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  • Writer's pictureDr. Gary Witt

Stop Using Ineffective Trade Show Giveaways

Dr. Gary Witt from Exhibitor Magazine

Giveaways are the most ubiquitous items at any trade show. Everyone has freebies, ranging from hard candy to thumb drives. Yet, if you ask many regular exhibitors, they'll be hard pressed tell you if most of it really makes any difference in getting business.

From a Psychological Marketing viewpoint, what are the best and worst types of giveaways? To answer that question, the exhibitor must determine what the giveaway should do.


There are several overlapping reasons to give something to a visitor:

  • Reminders -- Giveaways with the company name remind visitors of their experience. It is a terrible mistake to make your visitor fall in love with your product or service, then not provide a way to let them call you. There are many ways to do this, but most are just a waste of money. Also remember that the typical person carries at least one bulging bag of literature and giveaways, so your chances of being remembered or standing out using ordinary giveaways are slim.

  • Branding – highlighting a name and a catchphrase, like "Dinette Warehouse: Home of the Biggest Discounts in Town."

  • Image-building -- the giveaway helps to reinforce the company's image and niche.

  • Create a positive feeling -- in most situations it is human nature to think well of someone who gives you a gift.

  • Reminder -- a traditional and useful reason for giveaways is to help people remember the company's name and benefit after the show is over.

  • Build a List: -- giveaways that are exchanged for names and e-mail addresses of prospects offer one of the best values for a company's promotional goals, giving the company a low-cost way to contact potential buyers over and over again.


Based on the psychological marketing analysis of desirable exhibit visitors and the potential benefits of giveaways, we can draw some conclusions about the most and least valuable types of giveaways.

  • Giveaways which are consumed will generally have little marketing value, unless the giveaway food is made by the exhibitor, in which case it is actually a sample.

  • Giveaways which do not have the company's name on them are useless. People will forget which company provided it.

  • Giveaways which do not have a branding message are of less value than those which do. That means a coaster with a company's name is of less value than one with a company's name and a tagline which enhances its positioning strategy.

  • Giveaways which involve the visitor are superior to those which don't. For example, a cable TV company offered a virtual reality experience -- two fascinating minutes in a virtual reality world of dinosaurs. It was exciting, new and memorable. And it gave visitors a chance to tell friends on the bus about a product most people had heard about, but few had seen.

  • Giveaways which offer an immediate benefit are more useful and memorable. The chiropractor who offers you a thirty-second massage gives you immediate gratification, and creates a stronger positive response than those which give you something you must wait to use. One of the best examples I ever saw was a company who offered visitors a photo between two Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. The line was long, but the people were excited and happy with anticipation. The sales staff worked that line for leads and appointments. The guys were stuck there, so they didn't mind. Finally they stood between the gorgeous cheerleaders, got a quick hug and smile, and walked away with their picture plus the company's literature. Next week they were happy to take a sales call, which always started with a friendly, "So, where did you hang your cheerleaders' picture?" Brilliant!

  • Giveaways which create involvement are better than those which allow the visitor to remain passive. Involvement can be created by many means. Involvement creates a personal relationship between the visitor and the show personnel and may help reinforce the company's message. One company offered professional shoeshines, while the sales person sat next to the prospect. When the shoeshine was over, so was the pitch.

  • Giveaways which allow people to feel good about themselves are superior to those which are neutral or negative. Visitors feel good about themselves when they do something which is worthy of praise. This usually involves a contest of some sort, such as guessing the number of items in a bowl or putting a golf ball. If this creates positive feelings, they become associated with the company and also help create a more memorable way to recall their experience at the booth (“That’s the booth you sunk a putt, remember?”) However, there are some hidden dangers in this strategy.


Two evergreen trade show classics are putting and shooting baskets. There is a big problem with skill-related giveaways. When a person is standing over that ball looking at the cup four feet away, their ego is on the line. Others are watching. Will they succeed -- and get

applause -- or fail and feel like a loser? Likely the latter. So embarrassing!

Then the company compounds the psychological damage by presenting the "loser" with a free "charity" coffee cup in front of friends and strangers to help them remember this failure, and the company which made it possible. Think that cup will make the trip home?

In short, this giveaway -- or any others that have a few winners and many losers -- is designed to make a few people feel good about the company, and embarrass the rest. That embarrassment will wrap itself around the brand of the company like a cloak. Big deal? Not really. But anything which takes away a company’s edge by creating a negative feeling in a highly competitive environment is a danger.

You want an activity which involves the visitor, looks like fun, and offers them a chance to compete for some prize. But there should be no losers, no one who gets the booby prize.

Your goal is to help people succeed and feel good about themselves. That's why they play. They don't really want the cup. It is just a symbol of their success, and a reminder of the good feeling your company gave them. Don't make them feel like a loser with a booby prize.

Giveaways can be an effective way to enhance a positive corporate image, gather prospective leads, and generate repeated reminders of your company long after the show is over. Or they can be a waste of money, and even create a negative impression. All giveaways are not created equal. For the best results, try to see them through the eyes and the feelings of your targeted show visitors.

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