Why I was Embarrassed to be Seen with Swag at BlogHer

The first conference I ever attended was the BlogHer Reach Out tour in Washington, DC.  It was a one day event, and I had a chance to meet some amazing women like Erin Kotecki Vest, Cecily Kellogg, and Joanne Bamberger.  I learned so much that day including how to hack my HTML thanks to my new hero Liz Henry and the reasons why I should move from Blogger to WordPress.  I also learned the word swag. When I got off the elevator to check in at registration, I was confused by the gauntlet of tables with everything from children’s workbooks to feminine products.  Why were these people here?  And why were they giving things to me?  I went home with a handful of Hooked on Phonics books for the kids and the LeapFrog Tag, which I won by putting my homemade business card into a jar on the way into a session.  I still had no idea how this strange symbiotic relationship worked.

Four months later I spoke at the first Blissdom, and here I received a Lands End tote bag at registration.  A tote bag!?!?  Apparently this swag thing was just going to keep getting better.  I loved this blogging world!

Despite the crash course in stuff that I had received at these first two blogging events, nothing could prepare me for the deluge of product that awaited me at the BlogHer Conference in the summer of 2009, just weeks after my one year bloggiversary.  Women warned me to take a second, empty suitcase.  I scoffed.  What kind of crazy are we talking about here?!  In the end I left a stack of items for the maid service at the hotel along with a note and a tip, all arranged in a little plastic shrine to capitalism.  I also jammed things into my suitcase, seriously considering leaving behind shoes that weren’t that comfortable anyway to make room for a cool new bottle of shampoo.  I also spent $60 shipping yet more totes (they were waterproof!!), a yoga mat, and some organic peanut butter among other things that would not fit into my bags for the trip home.

I waited anxiously in anticipation of that box arriving so I could show my husband my treasures, these amazing free things that were given to me JUST BECAUSE I BLOGGED!  But when the box arrived I found myself feeling a little disappointed.  The waterproof tote with my name on it was still super cool.  And that yoga mat was killer.  The peanut butter? Okay, sure.  Everything else?  Well…

And that was when I stopped worrying about swag.  Like the kid who steals his dad’s cigarettes and smokes the whole pack until he ends up vomiting all night, I had had my fill. The truth is that there are brands that I connected with at that event that I still work with today.  I would have worked with them without the free product.  There are also products that I use today because I tried them that weekend, but that’s the point.  I tried the product. They gave me a sample of the actual product. Had the Suave Professionals line given me a really great flat iron, I probably would not be using their shampoo today, which I am.  Had Evolution of Smooth not given me a bunch of egg shaped lip balms, I never would have become addicted to them, which I very much am.  And the e.l.f. make-up that Ted Rubin handed to me in the lobby?  I still buy it at Target all the time, and it’s in every gift to my college-aged cousin.  I walked away thinking that some brands had really gotten it right, while others were honestly left behind.

There was something else that came out of that BlogHer Conference that was far more sinister.  For the first time mom bloggers specifically were labeled as swag whores in a huge way, fingers pointing at them as shallow and vicious, willing to do anything for free stuff. I was so deeply in the situation that I did not realize what was happening around me until stories like that one shared by George G. Smith, Jr., formerly of Crocs, began to surface in blog posts.  The following year in New York City, the swag frenzy was taken to a new level as bloggers publicly, shamelessly begged for invites to private parties, not to meet with celebrities or even future clients, but to have a shot at a great swag bag.  There were rumors of iPads, diamond jewelry, cameras.  I certainly enjoyed giving my kids their Build-a-Bear teddies from the MomSelect suite and I love my necklace from Getting Gorgeous, but for me, it was much more fun to be above the melee of product hoarding.  I still lugged items home in my tote bags (yes, more tote bags!), but I also unloaded bags of items in the swag exchange from Skullcandy headphones to Mr. Potato Head.

