Give attendees experiences, not things

by Adrian Segar

8324842135_5a5f4b71c4_kBranded pens, tee shirts, mugs, tote bags, water bottles, and other tchotchkes are scattered around my home, piled on shelves, and eventually consigned to oblivion without a thought. Yes, it’s hard to attend a typical conference and not walk away with schwag.

All these promotional “things” cost organizers and sponsors significant money. Is this the best way to spend money on attendees?

I’d argue—and research backs me up—that giving relevant, immersive, interactive experiences instead of presents leads to superior long-term outcomes for both participants and conference stakeholders.

Cornell psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar found that:

“…experiential purchases (money spent on doing) tend to provide more long-lasting hedonic benefits than material purchases (money spent on having…”

“…the satisfaction [experiences] provide endures by fostering successful social relationships, by becoming a more meaningful part of one’s identity, by being less susceptible to unfavorable and unpleasant comparisons, and by not lending themselves to deflating regrets of action.”
We’ll Always Have Paris: The Hedonic Payoff from Experiential and Material Investments, Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar

Let’s look at the benefits of providing great experiences at conferences.

Fostering successful social relationships
Giving everyone the same tee shirt to wear at an event doesn’t generally foster anything except a kind of uniformity. But have you ever kept an event-themed tee shirt and worn it with pride long after the event was over? If so, you’re undoubtedly doing so because the tee shirt is a representation and reminder of a great experience (e.g. that Feb. 14, 1968 amazing Grateful Dead concert at the Carousel Ballroom, the communal excitement of Spot-The-Fed at Def Con 15) that says to the world “I was there! Were you?”

Experiencing something remarkable together bonds participants. For example, it’s no accident that many of the folks who participated in EventCamp 2010 and EventCamp East Coast are still in touch years after these experimental and experiential event industry conferences. We participated in something new together, and the memories and connections made still have power.

Powerful experiences have few downsides
Part of the reason we seem to get such little enduring satisfaction from possessions is that we quickly habituate to them. That moment when you unbox the latest iPhone you’ve just bought may be exciting; using it six months later, not so much. Even if an experience is negative, going through it with others provides bonding.

Everyone who was present remembers the communication problems that surfaced at the close of EventCamp Twin Cities in 2011—either because they were helpless with laughter at the comic scene that unfolded or because they were frantically trying to make things work. As Gilovich and Kumar say, “Even a bad experience becomes a good story.”

Fear Of Missing Out motivates!
Finally, research indicates that Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) can be an important motivator for experiential sessions at events. Again, Gilovich and Kumar: “…material purchases tend to prompt regrets of action, whereas experiential purchases are more likely to lead to regrets of inaction.”

Translation: Marketing the appropriate, exciting, and fun experiences you will be offering at your conference is a much more effective way to get registrants than to promise them schwag.

To conclude
I have seen so many useful, important, and long-term connections made through relevant, experiential, participatory conference activities. The resulting connected souls become champions of your event: the core of an engaged and loyal conference community that returns year after year and encourages other peers to attend. Investing in experiences, not things, at your events is a smart choice. So, the next time you’re considering providing promotional items to attendees, you might want to allocate some or all of your schwag budget to well-designed event experiences instead.

Photo attribution: Flickr user shahiran83

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  • Great post Adrian. I was at a trade show as an attendee recently and had an exhibitor — before we even said hi — hand me a bag full of… I don’t know what it was… STUFF. I politely refused and they proceeded to hand me a USB drive.

    “This is the paperless version!” she said with excitement.

    Again, I said no. She looked very disappointed. Almost like I’d OFFENDED her. She then gave me her pitch, handed me her card, and I walked away feeling like I’d just been hit in the head. It was bizarre and confusing and made me feel like a number in line at the DMV.

    All I wanted was to have a conversation. I wanted my experience to be “Hello, how are you, my name is so-and-so. What can I do to help you?” I wanted to ask her questions and get answers.

    But that was lost because she was so focused on giving me the tchotchkes then getting to the next person.

    • Michael, I’m sure our trade show consultant friends are moaning as they read this while sadly nodding their heads. Yet another story illustrating how companies can spend big bucks on trade shows, only to have poorly trained staff sabotage their efforts.

  • suepelletier

    I absolutely agree with all of this. However, I do have to say this in defense of schwag: When you get it right, it can be powerful.

    There was this one t-shirt that I adored and wore constantly for years after the event where I acquired it. It was so awesome that I was photographed wearing it wherever I went, and it almost always sparked conversations. I will always remember that show, and the hotel chain that sponsored the press room and gave us those so-cool shirts. Even though the event itself was not a Grateful Dead show-level experience, the show, and that sponsorship, lived on for years in the retelling until the shirt was a tattered shred that had to be retired. Semi-retired–it now is stapled to the ceiling of a beach bar in the Caribbean, so I guess it lives on in a way.

    But that was an outlier. Most schwag doesn’t build experiences of its own over time, as that shirt did for me.

    P.S. In case you’re wondering, it was a simple yellow t-shirt with the sponsor logo on the sleeve, the show logo discretely displayed on the chest, and, in big letters across the back, it said, “My editor thinks I’m on assignment.” It was perfect. I still miss it.

    • Great story, Sue, and I agree that once in a while, creative people dream up really resonant schwag. One thought—perhaps the message on your tee-shirt worked so well because it evoked the shared (fantasy?) EXPERIENCE that you and others who saw it were getting paid for having fun?

      • suepelletier

        That’s entirely possible! I hadn’t thought of it like that.

        It became a social object, a concept that I find both fascinating and weirdly underused in the meetings and events industry. Good events are social objects that social networks for around, but for some reason we don’t think of them in that way.

        But stuff also can work to build bonds. The rub is that it has to be really smart, relevant, meaningful, must-have stuff, a level to which very few coffee mugs and t-shirts rise. And, as Michael points out, the giver really should be a key part of the experience they are (or should be) trying to build around the stuff. Otherwise it’s just stuff, and I suspect the hotel’s housekeeping staff doesn’t want yet another logo’d bag, much less your friends and family.

        • Relevant, perhaps at a different level of abstraction: I wrote a couple of weeks ago about using focus objects at events, as inspired by a session at the Meeting Design Practicum I attended in Utrecht:

          http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/event-design/2016/02/nine-learnings-from-the-first-meeting-design-practicum/

          • suepelletier

            I did a workshop once where we were asked to bring an object that “spoke” to us. We weren’t told what the purpose of bringing the object was, but obviously others in the workshop had gotten a memo I had not.

            I was amazed and totally intimidated by the moving, deeply personal stories people told about their objects and how they represent their lives. Then my turn came, and I was totally embarrassed by my postcard of a laughing llama, which just makes me happy but has no deep meaning attached to it, I couldn’t even think of anything that sounded good to make up about it. In retrospect, maybe I should have brought that t-shirt!

            If I’m ever asked to do that again, I’ll be sure to put a lot of time and effort into the story behind the object, just in case. And as an event organizer, I’d make sure participants understand the assignment so no one gets caught short like I did.

            That said, I do love the idea, and how it can bring a group to a new level of community. I’ve also seen it done where there’s a variety of objects set out and people get to pick one, then explain why they chose that one. No being able to prepare ahead of time gives the exchange a different feel.

  • So true. Things are fine but they’re just a period in a conference attendees life. Whatever conference, it has to give answers to fundamental questions, providing direction toward excellence – experience is the best teacher here.

    Hope this digital conference adds life to your knowledge: The Fourth International Conference on Digital Information Processing, E-Business and Cloud Computing (DIPECC2016) http://sdiwc.net/conferences/dipecc2016

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