Best in Show: The Perfect Giveaway Trade Show T-Shirt for Your Next Conference

April 5 , 2017 by in Sales
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How do you choose the right branded trade show t-shirt? How do you choose where to invest, and how do you know you’ll produce something people want to wear?

Before we jump in, here’s a little analogy for perspective.

Think of the last time someone handed you a flyer as you walked past them. What did you do with it? Chances are, you tossed it in the trash can as soon as that person looked away.

You know they cared about what was on the flyer, so you didn’t want to hurt their feelings – but you couldn’t have cared less.

Now, apply that thought to your trade show giveaway merchandise, or “swag”. Chances are, you’ve considered giving away t-shirts or other apparel for your next trade show appearance. After all, who doesn’t want to see their agency’s brand paraded all over a big conference?

But what if no one cares about your t-shirts? What if, the second you look away, people are leaving your t-shirts sitting around on the trade show floor? Or, what if you give your apparel to more polite people, and those shirts all sit at the bottom of various closets for the rest of eternity?

If nothing else, that’s a lot of wasted money.

You don’t want your trade show t-shirts to waste away in a closet or end up at a thrift shop. Instead, you want them to make an impression. You want them to be worn by actual human beings who actually want to wear them.

I’ve been to more trade shows than I can count, and I’ve had more than my share of branded t-shirts made. Basically, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.

I’ve learned from my own mistakes, so I’ll happily pass that knowledge onto you. I also enlisted the help of a few experts.

Selecting the Right Trade Show T-Shirt

If you’re not considering pens or USB drives for your next trade show appearance, you’re probably considering some type of apparel.

Namely, t-shirts.

Everyone loves a cool t-shirt, right? And your agency, your logo, and your branding are so on point that no one could possibly resist grabbing a t-shirt from your booth.

According to Nimlok Trade Show Marketing, t-shirts are popular for a reason:

“T-shirts are one of the most sought-after trade show giveaway items. Attendees love to hunt down and collect as many free t-shirts as possible while walking the trade show floor. By utilizing t-shirts as a giveaway item, you will ensure that your trade show booth is flush with attendee traffic.”

Nimlok says t-shirts are valuable to attendees because they’re easy to pack, and they’re great for workout or lounge clothes once an attendee gets home. They also provide value because they can be worn immediately, and because they can remind attendees of the fun and educational time they had at the show.

For you and your agency, t-shirts represent an instant increase in brand exposure as people wear them on the convention floor. A t-shirt is also a blank canvas, and what you can do with one is limited only by your imagination.

And, just as importantly, they’re a safe giveaway– they’re something most people enjoy, and don’t mind having more of.

So, if you’re set on t-shirts, this is the post for you. I’ve personally had success with well-made and well-branded t-shirts.

Here’s how to get your money’s worth and make sure your trade show t-shirts don’t end up crumpled in a closet or on a Salvation Army rack.

Avoid Common Mistakes

We’ve all seen dull t-shirts at trade shows, featuring boring logos in common colors. The only way the average attendee will wear a boring t-shirt again is if it’s comfortable.

According to Will Harris of Real Thread, fabric quality is at least something you can always get right. Since Will and Real Thread have plenty of experience with both trade shows and t-shirts, we decided to go straight to him for his thoughts on the matter.

From Will:

“[One of the most common mistakes agencies make is] thinking that quality doesn’t matter. The industry-standard for trade shows somehow became this boxy, rough t-shirt with a thick, uncomfortable print of a company logo on it. This was particularly obvious at Dreamforce 2016, where Datanyze collected and donated 300 pounds of unwanted swag during the conference! If you’ve been to trade shows in the past, I’m sure you know the type, and probably have a shirt or two laying in the bottom of your drawer somewhere (if you didn’t just throw it away after).

I think marketers get lost in giving out as many shirts as possible, at the least cost, and they forget that what’s really important is that the shirt gets worn again. And this happens by giving out a retail-quality shirt that people will actually like to wear and talk about.”

Datanyze “set up Swag Drop stations around Downtown San Francisco and at a number of Dreamforce parties to encourage attendees to donate their swag rather than trash it,” and they ended up with over 300 pounds of stuff.

That wasn’t all t-shirts, of course, but it puts the whole thing into perspective– agencies are definitely wasting money on swag that no one wants.