I honestly went to BlogHer 2011 in San Diego thinking that as a community we had moved beyond the swag hagging.  I was obviously wrong. Yes, I saw the incessant begging to get into the events with the best swag for the sake of getting one more bag of stuff, but those people will always be those people.  They’re the same ones who argue for thirty minutes if a machine at Chuck-E-Cheese eats their token and get upset when the goody bag their kid got at someone else’s party didn’t cost as much as what they doled out the month before.  But there was more than that. At one event my business card was pulled to receive three nail polishes.  This was my first win since that LeapFrog Tag reader in 2008, so I was kind of excited!  And hey, nail polish!  That’s easy to pack!  When I went to claim my prize before leaving, the vendor apologized.  It seems that “the winner” had already come to claim her three nail polishes. I pointed out that my picture is on the inside of my business card, proving that I really am me, and the sponsor and I chuckled about vultures and how they swoop in the second they see their chance…  That night at the Sparklecorn party I began to hear more, how women were attending official BlogHer events with their private party swag in tow only to have it swiped from their tables while they were dancing or grabbing a drink at the bar.

All of these stories along with the images of women, professional women, weighed down with four, five bags of swag as they left the Expo Hall made me hesitate any time I picked up an item, even the official swag bag from the conference. When I finally made it through the Expo Hall in the final hour that it was open, I hesitantly took the cute Sesame Street characters for my niece and then, feeling like one item per kid was plenty, opted instead to hang out with the Hillshire Farms PR team while eating tortellini and chatted with the 3M team about the laptop Post-Its, which yes, made the trip home with me.  I think I may have snagged a sponge that I wanted to try, but I also said no thank you to the Glad team even though their product was awesome.  I left the free product on the table opting instead to purchase it at the grocery store because I didn’t want to walk out of the Expo Hall with a bag full of Glad.  That’s bulky stuff.   I didn’t want to be mistaken for that blogger.

So there it is, the long saga of how I’ve come to a place where being seen with swag has literally become embarrassing.  I don’t see the state of swag changing any time soon, because the relationship between blogger and stuff must be mutually beneficial enough for it to be continuing in this wacky way. But for this blogger, I’m much happier traveling light with just enough free product to get me back in the door upon my return and enough to let me sufficiently geek out (Post-It notes that go on your LAPTOP!).  Any more and I may be mugged on the way to the airport…by other bloggers leaving the conference.

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  • My WORD were we on the same conference schedule! lol I start at DC, Blissdom and then whole swagness in Chicago!

    • Roni, I should have included you! You were one of the great panelists I saw at BlogHer Reach Out! I still remember going, dang, the people who blog about food have CRAZY traffic. And then DANG, she looks GREAT! Look at those before pictures! 🙂 You inspired me way back then, it just took a couple years for me to get out of my chair and move.

      • That’s ok, wasn’t looking for a plug, just can’t believe how similar our blogging paths have been. 🙂

        • Oh I know, I just still remember your panel. I remember one speaker saying she was the top google search result for some crazy recipe. So eye-opening…

  • My biggest swag-related moment of embarrassment at BlogHer this year was when my roommates and I decided to go to the Expo Hall sneak peek on Thursday evening and people cheered when the doors opened. It almost made me change my mind about going in.

    I enjoy swag as a perk of attending conferences, but I’d be perfectly happy without it. I do bring an extra duffel bag in my suitcase, but I’m selective about what I take home. On the other hand, I’m always keeping an eye out for stuff that my husband, niece and nephew, sister or friends might want. ‘Cause hey, free stuff!

    • Jane, maybe the bloggers thought that they were heading into one of those crazy wedding dress sales? Or it was Black Friday? Or New Kids on the Block tickets had finally gone on sale?

      Yeah, you better believe my daughter got a stuffed cat from Build-A-Bear, my nephew got Chuck & Truck on DVD, my niece is going to love those little Sesame Street characters, and my son has been racing a little truck around ever since I got home from San Diego, but I once again left a shrine for the maid service thanks to the private party swag that made its way back to the room with me, and I was able to fit my favorite goody – a bracelet from Ann Taylor (score!) – in my carry-on tote bag. That’s right, the tote bag from Blissdom ’09. 🙂

      A little of anything is fun and feeling like we’ve won a prize just for writing about being moms is kind of cool, but when it elevates to the level of crazy that I’ve seen, it just becomes, well, embarrassing!

