Speed Dating and Swag

Speed Dating and Swag
Terry Odell

author swagI’m hardly a marketing guru—it’s the least favorite part of writing for me—but I made some observations at the Left Coast Crime conference and thought I’d share them.

As I mentioned earlier, Left Coast Crime is a reader-focused conference, which means it’s a place where readers come to meet authors, both familiar and new. It’s an ideal opportunity for us lesser-knowns to make connections.

Any writing conference I’ve been to, whether reader or author/craft focused, has a giveaway table where authors leave freebies—swag. With several hundred authors vying for attention, it’s important that these items entice readers (and authors are readers, too) to pick them up. Anything left on the tables after the conference closes will be trashed by the hotel staff, so you might be carting home a lot of what you brought.

The most common items are paper goods. Bookmarks dominate. How effective are they? With so many people using e-readers these days, they don’t serve the same purpose—something that the reader will encounter every time they pick up their book.

author swagI think bookmarks are more effective when handed our personally, like a business card, but even then, they are likely to end up in the hotel room wastebasket. I stopped getting bookmarks made years ago, but I do have business cards with QR codes to my website and Facebook Author Page on the back.

author swagSome bookmarks that did entice people to pick them up were dual-purpose, like these.

author swagA tradition at Left Coast Crime is their Author Speed Dating event. How it works: Tables for ten (There were 40 this year) are set up in a large meeting room. Two seats at each table are reserved for authors. The authors rotate from table to table and each has two minutes to talk/pitch/promote themselves and/or their books. They also bring swag to distribute at each table.

My observations.

The two-minute rule was enforced, which means authors had to be well prepared. Since handing out swag eats up precious seconds, authors were advised to let their partner hand out the swag while they talked. A fair number of them weren’t able to follow this simple direction. Some overran their time, ignoring the bell and finishing their prepared talks, eating up their partner’s time or having to arrive late to the next table.

The presentations varied from rehearsed and memorized speeches to stumbling or rambling attempts to summarize the gist of their stories. The best ones were those who knew their material well enough to make it sound off the cuff. Those attending are going to be listening to eighty two-minute presentations in a room that’s probably not going to have the best acoustics. Being able to be heard was challenge enough for some.

Takeaway: if you’re doing a presentation like this, adhere to the time constraints. Practice your material until it doesn’t sound practiced. If the organizers offer advice, take it.

And now, back to the swag. Handing out swag to a captive audience is better than leaving it on a giant table. But remember the purpose of the swag. To make people want to know more about you and your books.

Here are some swag items handed out at the Speed Dating event that, in my opinion, missed the mark.

author swagFrom left to right. A nice, sturdy magnet. A vial of perfume. A cute magnet. A pin-on button.

Problems with all of them: What are they about? Would you even know they were from an author? Because by the time you get home with them, you’ll have no recollection of who gave them to you. (Note: some swag was handed out in cute little pouches and may have included something about the author, but once you take the items out of the pouch, all connections are lost.) With the perfume, you’re risking the recipient not liking it. With a pin, would readers wear them? Pin them to something else?

Better ideas are things that readers will have a reason to keep and use. Every time they use them, they (one hopes) will remember the author. One author had Hershey’s Miniatures relabeled with his book cover. Great idea—until you eat the candy. Will they save the label? Maybe. I didn’t, but they worked in that I struck up a conversation with that author and did look him up.

author swagI know my lip balm is what people remember about me. Sticky notes, pens, pencils, coasters, magnets that do mention the author, and even a jar opener/gripper thing make for better swag. More expensive, yes. But if you’re spending money, it ought to be working for you.

Your turn. What swag are you likely to pick up? If you hand out swag, what’s been effective?

Available Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy.

Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Terry OdellTerry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

39 thoughts on “Speed Dating and Swag

  1. I like and use bookmarks, jar openers, lip balm, and tote bags, but my favorite is probably pads of paper and pens.

    • Thanks, Deanna. “Favorites” seem to be the more ‘unique’ items. I like pens, but rarely read the author’s name/book. Too small for my aging eyes. My sticky notes went over well at LCC.

  2. Terry, what Deanna said. I take your point, however, about bookmarks in this semi-digital age. I have never turned down a bookmark and have never thrown one way (!) but they don’t mean anything to people who read eBooks exclusively.

