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Giveaways at SXSW more than simple swag

Wednesday - 3/12/2014, 10:01am  ET

SXSW floor (SXSW)

Steve Winter, special to wtop.com

AUSTIN, Texas -- If you come away from South by Southwest learning nothing else, understand this -- swag is king.

When it comes to wearables, you can likely outfit the entire state of Delaware with all the different t-shirts you can collect.

Play your cards right and you can walk away with portable charging devices, earbuds, umbrellas, books, cellphone covers and flash drives.

If you leave the Austin Convention Center hungry, or in need of an alcoholic beverage, free of charge, you have only yourself to blame.

Unlike dozens of other trade shows where the premium items are often limited to a few pens, keychains, lip balm and branded Post-It notes, at SXSW you can fill an entire suitcase with all the plunder you can carry.

However, these product giveaways are not frivolous acts of branding generosity.

In many cases they formulate an important and highly effective form of marketing.

"Were giving away trips to Michigan because it's a beautiful state and we want to show it off," said Leslie Hourning, senior vice president of marketing and public relations for Pure Michigan, the economic development corporation for the state.

"We've got trips to Ann Arbor, Traverse City, Detroit, Grand Rapids, plus we've got Shinola handmade watches - and we're very proud of this brand which has created a lot of buzz for Detroit.

To facilitate these giveaways, the Pure Michigan booth created a pinball machine- inspired batting cage and handed contestants a modified cricket paddle to propel a floating beachball hovering above a circular fan into the cage to strike targets worth varying point totals.

Wordpress, a software product that allows you to create personalized blogs and websites, requires users to complete a survey before walking away with a Texas/Wordpress branded t-shirt.

PayPal requires visitors to their social media lounge to download their app before they can purchase branded booty for a penny.

Online car insurance agency Esurance tempted visitors with open access to their off-site lounge (along with the opportunity to win a wii, an Apple iPhone or an X- Box) only after sharing their personal contact information.

No doubt, marketing pitches are soon to follow.

Companies engage in such practices for one simple reason: It works.

On the fourth floor of the Convention Center, Dave Peck, explained why PayPal sponsored a Social Media Lounge as its way to connect at SXSW.

"It's more about immersion with the brand these days than it is about standing downstairs in a booth handing out a flyer," says Peck. "We try to have many touch points and that's what we can do through product giveaways."

Furthermore, by encouraging consumers to use their platform as intended, the purchaser starts building customer behavior patterns, which in turn produces knowledgeable consumers.

So clearly, the practice of the onsite giveaway is a win-win for all involved.

Companies educate their customer base while collecting valuable data, either in the form of lead generation or market research, while the consumer walks away with the spoils.

And it's all free, right?

It is -- unless you have to pay for another piece of checked baggage to transport your bounty back home.

See the swag experience at SXSW:

Video by Kenny Fried

Editors Note: Longtime trade show attendees Steve Winter and Kenny Fried are contributing reports from SXSW. In their day jobs, they are public relations professionals with Sage Communications. During SXSW they will not be reporting on any of their clients' products or those of direct competitors.

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