  • Wow. We’ve been at this a long time, haven’t we? I’m just glad we still get time to see each other, and catch up. As for the swag, I came back with very little, especially since I don’t write about or review products (unless these sponsors want to work on getting some of the toy swag to kids in need — then we can totally talk. Just don’t try to talk away the Philosophy Red Velvet Cake (flavored) Lip Gloss I scored. 😉

    • I missed lip gloss? Drat. Of course then I’d have to cheat on my EOS eggs…

  • I felt the exact same way and this was my first BlogHer. I consider myself someone with integrity, and an upstanding member of the human race.

    I would have felt ashamed of myself if I looked like some of the bloggers who were hauling 100 pounds of swag on each arm. They looked silly, unprofessional, and uncomfortable.

    I almost felt sorry for them. I was judging them (perhaps I shouldn’t, but I was) and would think less of their blogs and their reviews.

    I’m excited that I met so many amazing people at BlogHer. I am also happy that I only walked away with a few choice items and no need to ship things home or pay overrage fees.

    BlogHer is what you make of it. I guess some folks got their swag fill, while others learned and networked.

    I really enjoyed your Professional Blogging seminar! More bloggers should understand they are a brand. Being seen as a swag whore is bad business.

    Kim Rosas

    • Kim, thank you for the vote of confidence, and yes, uncomfortable is a great description! My feet were killing me and I was just carrying my tote with my mini computer in it!

  • I’m not one for “stuff,” just ask Hubby during one of my seasonal household purges. I want to go to some of these conferences so bad, but to meet other bloggers and learn. I don’t need a bag so heavy it pulls my trick shoulder out of socket. It falls out enough on it’s own, thanks.

  • I, too, came home from BlogHer with very little. What struck me as ironic was that all of us women — so many of us moms — go to great lengths to protect the environment, only to undo our goodness in one swagalicious weekend. I shudder to think how many things will end up in a landfill… or already have!

  • I’ve not made it to BlogHer yet and I have read a lot of the swag whore stories over the years. It is just sad that people are so attached to stuff. I have brought swag home from the conferences I have attended but I have also turned a lot down, or traded it with a roommate. I don’t need to bring things home that don’t fit my family or my blog. I have teenagers-i don’t need or want a lot of the kiddie swag that is offered. Unfortunately some people just don’t get it. Oh, I saw the laptop post it notes at the store the other day…I was geeking too!

  • from what I hear, if anyone needs post-its for her laptop, it’s you.

    I hear you. After PAYING $85 to ship 2 boxes from NYC to PHL after my first blogher, getting home to realize that most of what was SO super-important at the time was junk, I was a lot less interested in breaking my back over swag. I’d much rather the face time and relationship building.

    But the tempur-pedic pillow? that was a huge help on the plane home.

    • Pillows in general are lovely things, aren’t they? 🙂

  • The best swag I got was the iPad I won. 😉 I wouldn’t have won it if I hadn’t taken the bag the brand handed me before they talked to me. Sometimes brands think the swag is only a means to engage and draw people in, but mostly it just gets in the way in my opinion. That said I still brought home a lot of swag. Mostly in the form of business cards and stuffed animals.

    • You sound like me – business cards and stuffed animals it is!

  • I am usually so busy at conferences (and late to arrive at parties! lol) that I don’t actually pay attention to picking up swag. I end up with some that is handed to me in swag bags, but I don’t seem to end up with nearly the amounts that some people do.

    Do I think swag is bad? Not at all! I think it is critical for companies to get there products out there. I definitely have become committed to products and companies from testing out their products.

    The only thing that bothers me about swag is all of the attention it gets. There is SO much great going on at conferences that I don’t want the great to be overshadowed by people talking about if so-and-so is hoarding swag.

    Honestly, I don’t care if they are. That is their issue. I am busy having a life changing, business building experience. I am having incredible conversations and meeting fantastic people. I have no time, interest or energy in worrying about who is carrying home what.