    Also…your description of Left Coast Crime makes me want to go to Tucson in 2023. I should have gone this year. For so many reasons.

    Thanks so much, Terry. Hope you are having a great week!

    • Thanks, Joe. I wish you’d been in ABQ. Would have been fantastic for a F2F meetup.

  3. I like bookmarks, and I do read “real” books from time to time. I also do the lip balm route and pens. Those are my go-to swag

    • Thanks, Karla. I read tree books, too, but I have enough of my own bookmarks that I rarely need more. I think they work best when handed out like business cards and open a conversation.

  4. You hit on exactly what I was thinking as I was looking at some of those examples of swag when you said “Better ideas are things that readers will have a reason to keep and use.” I was literally groaning looking at examples of bookmarks, buttons, etc. If the swag is not imminently practical, I would absolutely leave it sitting on the display table. As much as I love bookmarks, I read most books on Kindle, so bookmarks are no longer practical.

    If an author wants to impress me with swag, how ’bout sticky notes or notepad with a slogan printed on it, or a line from the protag that is key? I can see a slogan or line at the top, and the author website at the bottom of the notepad. THAT is both useful to the recipient and reminder of the author & their work.

    Even pens are usually of the cheap variety–ones that quit working quickly or you have to press hard to use. Don’t need the hassle. And if the author doesn’t have practical swag, I’d rather just be able to pick up a business card–at least that’s small, doesn’t take up too much space to store.

    • My sticky notes go over well. I figure each little pad gives me 25 chances to get my name and website in front of someone.
      I used to get my pens from The Pen Factory, and they are good quality. I’m still using some of them.

  5. To me, swag is like social media. It gives you a presence but doesn’t doesn’t sell books. If I had to pick one thing, it’d be that biz card with a QR code, given after a face-to-face interaction.

    And then there is the famous Odell Lip Balm. That’s called “spreading” the word.

    • Exactly, Jim. “Buy My Book” is never a good marketing plan. Engagement is. And there are those “touches” required before your name is remembered. Good swag can do that.
      Totally agree with business cards needing to be handed out in person. The Speed Dating was the next step from that, as there were 2 authors meeting 8 people at each of 40 tables.
      Glad you like my lip balm. I love the way my office smells when I open a new shipment.

  6. Thanks for the ideas and suggestions, Terry. Sounds like Left Coast Crime would be an interesting experience.

    In my former occupation as a physician, the “swag” (advertising) items that we found were most sought after were coffee mugs and calendars.

    The large bookmark size “hanging calendars” (3.5″ x 8.5″) had our contact info and the current year on the front, and the coming year and holidays on the back. People loved to carry them in their purse. I use my old ones for book marks. They’re cheap. We handed out thousands each year, and the hospital nurses asked me to give them a supply for their departments to hang up at work stations. We bought ours from Quill.com, but I’m certain their are many other places that sell them.

    The coffee mugs were a gift to male patients who had a certain procedure – let’s just say I helped to slow down population growth in northwestern Ohio. When patients came back for their post-op visit, I gave them one or two mugs (their wives were often with them), and let them know that if they referred other patients, we had more mugs for them. The mugs work best if they have something really catchy printed on them. Our logo for that part of the practice (and the website) was “No More Children.com” The back of the mug had the general prohibition sign (circle with a diagonal line through it) on top of a scalpel (for No Scalpel Vasectomy). Mugs are still relatively cheap. The problem is that shipping costs have gone up tremendously, and they are heavy to transport. But people love their coffee and their mugs.

    Thanks, Terry!

    • Thanks for sharing, Steve. I’ll bet you had a bigger swag/advertising budget than most authors. I love a small calendar that I carry in my car to record mileage.
      Coffee mugs are also breakable; a friend took advantage of a bargain price on mugs but many didn’t survive the trip to her recipients. I still have one with my logo that was a sample, but I’m keeping it for myself.

  7. Thanks for today’s post about this aspect of Left Coast Crime. The author speed dating event was an interesting way to let authors pitch their work directly to readers. At the World Fantasy convention, they have a mass author signing room, but readers still venture into the author’s space rather than vice versa like at LCC.

