunt, or whatever. Does it hurt the sponsors? I’d argue that it does, in the exact proportion it helps you, or near enough. (You could argue that it doesn’t hurt the sponsors, I suppose, but, for example, the person who tweeted about you, might have tweeted about a paying sponsor instead if you weren’t there.)

Does that diverted attention hurt the conference? Well, not that conference, because the money’s already in the bank. But the next time we do the conference, maybe. And the next different conference that sponsor might sponsor, possibly loses out. Because that sponsor has less money or less enthusiasm for sponsorship.

I’ve had advertisers crash a conference I put on, and it was not appreciated by we the organizers, nor by the other sponsors.

Next time, if you think you don’t have enough money, or you just miss the deadline, perhaps you should think twice about whether that means you should still be inexpensively capitalizing on the hard work and money spent by others.

I can’t see how handing out a friendly swag bag would negatively impact a conference or its sponsor. It’s fun and playful, and people appreciate freebies. Imagine how boring a conference would be if there weren’t a few guerilla marketing pulling their stunts?

**Some** stunts may negatively effect sponsors, but theres no way something like this would.

Besides, even if it did take away from buzz that would have went to the paying sponsors, what’s that buzz? One tweet? Who cares.

I think it’s cool that Shopify does this sort of thing.

Travis: I get where you’re coming from and I’d like to mull over what you’ve said. In the meantime, a question:

I bring my accordion to conferences and play it at lunch, in the hallway during the breaks and often at the after-parties. I usually put my employer’s stickers on the accordion. Does that detract from the sponsors?

@rachel I personally think it was an effective tactic that probably was well noticed and appreciated. If you’re saying that he didn’t get hardly any buzz, then that’s his $100 wasted — but it is’t a good argument FOR Joey doing what he did.

On the other hand, you say people appreciate freebies and like to be entertained and not bored. I agree — and as a conference organizer, I work hard to make sure sponsors have the opportunity to be the ones giving those freebies and being entertaining — sponsors pay for the opportunity to be liked, and to be remembered. Some sponsors realize that, and others don’t take advantage of it enough. In no case does that mean someone else should capitalize on that opportunity for free.

@Joey You play your accordion and it’s likable, attractive and memorable to the people who listen. Is it over the line? I think if you got up on stage and grabbed the mike during a break, and tried to get everyone to pay attention to you, it would be over the line. If you walked up to people who were trying to have a networking conversation and you interrupted by playing loudly, that would be over the line, sticker or not.

I’m not saying conferences should have an Olympics-style crack-down on any outside branding. I’m saying, making up your own swag bag for a conference you didn’t sponsor for reasons of not wanting to pay sponsorship money or not being organized enough to do so, that’s not cool.


I don’t object to what Joey’s doing in general — go ahead and hand out chocolates to a crowd, that’s fine. I object because it’s not a victimless act in this case: sponsors are hurt, and other, future conferences are hurt.

@Joey: Certainly not. I think something like that would only add to the conference, and not take away or hurt anything else. Having a fun and memorable conference HELPS sponsors. It encourages people to think outside the box, have fun, and tell others. Furthermore, I can only imagine how many people take pictures of you playing the accordion which furthers the conferences presence on social media and blogs. People don’t take pictures and tweet about a big Pepsi banner.

@Travis: People go to conferences to learn and to network. I think lootbags, freebies, and fun antics (like accordion playing) is all part of good networking. We don’t live in a world where everyone needs to hand out business cards and exchange Twitter handles. All the best conferences I have attended were open to a bit of guerilla marketing.

As I said on Twitter, I think handing out swag outside a conference e.g. from your branded and stickered car is cool, but doing it inside on conference grounds, where you quite literally need to pay to hand out swag (it’s a privilege, not a right).

On playing your accordion – absolutely, be yourself, that is awesome! I often wear my “conference jacket”, which is a unique tweed with skulls on the back, and it’s a great way to start a conversation with people.

Again on the swag, I think this becomes a tragedy of the commons. If everyone, inside the conference proper, came with bags of swag that they were pressing on people, I would (as an attendee) not enjoy that experience. If Joey were to give me the swag directly, while or as part of talking to him directly – cool!

It’s a tough call. I think larger conferences can be more appropriate for guerilla tactics, but there is definitely a line.

As I’m often a conference attendee, organizer, or sponsor, I think I can relate to the different viewpoints.

As an attendee – I think what Joey did is fantastic. We all love swag, and getting some unique entertainment is always cool. He’s offering value without being disruptive – we can all appreciate that.

As an organizer – I agree with those above that there is a line, but I don’t think Joey has crossed it. He’s providing value to the guests without taking away from the sponsors or the organizers. If he went in there with a flash mob of his colleagues and started a 30 piece accordion band without the conference’s blessing, I think that would take away from the organizers. That said, I hope he would do such a thing, but working with the conference organizers. Many attendees go in with boxes of business cards ready to hand out to random strangers, so kudos to him for coming up with something that costs less than a box of business cards, yet with more impact.

As a sponsor – earlier this year we sponsored ConFoo in Montreal and Joey was there with his accordion and stickers. It made our sponsored lounge more entertaining and he got quite a buzz as the accordion guy – which HELPED our efforts. It was my first time meeting Joey and we definitely didn’t plan it together – but I feel that his presence enriched the experience for everyone.

In an ideal world, all promotion done whatsoever in a conference should be OK’d by the organizers and a fee is levied to help with the conference. However, since that doesn’t really happen, I think what Joey is doing is pretty cool.

I’ve been at conferences that have designated areas or tables or rooms where non-sponsors can leave free swag, hand out stuff directly, meet up, etc. I think it’s an excellent idea for a conference to do this… and for attendees to take advantage of that.

@Keith, The only reason this isn’t an ideal world is because Joey didn’t ask the conference organizers if he could do this, hopefully offering to pay for the privilege. It’s not like the ideal world couldn’t have happened because of an act of God. And I agree with you as an attendee: free chocolate, and I’m not offended, so yay!

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