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.

200907271139.jpg

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

{ 24 comments }

Barb July 27, 2009 at 7:24 pm

For me, it was the sense of entitlement that so many people had towards the swag that blew me away. I read a great analogy on Jodifurs website about going to a kids birthday party. I doubt anyone would walk into a kids party grab a bag and leave to go to the kids down the street.

@chaotic_barb

Michele (scrappinmichele) McGraw July 27, 2009 at 9:52 pm

I had this discussion with my husband when I got home because he runs a trade show with over 30,000 attendees and he goes to trade shows monthly. He said it’s the same at all the trade-shows. As soon as anyone knows there is free stuff, everyone goes. If there is a party with swag, everyone lines up early and leaves once the swag is gone. If there is a party with swag and a party without swag, guess where everyone goes? He claims it is just a part of the trade show/conference atmosphere and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon because it works.

CV Harquail July 28, 2009 at 10:59 am

Hi Michelle, I think the desire to get some swag is pretty universal… A few people made the distinction to me between a tradeshow and a conference, and that distinction helps to focus on what could be added to enhance the conference part of BlogHer. In truth, the swag dynamics were only a small part of my take-aways from the conference… but in terms of BlogHer as an organization, I think the conversation about swag could help them refocus on where they want the conference to grow, and how. cv

Miss Britt July 28, 2009 at 9:39 am

The companies that I felt did it right were the ones who used “swag” to compliment a genuine gathering or conversation.

Nikon handed out little clutches AFTER one left the party.

Brand About Town gave away jeans in a suite that was never over crowded – AFTER their reps talked to you and offered you strawberries and asked you about your blog.

A Tide rep gave me two sample pack thingies to try AFTER talking to me in a line and hearing me ask if it would hurt my colors or work only for whites.

Ford didn’t give me ANYTHING but free food – but they let me parallel park a new car without using my hands. And talk with their engineers and program developers and factory workers.

CV Harquail July 28, 2009 at 10:56 am

Hey Miss Britt, as Bananarama sang, “it’s the way that you do it, and that’s what gets results” eh? Given after, the swag are samples to be tried rather than bribes or lures. cv

kim/hormone-colored days July 28, 2009 at 3:53 pm

I appreciate the thoughtful post. I have one up about positive brand interactions from BlogHer. It’s gathered interesting comments. But I share many of your concerns. I think you are the only other blogger to mention the noise at the parties. I don’t think it’s fun having to lean in and shout to your friends when trying to talk with people you are meeting IRL for the first time. I think that’s what’s likely to keep me away from future BlogHer parties.

Oh, and Nikon did not give out cameras! Just little purses. In reading people’s wrap-up posts, I’m only know becoming aware of how many small brand events I wasn’t invited to. No matter though. I enjoyed getting to know women I’ve been tweeting and sharing comments with.

CV Harquail July 28, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Kim I really enjoyed your post– and getting to hear other convergent and divergent views. I really want more smaller situations– like the Birds of a Feather lunch tables — so that I can have real conversations the whole time, not just during the daylight! (btw, the cameras were in the Swiffer/SocialLuxe bags. I did not get one, tho I rsvp’d. sigh) And, I wouldn’t mind more brands & products more aligned with the things I write about– maybe next year. Will look for you now on twitter too…. cv

Ellen G. July 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Hi there…we met at BlogHer, remember me? I’m the woman who ran over you once you told me where the Mickey ice cream bars were, and yes, they were DAMN good.

This is a tricky subject for me, and one that I am not sure I will cover on my own blog. I can be as much of a swag monster as the next person, so who am I to judge those who take 10 jars of Play-Doh to bring home (hypocrisy, thou art me). At the same time, as a blogger and marketer, I think two things:

1. Is this working for the companies involved? I can’t imagine that all of them got what they wanted out of the conference. Reminds me of the days of AOL carpetbombing CDs – spaghetti on the wall, seeing what sticks. I actually think the PR company that PlayDoh hired was worth it – they talked to me about my kid and understood me and then recommended toys for him. I wrote down every recommendation and they will all be on our wish list. Even though they weren’t from the company, I felt like we made a connection – which is the goal, right?