Fortunately, Will has a few more tips:

“A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is to print something that you’d actually wear, even if you didn’t work at the company. Your company logo might be cool enough to pull this off, but consider creating an attractive design with your name incorporated into it. Bonus points if you can include a message that relates with the audience you’re looking to reach!

Take this InVision shirt for example. Their product is for designers, and about designers. All while looking really good, and incorporating their name into it.”

That InVision shirt is a good example because it’s eye-catching, but it also takes a second to read. It’s a fun challenge! It doesn’t put you off immediately– instead, it draws you in and makes you wonder what’s going on with the shirt.

So, basically, forget low-quality shirts with just a boring company logo, because they’re headed right for the bottom of the closet or the donation drive.

Catching the Eye With a Trade Show T-Shirt

So, now that you know what to avoid, what should you actually put on your t-shirts? After all, trade show t-shirts are all over the place, and it would be impossible to design the best t-shirt ever. Let’s be honest– we’re all marketers, designers, and creative thinkers, but none of us have that kind of time.

It reminds me of this old joke about outrunning a bear:

Steve and Mark are camping when a bear suddenly comes out and growls. Steve starts putting on his tennis shoes.

Mark says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!”

Steve says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear—I just have to outrun you!”

Basically, you just have to outdo the boring shirts other agencies are peddling at your next trade show.

That’s because when people go to trade shows, they’re not trying to find the perfect t-shirt. They’re not even just looking for one t-shirt. They can fit more than one into their suitcases.

HubSpot put it nicely in this post:

“… I would argue you can never have too many t-shirts, either. (Get back to me around spring cleaning, though.) If you’re giving away t-shirts with cool designs or sayings (as in, not just a t-shirt with your company name or logo on it), then chances are, a lot of people will pick one up — even if they’ve never heard of your brand before. Who knows, they might even pick one up for their coworker, too, who would just love a shirt like that. It’s something people will wear in many different contexts outside of the event itself.”

So, there you have it. If it’s good enough that someone picks up two t-shirts (one for someone back home), then you’re doing your job. You’re outrunning the weaker t-shirts and the bear is but a distant memory.

So, how do you get there?

We asked Will Harris about his thoughts on the matter:

“Honestly, at every trade show, you always see some really wacky stuff like shirts with all-over neon prints, or people in crazy bodysuits running around, but to be honest, the apparel I tend to remember are the more timeless garments that look really sharp. It might seem pretty simple, but I really love this shirt that we printed for Creative South a couple of years ago. They have some really talented designers on their team, so their trade show apparel is always top-notch.”

The shirt in the link above demonstrates that a logo can look good all on its own, but it has to dominate the t-shirt. It has to catch the eye and make you think of other logo t-shirts you’ve actually appreciated.

We’ve likely all owned a Coca-Cola or 7-Up shirt at some point, and that’s because we love looking at the logo just as much as we like what the logo represents.

We asked Will for a few more examples:

“I’ve also always been partial to this design for East End Market, a local neighborhood market. Shirts with a lot of colors tend to come off as busy, and can feel like a lot to look at — that’s not the case here though. I really love how this shirt pops without looking obnoxious. We used a particular print style called sim process on this shirt, which is great for printing photo-realistic images.”

So, photorealism is always an option, as well. Maybe you have a great photo of your office dog or cat to go along with your logo, or maybe your CEO took a great photograph that perfectly represents your brand.

As I mentioned earlier, t-shirts are a blank canvas. If you can dream it, you can achieve it.

But you also have to get the branding right.


trade-show-brandingAs an agency person, you already know all about branding, so I’ll keep this brief.

Here are some great tips from Nimok:

  • No matter how great your t-shirt or other item looks, you’ll miss out on exposure if it can’t immediately be linked with your brand.
  • Think of giveaway items that tie-in to your brand and industry. This will help attendees associate your brand with your industry and give you additional brand prominence within your market.
  • If you have a themed booth, or even campaign, for your next set of trade shows, link your t-shirt to that campaign. For example, if we had a large software update, I’d link our t-shirts and other items to that software update so people associated big advancements in reputation management technology with RevenueJump.

And, a few more parting branding tips from Will:

“If you wanted to give your brand a couple of extra touch points on t-shirts too, you could always add custom tag-printing or hem tags to your shirt. It’s a really simple way to get your brand name on the shirt again, and people are always very impressed by those extra little touches.

No One Agrees On Everything

I also need to note that no one agrees on what the perfect trade show giveaway item is. You see conflicting advice all over the web, so you need to process it all and figure out what makes sense for your agency.