    • The main point I got in your comment was this, “I think it is critical for companies to get their products out there.” Exactly. I am always shocked when there’s an item in one of those bags that’s handed to me that I cannot connect to a brand or a company and especially not a product once I take a look at it. It makes me wonder if both companies and bloggers and going about this swag thing in the wrong way…

      The other thing worth noting is that even while you’re whirlwinding through the conference, others are not. And they do notice. Including potential clients, like the lady who was blown away by the fact that someone impersonated me for what? Three nail polishes? Definitely worth reflecting on the behavior of the community to which we belong especially when that behavior affects the perception of the entire community.

  • Thank you so much for posting this. Swag has always made me uncomfortable, especially the grabbing and fighting and the behavior that goes on around it.

  • The best swag I ever got was Friendship.


    The Catch-22 is the fact that brands are paying to be there, and SWAG generally equals either trial or buzz – and that’s what they’re trying to get. At the end of the day, the vultures do come out. Just like the “sweepers” that enter brand sweepstakes over and over again under different emails. The people that make fake coupons. At the end of the day, when there is money (or value) involved – people get crazy.

    • JoeyfromSC

      SO true!! I had the chance to be on a new Lifetime show about sweepers..I did apply and they loved my video..I was relieved when I didn’t make the final cut lol..Some of my friends did..The producers loved the fact that I gift most of what I win, since many sweepers get a bad rap for hoarding, & being greedy..I see cheating daily on twitter just for a chance to win! It’s so sad!

      • JOEY! I was wondering the other night how long it would be before I saw someone I know on there! As much as you’re relieved, I’d have loved to have seen you on the air!

        • JoeyfromSC

          aww thanks Shannan! (I am just now realizing you spell your name with an a instead of an o lol) 2 of my twitter friends were on that one the other night on TLC..The lifetime one is coming soon and my other twitter friend is on it lol(She actually recommended me for the show!)..I am more of a behind the camera kinda guy, but it would’ve been cool..I was a nervous wreck in the preliminaries haha

          • Joey, we MUST know who is going to be on the shows from the parties. We’ve been dying waiting for that to happen!!

          • JoeyfromSC

            [email protected] from the TLC show, my twitter friend @contestqueen was featured(Carolyn from Canada) and my newest friend on twitter, Ron, but I have misplaced his twitter handle lol

            The lifetime show, for which I was being considered, features @sweepsmama (My friend Shannon who recommended me) and I think @sweetiessweeps is going to be on it also:) Will be fun to watch! I may release my preliminary video to the masses soon ha

          • JoeyfromSC

            and when I 1st found out, I had to keep it hush hush for MONTHS! SO hard to do, but I did not leak it lol

          • That is just way too cool! I’m now going to be hooked on watching them all, just so I can see some of the Twitter peeps!

    • Absolutely. Or even implied value. I think that many of us get home and figure out that we didn’t REALLY need to take that $3 gadget. I really do love, however, when brands have the actual product on hand to try. I loved your philosophy that you wanted people wearing the product, loving it authentically from use. The best value for the brand likely comes when the blogger has a chance to connect with the product, even if it’s only at the booth. I’m shocked by how often that doesn’t happen and the swag is really just swag.

  • I can understand why it’s tempting to feel the way you do, to feel embarrassed to be seen with swag, but that’s giving a ridiculous kind of power to the people who are acting so silly. You yourself have seen firsthand how getting an actual sample of something – not a press release, not a demonstration – can lead to being an enthusiastic promoter of the product. It’s happened to me more times than I can count, where something I never would’ve taken a chance on or even noticed in the store becomes one of my favorite things because someone put it in my hand. My answer is to ignore what the other people say, ignore their looks, and keep doing what you know is right for you and your business.

    • Amy, you make a great point! But I still don’t want to ever walk out of there with five bags 😉

      • Well that’s just being practical – I don’t think “swag shoulder” is covered by insurance! 🙂

        • LOL! Exactly. It’s already going to be hard enough to convince insurance to pay for all of our carpal tunnel surgeries.

