Like many B2B professionals, Anna Currin, global program manager at Okta for Good, has a “swag drawer.” And her drawer is filled with an assortment of typical branded products you’d expect to bring home from a user conference or industry event. You know, the kind of stuff that’s easy to toss into a drawer.
You may have a swag drawer, too. Or a swag cabinet. Or a swag tote crumpled in a heap in the back of a closet, collecting dust.
It makes you think: Do we really need this stuff, anyway?
Rethinking Conference Swag
Ahead of the company’s annual customer conference, Anna and the broader team at Okta, a San Francisco-based identity management platform provider, found themselves asking some enlightened questions after seeing a viral tweet that poked at the traditional conference swag approach. The tweet, which read, “Picture it: A tech conference where they give out 7,000 winter jackets to the homeless instead of 7,000 backpacks to people that already have 7,000 conference backpacks,” struck a nerve inside Okta.
“That tweet went viral inside Okta,” Anna shares. “People were talking about it, saying it was such a good idea – and it was something we could actually do. We’re a young, nimble company, and we can try new ideas like this.”
It was at that point that members of the Okta corporate marketing team at the helm of conference planning approached Anna to discuss the possibility of flipping the script on swag. The proposition: what if, instead of giving backpacks to conference attendees, they gave backpacks to kids in the community?
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Asking the Big Questions
“What if…?” That is the question starter that has opened the door to so many amazing ideas and initiatives. When Okta’s marketing team approached conference swag with “what if?” thinking, this became the starting point for something special.
“Our marketing team was generous and eager to give, and they wanted our donation to be meaningful for students in the community,” says Anna. “So, I went to the school district where I have existing relationships, and I asked, ‘What do you need?’”
This seemingly simple question is actually a big deal. Whether it’s corporate philanthropy or B2B marketing and sales, it can be all too easy to assume you know what someone wants and then miss the mark. Stopping to ask the question “What do you need?” positions you to give in a way that is meaningful and impactful.
Okta wasn’t going to miss the mark. In Anna’s case, when she asked her school district connections what they needed, she discovered that it wasn’t backpacks after all.
Swapping ‘Stuff We All Get’ for ‘Stuff We’re Able to Give’
“What we discovered was that the schools and teachers in our community have wish lists of items they want and need,” says Anna. “We found that instead of backpacks, there was a wide variety of needs, from notebooks to computers to washing machines. From talking directly with the schools, we figured out the right donations that would have the greatest impact.”
By asking the right questions and being open to trying new things, Anna and the Okta team were able to change the real meaning of swag from “stuff we all get” to “stuff we’re able to give.”
“The swag donation program is my favorite thing I’ve ever done in my career,” says Anna. “When you work at the intersection of technology and the nonprofit sector, it can sometimes be hard to keep the balance across what each side wants and needs. But the swag donation program was a scenario that was fulfilling on all sides.”
Changing Expectations for Good
When the Okta conference kicked off, attendees received an infographic and got to watch a moving video that explained why there were no branded water bottles or t-shirts this year.
How did they feel about learning conference swag dollars went to making a donation to area schools? “They loved it,” Anna says. “When conference attendees saw in the infographic how many wish-list items we were able to provide to schools, and when they watched our video where teachers shared in their own words how much the donation meant to their classrooms, they felt like they were a part of something helping kids in a real way.”
At Alyce, we believe in eliminating the swag drawer, and it’s clear we’re not alone. With organizations like Okta and Okta for Good that are committed to a socially conscious mission, and professionals like Anna and her colleagues who are committed to turning new ideas into social impact, it feels like the real meaning of swag is on its way to changing for good.
Thank you to Anna Currin for chatting with us and for being a source of inspiration for Alyce’s new Swagback program, where Boston-area companies can upcycle their unwanted branded products to the community while putting customers and fans in charge of their own swag experience.
How could you rethink swag to make an impact?