2. Is this working for BlogHer? Thinking about what BH was 5 years ago, to what went down last week, is this the direction they want to go in? I have to wonder if courting the big corporations and making it a swag fest is what they want for their baby.

In the end, I always remember that it’s the personal connections you make in the community that make BlogHer special. Glad to have found you and your blog.

CV Harquail July 28, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Ellen, how could I *not* remember! Our conversation was one of the most fun… and I enthusiastically await your post linking Justin Timberlake and Soccer Moms…

More seriously, I don’t think that the swagging (official and unofficial) is working for BlogHer. I think their best bet is to ramp up their emphasis on learning and sharing over blogging skills & genres, and on getting like minded bloggers together in active & ongoing BlogHer minicommunities.

I did have some very nice experiences talking with sponsors at the exhibits, probably b/c these were 1:1 and I was able to control the length and focus. I learned a lot about getting mildew out of my washer, plastics out of my water, and glucosamine into my system… And, I got some great ideas for blog posts (Wal-mart, watch out!), so I did find value in the sponsors themselves. Now I wish I’d set aside more time for following up, b/c indeed every single conversation I had at BlogHer was t-riffic. Really. cv

Mandy July 29, 2009 at 1:00 am

You wrote a fascinating perspective on this, touching on many of the thoughts running through my head after attending my second BlogHer.

My husband runs a social media company and, by dint of that, attends dozens of conferences during the year. About 3/4 of the time he is invited to present or be on a panel, and about 1/4 of the time he is just a registrant. These are conferences, not tradeshows, which I think is an important distinction.

Generally speaking, everyone receives the same swag bag, often tech-related, and speakers or panelists might receive a little something extra depending on the size of the conference or the importance of the speaker/presenter to the overall event (ie keynotes get the nicest extras, etc). If there are sponsors in the exhibition area, any swag they have is first come, first served.

Personally, I do not care that much about the swag, and I’m certainly not going to push, shove or elbow anyone to get a bag of stuff I mostly won’t use. But I’m also not going to parties where I’m receiving jeans, shoes, cameras, clutches, etc. Most people attending BlogHer aren’t getting those perks either. While I think much of the private/exclusive nature of the sponsored parties is technically out of the control of the BlogHer organizers, I do think it’s set an unhealthy expectation. Brands will have to do bigger and better giveaways every year in order to generate buzz and envy. Because in the end, that’s what consumerism is, the wanting of what everyone else has, or the wanting of something that others don’t have.

More importantly though, BlogHer will have to deal with the fallout of an increasingly polarized community. Personally, while I feel that most women when away from the conference don’t really care that much about the swag, I do think that most people do not want to feel left out or unimportant or excluded or what ever other adjective one chooses to use. The conference should be about celebrating the act of blogging and not primarily about celebrating the biggest acts in blogging.

CV Harquail July 29, 2009 at 1:36 am

Mandy, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I really resonate with the concerns about the increasingly polarized community…on top of the concerns about overly-commercializing the experience of BlogHer. More emphasis on what we all want to learn more about (e.g., writing, listening, community building) and also how to use blogging to reach our goals (social change, influence, awareness) would make a difference by helping to balance out the consumerism and make the experience more about learning than selling. I’ll keep this in mind as I think about what to send back to Elisa, Lisa & Jory in terms of feedback & suggestions. cv

mom101 July 29, 2009 at 5:47 pm

I just wanted to say I really loved this thoughtful perspective, including your experiment with the bag. As Britt said, the best interactions did in fact take place at private gatherings or in suites where the swag was an afterthought. So to whatever degree the private parties seemed exclusionary (for every one I was invited to, there were 6 I was not) they seemed the next logical phase in relationship building for those brands and bloggers.

I agree that The Stuff – even for someone who is a product reviewer at my other blog, and who writes about marketing – provided far too much of a distraction. There was so much to learn this weekend and to see wrap-ups that solely consist of “look what I got/what brand plied me with stuff/what celeb I met” makes me feel a lot of people missed the point.

Or hey, maybe I miss the point. Maybe there is a whole new point out there and we have to figure out what to do with it.