    I’m don’t really use swag as a reader, save for a few book marks, and like many, I do most of my fiction reading on my eReader these days. As an author, I haven’t experimented with giving away anything other than having drawings when I started for print copies of my books. That was back in early 2017, and then when I did some of the Goodreads giveaways before they went away. I didn’t find the latter that effective. But as to swag, no.

    I very much agree with you that if you’re going to do it, it needs to be useful and more obviously show it’s connection to you as an author or your books.

    Thanks! Have a great day!

    • Thanks, Dale. LCC is a fun event. I’ve never had the courage to be on the author end of the speed dating. When more conferences/signings, etc. come back (I’m hearing tales of people testing positive after Malice Domestic), swag will become more useful. Hope my hints were helpful.

  8. I love your QR code idea, Terry. At book signings, I’ve given out gummy body parts with my name and website printed on them. Not sure what good they did, though. My readers loved the faux crow feathers I included for my Mayhem Series, but again, are they effective? Not really, no. I recently learned some readers love signed postcards, which stunned me. I haven’t made postcards in years.

    • Trouble with edibles is that while they’re very popular (chocolate is usually scooped up right away), the author connection is lost when they’re eaten. I use them at in person signing type events simply to get people to stop at my table, and then I can chat with them.
      I’m with you on postcards, although if people collect them, I can see them wanting one. The popular ones at LCC had recipes on the back.

  9. Happy National Tell a Story Day, fellow storytellers.

    For years, I kept up what was disappearing and what wasn’t at the swag table at the local science fiction convention. Some bookmarks were taken, but not that many. Almost everything else just sat there except for the flyers for other conventions. In my final years of promotion, I kept two sets of business cards. One was for readers with my website and book info. The other was a standard business card for networking.

    The big publishers would send large boxes of book markets, and I still have a large pile of the bookmarks for the first book in the WHEEL OF TIME series. They are still very much appreciated at a stocking stuffer for geeky friends and family.

    • That was book “marks.” I am on my last nerve with my spellchecker which not only changes words as I type them, but now goes back and changes sentences even after I paragraph. I think it’s been possessed by a frustrated copy editor.

      • First thing I do with any new device is turn off autocorrect! I don’t mind the squiggly lines, or even the suggestions my phone gives me, but I refuse to let them change anything.

    • I’ve been known to leave a stack of bookmarks at the library. The librarians tell me it’s mostly the kids who pick them up, but kids have grownups living with them, right?

  10. I’ve been to only a handful of writing conventions and don’t recall bringing home any swag. Years ago, I used to travel to the Doberman Pinscher National Specialty dog show. It moved around the US to a different location each year. The host club gave out goody bags to entrants. The goodies were branded with the year and a cute graphic created just for that show. I still have ceramic coasters, a canvas tote bag, a naugahyde document case, and some foam pop can insulator sleeves. I no longer have the branded pens they gave out with the show catalogs.

    As an exclusive eformat reader now (so I can bump up the font to something I can see), I wouldn’t pick up a bookmark, much as I appreciated them years ago. The lip balm is a great idea.

    • Many conferences give out tote bags filled with “stuff.” Back in the days when I went to RWA conferences, the totes were filled with paper type swag. Very little of it went home. At LCC this year, the totes were filled with books. Most of those went home. (they did have a book exchange table where you could leave any you didn’t want–or had finished before the conference was over–so very little waste there.)

  11. Great ideas, Terry. I’ve given out pens and bookmarks, but I agree they’re not very imaginative and probably don’t have much return. I also had flexible refrigerator magnets made that are the size of a business card and have the cover of my first novel on them. I doubt anybody throws a refrigerator magnet away.

    Of the things you pictured, I’d go for the jar opener and the post-it notes. And the QR code on the business card is very good. You’ve got me thinking about “swagging up” for my next in-person conference.


    • Thanks, Kay. We have a two-drawer dishwasher and use a magnet to show which one has the dirty dishes. They wear out after a few months from all the prying off to move them. Our fridge is stainless, so magnets don’t stick. The square magnet I showed in the post is very sturdy, and it’s now my dishwasher sign. But no author, so I have no idea what it’s promoting.

      • That’s interesting — we also have a two-drawer dishwasher, (Fisher & Paykel — are they the only firm that makes them?) and we also used a magnet to denote which had the dirty dishes. (Under the heading of more than you ever wanted to know: our dishwasher doors are not magnetic, so my husband glued a small magnetic strip at the top of each door so we could “magnify” which drawer had the dirty dishes. I don’t use the magnet anymore — I just look inside. Ha!)