As with anything else in marketing, there’s no magic bullet.

For example, here’s Matt Mickiewicz of 99designs, speaking to Inc:

“Having attended my fair share of conferences and collecting hundreds of items, I can tell you that not a single giveaway has made an impact on whom I buy from or do business with. T-shirts, pens, wristbands, brochures, tote bags, USB sticks, mousepads, notebooks, candy or packs of gum are all overdone. If anything, give me a nice iPhone or iPad cover.”

So, Matt’s not keen on t-shirts, but he seems to love iPhone cases or covers. But not everyone agrees.

Let’s go back to Rachel Sprung at Hubspot:

“There are some items that each person only ever needs one of, and they probably have it already. A great example of this is a phone case.

I’ve seen a number of phone cases given away at conference lately, and yet I’ve seen no attendees put them on their phones. Why? Because they already have a phone case — one they’ve carefully chosen and then paid for.

While something like a phone case that doubles as a cardholder is cool in theory, chances are your attendees won’t switch out their own for one with your company’s name and logo on it. When you’re thinking unique, also think about something people might actually use.”

If any one of us knew the surefire key to success when it comes to trade show t-shirts or other swag, then we’d all know it.

So, when you’re investing in those t-shirts, keep that in mind. You can focus group your t-shirts with different people in your life, and that may help indicate quality. In fact, I recommend running your ideas by someone in your life who doesn’t owe you any kind words, or is an otherwise blunt person– such as an in-law, a niece or nephew, or even someone at a rival marketing firm (just don’t let them steal your design!)

Above everything else, target your trade show swag to the audience of the trade show. If you’re going to only be interacting with c-suite executives, it may be wise to save the t-shirts for next time. But, if you’ll be dealing with people in blue collar fields, or other young marketers, t-shirts are probably a good bet.

Thinking Beyond the T-Shirt

Before you decide t-shirts are the only game in town, there’s another inexpensive, portable apparel item you might consider– socks.

I’ve had excellent success with socks in the past, and I just had some made for this season’s shows. Come find me at RevenueJump’s next trade show appearance, and I have a pair with your name on them.

Cathy Houston at GoDelta seems to agree with that sentiment:

“I don’t think I’ve ever recommended an apparel item as a trade show giveaway, but hey – there’s a first time for everything! I’m recommending logo socks as a trade show giveaway because they are cheap for an apparel item, yet highly effective for making impressions.

Customers want apparel items they’ll actually wear, and socks are a gift that universally pleases everyone. Just select up to three colors, and your socks will be knit from scratch with a unique design. Use this socks as trade show giveaways, but don’t forget to order some pairs for your employees as well!”

I’m not saying to swear off t-shirts to concentrate on socks– far from it. I’m saying you should do what makes sense for you, your budget, your agency, and your brand. Don’t do it because everyone else is doing it. Instead, think like the expert marketer you are and think beyond the simple logo t-shirt.

And, if your booth and overall presentation can stand out, too, people will associate awesome memories with your t-shirt or socks.

When we asked Will Harris what his biggest trade show success story was, this was his answer:

“Man, I’d have to say it was while we were at Adobe MAX this past year. We brought about 2,300 blank shirts, and 4 manual screen-presses so that attendees could line up and print their own t-shirt by hand. It was our first time at the conference, and we were just one of tons of exhibitors in the showroom, so it was hard to know for sure how much we’d stand out. But once word got out around the conference about what we were doing, we had our line wrapping around the booth, with an average wait time of about an hour to print a t-shirt.

Even after we ran out of shirts, we had people coming up to us with the under-shirt or tank top they had on, asking if they could print on that for them. So we did! People really wanted to print their own shirt, and this meant that they spent an hour or more surrounding our booth, interacting with us, and learning more about what we do. It was great.”

T-shirts alone won’t make you a trade show success. A great giveaway t-shirt will make you stand out, and earn you some brand exposure (as well as an in with potential clients), but you have to think of your swag as just one aspect over your overall trade show presentation.

If you can produce a great piece of clothing that aligns with a great presentation, then you’ll find your trade show t-shirt being worn to the gym and the other guy’s t-shirt crumpled up in a forgotten corner of a closet.

Thanks for reading!


About Brodie Tyler

Brodie Tyler is an experienced speaker, published author, innovative entrepreneur, and digital marketing expert since 2000. When he's not working, he's probably hanging out with his wife and four kids.

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