CV Harquail July 31, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Mom101, I’m so glad you liked my experiment… I was pretty pleased with myself for the idea, if not for the meager insights it gave me. I have been musing on the swag i got that I’m loving, like my Izzy tshirts (b/c they are women’s shirts & fit me!) and all the flash drives and such, and especially my 3 free months on Picnik– probably the only real blogging related swag I got… I have also been wondering about other reasons why swag dominated– and I think that partly is the immediacy of these objects despite the meager gratification from them, in contrast with the emails of “so glad to have met you/found your blog” that mean SO much more to me and are coming in more slowly. The swag is salient, the relationships are emergent. And the relationships are important.
Now, how I missed your Bloggers v Popular People: A Pre-BlogHer Field Guide, I don’t know. Had I read it before, my life would be different now. (grin) And you have a new subscriber! cv

kim/hormone-colored days July 30, 2009 at 12:38 am

Thanks for responding to my comment. I was lucky enough to get one of those video cameras, but not lucky enough to get the $50 memory card for it to be most useful. D’oh. I think it was my bad, though; I was supposed to visit the brand sponsor to pick one up, I think.

At any rate, I’m intrigued by @Mom101′s comment above. I’ve been thinking about the same thing. Is this a call for us, for BlogHer to return to it’s roots, or is it time for the organization to grow into something new. Those crotchety old ladies (you know, the ones who’ve been blogging for 3 or more years? Like me.) who like the old skool ways can maybe find a place at smaller conferences like TypeAMom or Blissdom. Or perhaps niche conference will start popping up. BlogHer is clearly headed down the Bigger is Better path, at least for 2010. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in the long term.

Liza July 30, 2009 at 3:30 pm

I enjoyed chatting with you, too! Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful post on SwagGate.

I have a suggestion on the Mocha Latte yogurt front. My son loves coffee yogurt, and in addition to going broke feeding him 2-3 cups/day, plus 1 for me, I learned that all the then-available brands (2007) used caffeinated coffee in their yogurt.

Since that discovery, we buy the large sized containers of vanilla yogurt and stir in a heaping tablespoon of decaf instant. Delicious, less expensive, and not adding fuel to the preschool hyperactivity fire; in a reusable container, it can even be single-serving sized.

CV Harquail July 31, 2009 at 10:53 am

Liza, you offer a suggestion that only a momwhosebeenthere can offer…. I’ll try that, and up the sophistication level by using that new Starbucks freezedried powder stuff. It’ll be a terrific espresso kick… and I’ll make it with stoneyfield’s greek yogurt (healthier for you) as a conciliatory gesture to the brand that has spurned chococoffeeholics like me….. sigh.

CV Harquail July 31, 2009 at 11:02 am

Kim, your comments really got me thinking, so thank you for that.
Here’s where I think BlogHer should go…. They/we should take a tip from Liz Lemon of 30Rock, and “Retreat to Move Forward”. i think BlogHer should focus on its mission — which is still highly relevant– and focus on enriching the core of the program. More writing, more geeking, more connecting. Kind of like Pilates for organizations– strengthen the core. Then, one can also ditch the spanx.

Mac McCarthy July 31, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Similar problems arise in prizes for promotions such as getting people to sign up for a Web subscription. As editor of a Sun programmer’s online mag, years ago, we hit on the idea of giving away a CD of *uncompiled* Unix programs in exchange for (free) subscription signups — instead of a raffle for an electronic gadget. This guaranteed that the only people signing up would be Unix programmers and IT people, because a. they’re the only people who knew how to compile and use the programs., b. they’re the only ones with Unix systems, and c. they’re the only ones who’d *care* about something like that.

One challenge is to find that rare bit of swag that *only* or *most strongly* appeals to your target audience. It helps, of course, if your target audience is narrowly drawn.

It also argues for cheap swag that is nice to have rather than swag worth standing in line for.

CV Harquail July 31, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Mac, you pick up on another subtle element of the swag issue, which is that lots of it was ‘shotgun swag’ and not ‘targeted swag’. There was so much, and so much that wasn’t meaningful to enough people, that it felt like there was even more swag than there really was. Part of the challenge is/will be to find something meaningful. Maybe that will take BlogHer and the sponsors themselves back to the mission of the conference. It makes me wonder what empowering swag might look like….. cv

lynn @ human, being August 1, 2009 at 4:06 pm

I thought I went to a conference but wound up going to a party with much too much commercialization. How do Tide, Bounce, Michelin and Pepsi help me make my blog better? They don’t.

