BlogHer 09: Does Swag Pervert the Purpose?

by cv harquail on July 27, 2009

Walking into my office this morning, I tripped over a ‘rubber bracelet cum flash drive’ that was part of the swag I brought back with me from Chicago and the 2009 BlogHer.

That clumsy move plus a few friends’ Tweets about supposedly free swag costing them money to ship home, made me wonder about how swag and the pursuit of swag may have distracted BlogHer attendees from their larger purpose for attending the conference.

And, it made me wonder how swag and the distribution of swag may have distracted BlogHer as an organization from its larger purpose.

To understand this dynamic, you need to know that

(1) Swag is the free stuff that  organizations give away– the pens, the flash drives, the mousepads, the product samples — as a way to advertise their organization and/or product.

(2) BlogHer is the annual conference, and companion website & ad network, that has brought together a diverse community of women (and some men) bloggers.

Bloggers go to the BlogHer conference to meet each other IRL, to share writing & tech advice, and to learn how to develop their blogging skills, their online communities, and their overall purpose. 200907271137.jpg

BlogHer exists as an organization  “To create opportunities for women who blog to pursue exposure, education, community, and economic empowerment.”

My experience as a member and my perceptions as an observant, organizational scholar both confirm that, overall, BlogHer is doing a really really good job creating these opportunities. So, in the big picture, the whole swag issue at BlogHer was mostly a distraction. However, it’s a distraction that could signal a trending away from BlogHer’s core purpose.

Here are just a few of the swag-related problems I saw:

  • Online conversation leading up to the conference was full of references on what swag would be available, where to get it, how to get it home. Some conversation, but in my opinion not enough, addressed why the swag was going to be there in the first place.
  • Not enough of the conversation addressed how to really make the most of your participation in sessions or how to find your tribe of like-minded bloggers.
  • Efforts to acquire swag changed the participation patterns of many attendees. People went to exhibits instead of community keynotes to get the Walmart cookies or the Disney Ice Creams (which were, btw, very tasty).
  • Parties were so loud and crowded you couldn’t hear yourself Twitter, much less talk to anyone.
  • People went to and stayed at parties only until the swag bags were handed out.
  • The minute it was announced that the swag was being distributed, the whole physical shape of the room would change, from clusters of women talking to a line of women waiting.
  • The energy dynamic shifted from meeting & greeting other bloggers to getting & vetting the swag.   [I did have one interesting conversation with a sex blogger about the Moxie doll we both received at one party. Personally, I was turned off by the doll’s dominatrix outfit, but the sex blogger saw it as a blog topic opportunity. Mileage varies. I gave my doll to the sex blogger. ]
  • Swag distribution events created ‘in crowds’ and outsiders, as some bloggers were wisked Swiffer – ed away to private parties and sent back with free Nikon cameras, and other bloggers took swag bags at parties they hadn’t rsvp’d to (leaving the bag’s intended recipient empty-handed– and pissed).

200907271140.jpg I love free stuff as much as the next former graduate student. I still attend conference meetings for the free Swedish meatballs even though I can buy my own at IKEA, so I was no paragon of anti-acquisitive virtue.

But I did push myself to recognize that, after the PBS booklights and Croc sandals for my girls, and the Izzy T shirt for me, I had all the swag that I needed. I didn’t need to troll the exhibit area or stop off at another party for any more ‘free’ stuff. Unless Ann Taylor was giving away free earrings. Those I’d have left a Geek session for.

Anyway, see what I mean?

I did a mini-experiment,
trying to see how the swag giveaway process worked from the side of the giv-er. I walked down the hallway handing out 2/3rds of the chocolate and toys from the Allstate Anti-Driving While Texting Gift Basket I won in a raffle, taking deep breaths and trying to swap greediness for generosity as my dominant vibe.

But oddly, although folks were happy to take the cell phone parking pads and the Gerber babyfood samples, giving these things away didn’t create new relationships for me with other bloggers. Funny how that didn’t work.

I wonder how well it worked for BlogHer, as an organization?

Some of the swagging was from the conference sponsors, who had every reason to expect that the conference would support the distribution of their marketing messages. After all, that’s why they were sponsors. And we attendees got that. We understood that the conference was affordable (and even offered scholarships) because the sponsors paid a fee to be featured.

Former marketer that I am, I did my personal best to support the sponsors that were relevant to my blogging practice. I watched the Bing demonstration and learned how to print trifold brochures on an HP printer. I opined to the Verizon vlogger on appropriate cell phone etiquette. And, I expressed my dismay to the StoneyField yogurt marketing exec that they were discontinuing their MochaLatte flavor. This all was fairly useful interaction with sponsors.

But what wasn’t so useful, to me as a BlogHer participant, were the unofficial sponsors, like the companies behind the exclusive private parties who sapped participant attention away from the blogging practice sharing & community building interactions that the BlogHer conference is supposed to be about. If the crowds around the official swag weren’t bad enough, the distinctions created by the private swag rent the fabric of the community.


Where do you draw the line?

Sponsorship, and thus swag, makes the conference run. But too much swag perverts the conference purpose.

Me, I knew where to draw the line.

My checked luggage was 8 lbs. over weight, and since I wasn’t about to pay $50 to check an ‘overweight bag’, I unzipped my Tumi (they weren’t a BlogHer sponsor- should have been) and handed out some of my swag to airport passersby. Yes, I was the woman giving out free samples of Tide over by the American Airlines counter. But again, giving out this free stuff didn’t create any new relationships for me.

Maybe I was doing the swag thing wrong? Maybe I don’t really know how to use the swag to create or support a community?

But tell me, what does it take to do it right?

Photos by Liz Henry & I should be folding on Flickr


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