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How to Ensure You Don't Waste Money on Useless Company Swag

company-swagWhen you accept a job, you probably know that you're going to be doing stuff that falls outside of the original job description. Maybe you'll get pulled into tracking your team's monthly metrics, help support an extra client, or even fetch your boss' coffee. Regardless of what your job is, wearing a bunch of hats comes with the territory.

It happened to me in my first job out of college. I went bright-eyed into the position, excited to create content and do some community management. Within my first month, I took on designing and ordering all company swag (think T-shirts, pens, mugs, trade show banners, etc.) ... and I was flying blind.

I was sending over designs that I had made in PowerPoint. I was pestering our Head of Product Design to find out what exactly an .EPS file extension was (and if I could open it without using any Adobe products). I was spending way more time on the phone with these company swag shops to figure out what the final customized item would look like, all without paying extra for a proof. 

Yup, I was a mess. And luckily, after being thrown in the deep end of managing this project, I managed to swim. But ordering promotional objects for your company really shouldn't be that hard. 

To help you avoid the same mistakes that I made, I compiled a list of questions pertaining to all of the things I wish I had known before I jumped into creating, designing, and ordering these branded items. So go on and get informed -- I swear, you'll shave off tons of wasted time just by taking a few minutes to read this. 

1) Will people actually use the swag?

First things first -- before you lay down the cash, really think about if your target audience will use your promo objects. Even if someone is an avid fan of your company, he or she will not use a useless, albeit "on-brand," piece of swag.

Yes, I'm looking at you, marketer who thought getting custom-shaped sticky-notes that have a half-inch diameter was a good idea. Not only do few people use sticky notes anymore, but also: Can anyone actually write anything worth saving on a half-inch sticky note? You should really dig deep to figure out when people are going to use your object -- and if they will, go ahead and order it.

You should also consider whether the item will be unfriendly to travel with. If you're giving out swag at a conference or trade show, it's pretty likely that people had to take an airplane, bus, or train to get there -- so they need light -- not sharp or liquid-filled -- items to fit in their travel bags. No golf club-sized umbrellas, no heavy picture frames, no paperweights. Seriously, just don't buy them.

It can help to think about all the horrible pieces of swag you've gotten at previous conferences and promptly thrown out. Figure them out and then make a mental note to never order them yourself. While you may not always be your target audience, it's a good way to gut check whether your on-brand promo items will be worth it or not. The best pieces of swag are obviously the ones used over and over again, not the ones thrown in the trash immediately.

2) What is the product made of?

Whenever I buy my own clothes, I look to see what it's made of. Cotton? Rayon? Polyester? A blend of all three? As a reasonably tall person, I've got to be 100% sure that my clothes will not shrink at all. 

In the same way, you should be vigilant to find out what the products are made of -- and how that material will wear over time. Ask yourself questions like, "Will it shrink in the wash?," "Is it dishwasher- and microwave-safe?," and, "How will the logo fade over time on this material?" You don't need to have products that last 1,000 years, but if it breaks before the conference you're handing them out at is over, you've lost valuable WOM opportunities down the road.

Often, if you plan far enough in advance, you can get a free sample of the product you're ordering so you can inspect quality in person -- the rest of the information you should be able to find on the product website or through reviews. So be sure to do your research to find out what the product is made of and how that material will hold up over time before you give anyone your credit card.

3) Which colors should I be using?

You'd think choosing colors for your swag would be the easiest part of it all (orange is our brand color, right? That's not hard), but in fact, it was one of the most stressful parts of the ordering process for me.

After going through the whole process of designing and ordering swag, my worst nightmare would be to find out that our brand colors and the swag colors did not match. Okay, maybe I was a little bit neurotic about the whole color-matching thing, but it's definitely a real concern. So if you're not sure what the colors will turn out to be, try ordering a sample -- better to be safe than sorry. 

Let's say you're already confident in the color of the swag you're ordering. You also need to choose the right colors in your design that not only match your brand's colors, but also can be easily understood by the person printing your item.