A problem Blogher is facing, IMO, is trying to keep the conference fee low, and therefore needing the sponsorship only huge companies can afford. I would much rather see the conference sponsored by the companies that offer bloggy products. IF I decide to go back (still on the fence, and until I see the programming for next year I won’t buy my ticket), I would be happy to pay $300 or $350 for a less-branded experience that, as you said, gets back to the core.

As for SWAGgate, I think the majority of this rests on the shoulders of the party organizers. When I have a party for my kid, I do the giveaway as people are leaving. Also, I use an RSVP list and make sure I have enough for the people who RSVP plus 10% extra, because someone always shows up unannounced.

I like conference swag. It usually means I don’t have to buy pens or notepads for a year. My favorite little bit this year is a cube mirror, which has already allowed me to escape being caught on Twitter twice since I’ve gotten back to work (ha!).

Deb on the Rocks August 1, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Great perspective, especially about how private events do more harm than good. But I’m not worried about the corporations in all of this. It has and does work for them. You may not have made friends handing out Tide at the airport, but Tide, who had already made name recognition with you by giving it to you, doubled up when you turned it into a memorable experience for you and the new recipients, and then tripled, quadrupled, who-knows how many times the impact when you wrote about Tide above. Marketers are getting a great deal–much more than ads that are skipped on TIVO are doing.

Condo Blues August 3, 2009 at 10:01 pm

I think it was the RSVP, private events, and swag suites that really put SwagGate into motion. I went to the SocialLux party and I liked how the bags were given out as you left so you could talk to the sponsors and other bloggers at the party. By talking to a party sponsor and making a connection is how I got the memory card for the video camera. This floored and confused me because I wasn’t supposed to get a gift bag at that party, just entry. I think they took more RSVP’s than they had gifts or room for at most of those parties and didn’t check that at the door. Once word got out on Twitter it a few attendees in high “gotta get it all” mode which reflects badly on most of us, like myelf who was there to network and thought the gift bag was a nice gesture and way to try the products and services I was just finding out about. The swag suites and private parties also fueled this fire. It was a cheaper way for them to reach the BlogHer audience without paying to be an official sponsor. However, you already had to have some sort of relationship with that company to get an invitation. That was frustrating to me, because this was my first conference, I didn’t have those contacts. I was disappointed that I didn’t get an invitation to go to a company’s private party/suite whose customer service I admire and to thank them. I wasn’t there to get “stuff” and frankly I don’t think that their “stuff” was high on the MUST GET list. Fortunately we follow each other on Twitter and connected the next day so I was happy but it would have been nice to have that conversation in a quite suite than shouting in a noisy hallway. I agree the music in every venue was way too loud to talk/network. I lost my voice because I had to shout over the music so much!

Elisa September 3, 2009 at 4:22 am

I don’t see a problem with the swag. If you don’t want it, don’t get it. And those who decided to be greedy miss out on why Blogher is really great: creating relationships with other bloggers, or finally meeting friends you’ve only met online.

I’m ok with the swag, don’t care about most of it, but it’s nice that I have something to bring back home to my family so I don’t have to get souvenirs ;-) And I really care about the tickets being affordable, so if sponsor presence does that, then fine. I really don’t see the fuss over the swag. as I said: you don’t like it? don’t get it. And if it’s about people being obnoxious and greedy… don’t let that ruin your BlogHer experience. When 1300 people meet in one place there will always be some who find a way to be annoying. Ignore it and move on.
.-= Elisa´s last blog ..I’m awake. But it’s way too early for “’cause she’s a jolly good fellow”. =-.

Rebecca (@playcon) August 12, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Excellent discussion about what it takes to truly engage the consumer here. Maybe we all need a more even distribution of swag throughout the year rather than the bombardment of lots of garbage mixed in with some useful and innovative products. I guess some companies will do it right, some will actually find away to offend people, but most will have the same experience you did with your own swag distribution. I took home a lot of samples, but not a lot of product knowledge.

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