        • Yes, we have a Fisher & Paykel, but our doors are magnetic. Looking inside works sometimes, but there’s always the time someone puts dirties into an unemptied clean one. Except at my Mom’s house. She would hover over the dishwasher and empty it as soon as it stopped.

  12. We must think “outside the box.” A decade ago, my publisher kindly provided a certain number of bookmarks. I noted that she’d left the back blank. She said that would have cost extra. I went to her source, a local printer and ordered two-sided bookmarks, with excerpts from my book. They cost less than one-sided. I have no explanation for this. I suspect he just liked my new bookmarks.
    Pens are about the only thing I use. I heard of one chap who ordered cheapo pens by the bucket, then bought ~100 Papermate refills for just the pens he was going to give out personally. These refills last about 4x as long as the originals.
    As a test, I once printed out a small annual calendar, about 10.25″ wide by 4″ high. I then glued it around an empty tin can, Viola!* a very inexpensive pencil cup. (I think every writer needs a pencil cup. I just counted 12 on my various desks. Readers may not need quite as many.) I still have that pencil cup, even tho the calendar is for 1996. Other containers can be bought in bulk and turned into pencil cups similarly. Tea canisters are my favorite.

    * Yeah, i know. it’s voila.

    • I say viola, too, J. Pencil cups are a great ideal, although they might be difficult for some to transport. Usually after a conference, luggage space is limited. 🙂
      Handmade swag is labor intensive. I think of that author who printed, cut, and glued his book cover onto all those chocolates.

  13. Terrific info, Terry. I’d love to attend LCC, fingers crossed for the future.

    Bookmarks with recipes would grab me, not to use in books but to cook with. I may have some made with my heroine’s chicken soup that seduced the male lead.

    I appreciate Post-its and use them a lot. I still have a few from a publishing company that was at the 2018 Book Expo.

    • I like sticky notes, too. I still have a box of mine to hand out the next time I go to a conference. And lip balm. I’ve tried a couple of recipes from swag handed out at conferences.
      Hmmm… Saving Scott, one of my Pine Hills books has a recipe collection at the end. Maybe it’s time to swagify some of them.

  14. I’m not a fan of author speed dating events. They are overwhelming and I don’t remember what anybody said, 5 minutes after it’s over. I’d rather walk around to author booths or tables, talk to the author, get a book signed, pick up a bookmark or something . I still like bookmarks. I bought a fancy metal one at Sleuthfest one year, but I tend to use the paper ones. When I used to go to computer software conferences , pre-retirement, the swag was t-shirts, mousepads, lots of desktop items – pens, pads, etc. Little pieces of cloth used for cleaning screens or glasses are popular, and they can be printed with a url. Non-breakable travel mugs are great, but probably not cheap. I still have my plastic slinky from a Lotusphere conference, about 20 years ago. Egg-timers, plastic letter openers, jar openers, are all useful. Squishy “stress-balls” are not all that useful, but I give them to the cats, so they roll around the house for a while. Coasters stamped with product names, websites and such might find a way to my desk. I have a key chain that looks like an old motel key chain, which I think was printed with a name of a book…about a motel. I remember a plastic magnifying sheet from someone. I also had a plastic clip that goes on the car visor, to hold sunglasses. I think I left that in my last car…but it had the name of a product/ company on it. ( Could be an author / book, just as well.)

    • Sounds like you’ve hit the jackpot with swag, Jane. Thanks for sharing all those goodies.
      My photographer son was looking into lens cleaners with his logo, but he’d have had to have bought way more than he’d ever need (he leads very small groups on international photo safaris) to keep the cost reasonable. He might be rethinking that now that things are opening up again.
      The Speed Dating approach isn’t for everyone, but I can say the same about the post-panel author signings where only the “big name” authors had people at their tables. Nothing works for everyone.

  15. I’ve brought home pens, sticky notes, jar openers, hand sanitizer, fans and door hangers. I like candy but eat it and throw out the wrapper. What’s worked for me as an author are items related to my bad hair day theme. People keep my combs and hair picks imprinted with my series title and website.

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