  • JoeyfromSC

    Very interesting post Amy!! I was happy to see that some bloggers were sharing their swag on their blogs via giveaways lol

    I hope to attend one day, and I must confess, I will probably be one of “those people” lol:)

  • I have heard the stories about wallets missing and people spending lots of money to ship their swag home. I have not yet been to anything blog related, but when I do, I hope to meet many wonderful women and men, find some companies that I love already, and hear some wonderful blogger discussions!

    Great post for those of us who haven’t been!!

    • Brenda, when you do make it to a conference – especially BlogHer, you will most definitely accomplish all of those things and more. I, too, have heard about the missing wallets and I heard there was a stomach bug. But my most memorable moments involved time with friends – new and old – getting to see clients face to face, and just having FUN. I hope you make it to a blog event soon!

      • oh and the best swag of all? was finally getting to stand there looking at you:)

  • Amy, I won’t lie, I got a lot of great swag but most of it is products I’ve been dying to try. A lot of my swag was also given to other bloggers & a nice gift bag put together to share with my readers, so I was pretty happy with the swag thing:)

  • It’s soooo easy to get caught up in the pure greed. I appreciate voices like yours that inject reason into the insanity.

    I liked the way Disney handled it at the last SMMoms Celebration – it was tasteful and done in a way that discouraged excess.

  • When we went to BlogHer last year, we had heard about the swag and decided to only take things we thought we’d use (or things we could give as gifts). Even following this, we left with a lot of swag. (Granted, had we not followed this rule, we could have left with 10 times as much!)

    I agree with you. My favorite pieces of swag were the products that I got samples of that we could actually use. The Perplexus game, for example. We still have a lot of the BlogHer 2010 swag in a box in our closet. Some of it is waiting for birthday gifts in the coming years and some of it is stuff “we’ll use eventually.”

    I agree with Kelly that Disney’s swag seemed to lack the “gotta grab every piece and two of these” craze (while still giving very cool things). Of course, Disney had the benefit of being the only corporate identity there while, at BlogHer, many companies are competing for our attention.

    Even though there’s a lot of swag to be had, this doesn’t excuse the behavior of some people. Stealing swag or acting like the only purpose of going to a conference is how much stuff you can grab? That’s tacky, rude and possibly illegal too. (Makes me wonder if someone could set up a “swag sting” where they leave a “swag bag” on a table during a BlogHer party and secretly monitor who takes it.)

  • I travelled from Sydney to attend Blogher in San Diego this year and the only thing I bought back was a sweet pink vibrator, which I am pleased to report works a charm x

    • I would think that would be worthwhile for the long flight back alone…

  • I loved reading this. When people ask me for advice about BlogHer, I tell them 2 things. 1: What you get out of the convention is largely what you WANT to get out of it. Want it to be about swag? Want it to be about partying? Want it to be about learning & connecting? Want it to be about drama? Your attitude will be largely what directs your experience.

    And 2: Think about how you’ll deal with swag NOW. Because otherwise, it’s REALLY easy to get sucked into the grabby grabbiness of it all.

    I’m not in PR, but I can imagine the impression I’d get of a blogger while chatting with them if they’re already weighed down by other brands when they get to my table. 🙁

    • Eryn, yes! I wonder, too, what potential clients think as a blogger walks up to them literally huffing and puffing from the swag they’ve collected.

  • […] the record show that I have no problem writing about personal topics, saying things that make people angry, or even biting the hand that feeds me if there’s something that I feel needs to be said. I […]

  • Wow. Just wow. I have never been to a blogging conference and was totally unaware of what goes on with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thanks for sharing Amy.

  • […] there bloggers who do all of the sketchy things I just mentioned above?  Of course there are, and they are embarrassing.  But there are also still plenty of us driving 12 year old hand me down mini-vans and eating […]

  • i know this is an old post, but i’m reading as i prepare for my first blogher.

    and no, i won’t be bringing an extra suitcase.