Bored by baubles?

We’ve all come away from exhibitions with a pocketful of branded pens and assorted promotional items, but do they actually achieve anything for the companies that hand them out? asks Pete Roythorne

Sadly, few hard facts exist as to the efficacy of the corporate giveaway. But if research conducted by exhibition organiser George P Johnson (GPJ) at a recent IBM presentation is anything to go by, companies need to think long and hard about the relevance of these items at exhibitions.

The survey claims that 87 per cent of those who watched presentations did so for the information, with just eight per cent saying they did so to get “free stuff” – this suggests that the absence of giveaways would have only a minor impact on attendance figures.

The research goes on to show that giveaways have a limited effect on customers’ purchasing intent – just 13 per cent of those attending said they made them more likely to buy from IBM. However, the good news is that 41 per cent said they were more likely to remember IBM’s message thanks to the freebies.

While much time, energy and cash goes into bespoke stand design, furniture, catering and even staff uniforms these days, a badly thought- out giveaway can undo a lot of this good work in an instant. Companies need to give as much thought to their freebies as they do to the rest of their exhibition activity. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

GPJ marketing strategist Nonie Hyde says: “I have an ever-growing collection of some of the worst promotional items I’ve come across, just to remind me of how budgets can be wasted. My current favourite is a glass paperweight that just has some blanket branding on it. It has a relatively high unit value, but a very low focused impact and no message – there’s no website address, no telephone number, and absolutely no call to action.”

Exhibitors offering giveaways can be divided roughly into two groups: those that simply buy in a boatload of branded pens (these are often the more inexperienced exhibitors, sucked into “keeping up with the Joneses” – “the competition has giveaways, so we had better have some too”); and the more exhibition-savvy (often blue-chip) companies, which put more thought into targeting.

However, while companies may be able to dramatically increase footfall and shift vast quantities of their chosen giveaway, there is no way of knowing exactly how many are reaching their target recipients. And it is this target market that should be a prime consideration in the planning of giveaways.

Quality not quantity

If the profile of visitors does not match that of the people likely to visit your stand for a free pen, for instance, why spend the time and expense giving them out? Particularly when you consider the costs: branded biros cost about 50p each, while more sophisticated gifts are significantly more expensive – a data pen, for instance, can cost £25. A giveaway tailored to your target audience may not attract the same volume of visitors, but the quality of contact is likely to be higher, resulting in genuine leads – and it will save cash.

“We run a training day for new exhibitors, during which we cover gimmicks and giveaways,” says Nina Hurst-Jones of exhibitions manager TJW, which organises Job Scene. “We stress to clients that it’s important to remember that whatever they give away has to be properly aimed at their target market. What might attract the youth market will be very different to what attracts the adult market. Our advice is always: ‘Keep it simple and memorable’.”

In Hurst-Jones’s experience, the best results come when there is a theme running through the corporate graphics, advertising and gimmicks. “At one of our shows, an internet recruitment company called was promoting its services with the slogan ‘It’s as easy as pie’. Their giveaway was a branded bag containing an apple pie,” she explains. “Also, Barclays tends to be very good at having running themes: one year it was giving away a coat-hanger under the slogan: ‘We’ll fit into your life’. We have one client which brings a candy floss machine every year, and gives out candy floss in its corporate colours.”

Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience sales and marketing director Andrew Johnson is very familiar with keeping giveaways in line with brand image: “One of our most successful giveaways was a heavy, glossy-coated carrier bag with shoulder straps. They were white, with enormous red Virgin logos emblazoned on each side. They were hugely popular with our visitors and the result was spectacular: whichever way you looked down the aisles, there were Virgin logos.”

The gewgaw that keeps on giving

BI UK marketing manager Richard Ayres says a successful giveaway is not necessarily the one that has the instant “Wow!” factor. He says: “The most effective gimmicks have longevity and continue to reflect the brand values of an organisation and embody the spirit of the business long after a show has finished. These giveaways sit on an individual’s desk, forever reminding them of the company in question, keeping them at the forefront of any potential decision-making process.”

Getting the giveaway itself right is only half the battle. Distribution is also an issue, as Hurst-Jones explains: “If you use your giveaway as a hook to get people onto your stand, you may find you’re inundated with people and your staff spend the whole time handing out freebies rather than having meaningful contact with potential customers. We reckon that only around three out of ten giveaways hit their target. One way round this is to give gimmicks away after the contact with the potential client. Once you have their details, you can give them something in return for their time. This way, the giveaway is likely to be better remembered.”

The bigger picture

Johnson agrees: “Virgin Incentives often uses giveaways as part of a bigger exercise – data capture or questionnaires, for instance. This enables staff to focus on genuine potential customers. We certainly believe giveaways are worth the investment, but you have limited time during an exhibition, and if you want quantifiable results, it’s essential you identify real prospects as opposed to the time-wasters that exhibitions inevitably attract.”

Giveaways may even be losing their edge altogether – many companies have turned to other methods to draw people in. As Ayres explains: “On-stand speakers and entertainers, or visually engaging montages appearing on plasma screens, are increasingly used by exhibitors. If implemented successfully, they can often make traditional giveaways look trite. Other methods, such as free consultations, not only act as a magnet to the stand but can also be used to build the credibility of a company’s service.”

But as companies become increasingly sophisticated in their approach to incentivising customers, originality is often difficult to find. The use of interactive games and competitions has proved successful for FPP Design, as exhibition services director Derry Green explains: “Games where visitors compete for prizes are great icebreakers as they introduce an element of fun. FPP has employed a wide variety of games, ranging from a giant Velcro jigsaw to roller-ball (where visitors try to win magnetic goldfish). But whatever the game, there should be a reward at the end of it; it shouldn’t be too serious and you should never make a fool of the visitor. The whole purpose is to create a positive bond.”

Of course, not everybody is aiming for direct sales: exhibitions are one of the best ways to get a product or service in front of the press. But, as Jill Hawkins, director of specialist events and exhibitions PR agency Friday’s Media Group, explains, many exhibitors fail to think about what the press really want. She says: “Press packs have a tendency to be too heavy and far too large to be carried around – and they are often stuffed with the latest gimmick, the company’s CD-ROM brochure, a glossy printed brochure, photos… the list goes on. In my experience, all the journalist wants is a good story – the latest news or some notes about industry trends – packaged in a simple and light way.

“We would advise exhibitors to put their money into solid newsworthy stuff, such as research, rather than bombarding the press with widgets. Yes, journalists need some fun too, but you need to get the right balance. We use gimmicks and fun things to grab their attention but they shouldn’t be the main focus of your press campaign.”

For some, however, gimmicks and giveaways are just a red herring when it comes to getting noticed. “Freebies are a complete waste of money,” says Andrew Greenyer, director of customer relationship solutions provider, Group 1 Software. “At every show, some marketers will try to encourage footfall by bribing the punters. It is now common to see completely irrelevant costumes, free bars and celebrity appearances. There was a time when visitors were happy with a pen and perhaps a humbug. Freebies are making a mockery of the shows.”

For Greenyer, getting noticed is all about good, old-fashioned common sense: ensuring the pre-show PR is done properly. People visiting any show will have read the previews and have a fairly good idea of whom they want to see. For the price of a few hundred dodgy paperweights, measurable results can be achieved by using outdoor signage, event guide inserts or hotlinks from the exhibition website.

When push comes to shove, we all need something to make ourselves stand out from the crowd. But companies need to make a choice: do they want to be known as the people with great gimmicks? Or as a straight-talking company that’s great at what it does?

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