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The Art of the Trade Show Freebie: 6 Dos and Don’ts from ASI Chicago 2012

Naturally, as a promotional products website, we often discuss promo items and the effectiveness of free stuff on this blog. Freebies rock, and one place where you’ll see a ton of them is at a trade show or convention, where exhibitors try to make a lasting impression on the sea of potential customers who walk by their booths, tables, and displays.

A few of us QLPers got to see plenty of promos in action at the recent 2012 ASI Chicago Show. Some exhibitors really knew how to push those freebies into people’s hands and make their companies memorable long after the show was over; others, not so much.

Just like any marketing effort, there are good ways and bad ways to use freebies, especially at trade shows and conventions. So whether you’re heading off to your industry’s trade fair, setting up shop at the next comic convention, or looking for some general advice, here are a few freebie dos and don’ts pulled straight from the show floor of ASI:

  • DO use free stuff to attract people to your table. If you pique someone’s interest with your display of free items, you’ve created an opportunity to segue naturally into your sales pitch without coming off as pushy or too aggressive. And your conversion rate will be higher using this strategy rather than by simply accosting anyone and everyone who walks by.
  • Unusual and interesting freebies have the greatest impact.

    Unusual and interesting freebies have the greatest impact.

    DO give away something interesting and unusual. The more unique the item, the more memorable it will be. Some of the best free stuff at ASI included mood and color-changing items; gargantuan tote bags large enough for a person to stand in; pens made out of recycled water bottles; Avengers-themed Pez dispensers; and food. If you don’t have anything unusual to give out, try going with something practical. Pens, reusable bags, and coasters branded with your logo are all handy items that will be used and seen on almost a daily basis.

  • DO imprint your giveaways with your brand’s logo and contact information. This may seem like common sense, but many samples I brought home from ASI were imprinted with unrelated logos or not imprinted at all. Remember: after people sort through their huge haul of trade show swag, they’re not going to recall where that awesome pen or glowing shot glass came from unless you tell them.
  • If you provide food samples, DON’T neglect to hand out long-lasting freebies as well. I may have really enjoyed your chocolate-covered potato chip or your slice of roasted ham, but that won’t help me remember your name. Put some business cards or flyers next to your plate of goodies and encourage people to take those as well. If your food comes in packaging, especially durable containers like bottles, stick your name and contact info on that — though remember that wrappers are probably going straight into the trash.
  • Make your free food memorable by imprinting the packaging and handing out flyers.

    Make your free food memorable by imprinting the packaging and handing out flyers.

    DON’T hide your promos or make them look like part of the display. All this does is cause confusion for anyone hoping to take your brand name home with them. Spend an extra few moments to present your freebies prominently, and verbally encourage passersby to pick them up. Even something as simple as an index card or printout that says “Take One!” or “Free Sample!” can make a huge difference.

  • Relatedly, DON’T expect people to venture all the way into your booth for free stuff. The point is to encourage potential new customers to stop and talk to you, and to bring a memory of your company home with them. While you might think that placing freebies in the back of your booth will force people to engage with you before nabbing anything, more likely people will just keep walking instead. Even if you never speak to someone who sneaks a sample and runs off, if your imprint is on it, that person will see your name again. And that’s the whole purpose of a promotional product, isn’t it?

No matter your industry, you’ll probably use free swag to market your brand at some point. So remember these dos and don’ts next time you’re at a trade show or convention, and you’ll be a step ahead of your competition!

Have you ever been to a trade show or convention? Which dos and don’ts do you feel are most important? As an attendee, what types of freebies appeal to you? Or, as an exhibitor, what strategies do you use to attract people to your table?

Image credit to Quality Logo Products®. Taken at ASI Show Chicago 2012.


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  1. amy

    Wonderful post, Rachel! All your tips are spot-on and are easy for any company to follow and use. Great information that everyone can use 🙂

    • Rachel

      Thanks, Amy! I definitely hope it’s a useful collection of tips. 🙂

  2. Eric

    PEZ dispensers for the win! Honestly, that’s such a nostalgic and iconic givaway that I don’t know why more companies haven’t given them out as promotional items, to be honest! 🙂 Neat article, Rachel!

    • Rachel

      Pez dispensers are awesome! I imagine there are some legal issues with the name brand that make it difficult/expensive for many companies to sell the dispensers and candy, though. But it’s totally worth it in my mind, if it means free Pez for your customers! 😉

      Glad you enjoyed, Eric — thanks! 🙂

  3. Jenna Markowski

    Excellent tips, Rachel! Since I was at the show with you, you already know that I agree with all of your points. The Avengers Pez dispensers and pens made of recycled water bottles were the most memorable promo items for me.

    Your point about marking free samples as such and not tucking them away inside your booth is right on the money. I know for a fact I walked past a whole bunch of booths that didn’t make it clear which things they were giving away and which items were part of a display. You also bring up a good point about offering business cards along with food giveaways. I didn’t even think of that!

    • Rachel

      Pez and water bottle pens — such cool stuff! And yeah, I know I walked by a lot of booths that were unclear about the freebie thing. It just feels far less welcoming when you don’t know what’s what.

      As for the food, I realized after coming home that I ate a lot of food samples at ASI, but had almost nothing to show for it or to jog my memory of those companies. But some booths did provide flyers or business cards in addition to treats, and that seemed to work well — at least, on me it did. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Jenna!

  4. Kelsey

    These tips are great! Did they really hand out food too!? Gosh why wasn’t I there?
    Well, while we’re on the topic, I think it’d be a good idea to hand out something that you hand out in a baggy, that way you can either tie a ribbon around it with your business card attached, or simply place it in the bag! (Depending on what kind of food you’re handing out, of mind is thinking cookies!)

    Great post Rachel!

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    Excellent post, Rachel! I think a lot of people treat their promo items with a “If you have them, they will come” mentality, but they don’t know the finer points of turning interest into sales via freebies. That being said, these are excellent tips to really maximize the ROI of your promo items.

    • Rachel

      Yes, I think that “If you have them, they will come” mentality happens often. I’m glad you think the tips are useful, Mandy — thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

  6. Jim Jobin

    I will be the only one working the booth in the 2019 PPAI show in Vegas. How do I keep people from taking handfuls of my sample VersaBands while I am distracted with a potential customer? My products are extremely versatile and people love to take gobs which isn’t helping me after all are gone?

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