The best (and worst) conference swag

Conferences are about connection—and free stuff.
Conferences are about connection—and free stuff.
Image: Reuters/Christian Mang
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In the rush of a busy conference or trade show, a branded freebie may be the only thing that lures a potential client to a booth long enough for a conversation, or triggers a memory of that discussion after the event has wrapped.

But what makes a good piece of swag? Which items are destined to keep a brand’s logo on desks and in briefcases for the long haul, and which go straight into the trash?

Attempting to rank the best giveaways is a fraught and contentious process. Just as there’s no universal consensus on the greatest novel, film, or album ever created, there is no branded doodad universally desired by all professionals, as a brief survey of Quartz’s staff confirms. One woman’s eyeglass-cleaning cloth (“very very useful”) is another’s garbage; the branded passport cover admired by one man gets a thumbs-down emoji from another.

The feedback of frequent conference-goers does, however, reveal a few key principles of what makes a memorable giveaway. A good freebie is useful, reusable, and—crucially—high-quality. A durable metal water bottle will stay in shoulder bags for years to come; a cheap mildew-gathering plastic one may not make it out of the conference center, and will just make everyone involved feel bad about the waste. For if there is any giveaway truth universal acknowledged, it is that bad swag is far worse than no swag at all.


Items earning a thumbs-down from multiple conference goers in an unscientific survey of Quartz employees:

Bad headphones: “We already got bad headphones on the plane coming here, we don’t need another set”

Chocolate: “It’s often not very good”


Appreciated branded tech accessories:

iPhone camera lenses

USB keyrings: “Always useful”

Popsocket phone grips

“This slidey sticker thing for laptop camera”

Branded iPhone battery pack

Octopus charging cable

“Tech taco” cord organizer

Bluetooth headphones

Mini portable Bluetooth speakers

USB-C/Lighting-to-headphone jack: “Tiny and appreciated by most, I think”


Perennial crowdpleasers and memorable novelties:

Subscriptions to services: “I got in a conference bag a free thing for Clear, the service that lets you skip a bunch of lines at the airport”



Luggage tags

Reusable mug: “I’m drinking out of my [company]-branded Yeti mug right now”

Quality pencils

Chip clips: “And I appreciate those brands for keeping my snacks fresh”

Packing cubes

Branded keychain bottle opener

A leather lunch bag

A personal care kit

Fruit-diffusing water bottle: “They filled it and gave me my choice of fruit”

A good bag: “Sturdy duffle bags or even just a long lasting and aesthetically pleasing tote can stick with people”

Clothing that isn’t a scratchy conference T-shirt: “I got a women’s base layer shirt once that I wear constantly”