There are actually three different ways (sort of like languages) that you can define colors by: RGB, CMYK, and HEX codes. (Sound like gibberish? Check out this quick design glossary). Basically, some of these types of color codes work for print and some work for the web.

So, when you're designing swag (which is printed, not on the web), you need to be using the right code: CMYK. I'm not going to get too much into what CMYK means, but all you really need to know is that you need to use it when designing for printed swag. If you need help converting colors from RGB or HEX codes to CMYK, here's a simple converter.

4) Which file format do I need ... and what does it mean?

Like the last question we asked, this question addresses kind of a technical issue ... but it's essential to the success of your project. People who print branded products are used to designing with a very special file format: .EPS.

What makes this file format so special? With 95% of the images you create, the images will have a defined resolution -- so when you go to make the images larger, the image might look pixelated. An .EPS file gets rid of all that pixelated garbage -- it looks clear at any size you set it. This is essential to getting your logo on anything from a customized pencil eraser to a 20x40-foot banner.

To use .EPS files, you'll need Adobe Illustrator (here's a link to the free trial) -- not Photoshop, not PowerPoint. If you're going to be designing a lot of swag, I'd definitely suggest investing in Illustrator. 

5) Should I order a proof?

Yes ... that is, if you have time.

I will always, always, always suggest getting a proof. This is different than a sample, which is an uncustomized version of the product. It could be a generic color and it definitely doesn't have your logo on it. A proof -- whether electronic or tangible -- is exactly what you're swag will look like. It's customized and in the color you ordered

I always recommend getting a proof before ordering unless you have extremely tight deadlines (sometimes getting proofs can tack on a few extra days in the production process). On tight deadlines like that, I've lucked out before -- but it's not something you want to take a chance on.

Sometimes, you have to pay for proofs, but that up-front cost could save you lots of money if you end up discovering a mistake that would have made it to the final product. Take my word for it -- just do it.

6) How long do I have to wait for my product? 

Getting swag created isn't like ordering something on Amazon -- you're not going to have the swag in your hands right away, even if you select 2-Day Shipping. Why? Because there's a whole production process you need to go through first, which can be anywhere from a day to a week.

I'd build in at least 10 business days from your order date to ensure you're getting the product on time (and that's not including design and proofing time -- simply production and shipping).

Being hyper-aware of the deadlines you need to meet to get swag in time for your event or trade show is crucial -- the last thing you want it to show up empty-handed because you didn't realize how long the production timeline took.

7) What's the ROI of my swag? 

Last, but certainly not least, before you hit "order," make sure you're very clear about what results you want to get from the swag itself and how you're going to measure them. Will the lifetime value of the product pay off the cost of creating it?

Ask yourself the right questions to get to the bottom of your swag's ROI. For example, if you're mainly worried about generating brand awareness with your swag, think about how many people will see your swag and then remember your brand. To measure that, you could calculate impressions (and that's a very, very, very rough metric) and couple it with data on direct and organic search traffic to your website.

Or maybe you want to generate leads with your swag -- to get swag, people will need to fill out a form or give you their business card. Measuring that is easy -- it's just the number of leads that you got at the end of the day. But if you actually want to make that metric have a bottom-line impact, you can upload that list to your contacts database and enroll them in a lead nurturing email workflow to bring these leads down your marketing funnel. 

Basically, you want to make sure that whatever purpose your swag serves actually gets served once you buy it. You don't need to know the future -- just get a realistic expectation of how many impressions, leads, etc. you can get through your swag, and then a way to measure to see if you've met that expectation. It all boils down to what goals you hope to accomplish with your swag.

So if you've suddenly been tasked with designing and ordering promotional items, you'll be prepared to avoid the biggest roadblocks -- which'll hopefully help you get back to your actual job a little quicker. Good luck!

Have you ordered company swag before? What tips do you have up your sleeve? Share your tips with us in the comments below.

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