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How to engage your online community with swag

Posted by Mary Green on

Building an online community is fun, but it can also be daunting. Even with a lot of members there may be very little activity. As a community manager it’s your job to activate your community and engage them with a variety of activities.

One way to do this is by using swag, or free gifts. Done correctly and at the right times, swag campaigns can improve overall engagement, increase excitement about your community, get members to use word-of-mouth marketing, and grow your community to astounding numbers.

Why swag works for engaging your community

Swag can be a cost-effective way to reward community members. It works because it gives members the opportunity to show off their excitement for the community in real life.

This often encourages others to investigate the site or brand name to see why this person is so enamored. Assuming everything else in the community is optimized this should lead to more activity, sign ups and engagement.

But rewards like this must be used correctly, or the campaign could backfire turning into a massive waste of money with few new users gained.

Successfully giving swag to your community

Start by identifying a specific goal for your campaign.

Do you want more members (hopefully active members), more traffic, more engagement from current members, or more referrals from current members?

All of these things might sound nice, but choose 1 or 2 goals that would impact the community most and focus on making these things happen.

Choose a specific action you want members to take.

What do you want members to do? Put stickers up around San Francisco, Boston or NYC? Wear your t-shirts to big events? Share an image on social media with an explanation of why they love being active in the community?

Be creative here, since that will get more members active in the campaign. Think big, you’ll want maximum exposure.

Decide who gets the items.

You can thank new members for joining, reward the most active members by sending them an unexpected gift, give to members who used to be active but have recently slowed down, or you could choose to entice influencers who could share about your community.

Run the campaign.

If you are going to incorporate social media, giveaways or sweepstakes, now is the time to run it. If you are not using these things or you want to give away the items first, skip this step.

Ship items to recipients.

Packaging is important here, you can go the extra mile to engage your recipients without spending a lot. Include a handwritten note, give them instructions or ask them to share on social media (“We’d love it if you could take a pic and share it on Twitter”) but don’t demand anything.

Common swag & stories of success

It’s a lot easier to imagine your campaign once you’ve heard about others who have been successful. We’ve put together a list of items and some stories of success to help jumpstart your creativity.

T-shirts- Not especially low cost when you are scaling, but an exciting prize for the most dedicated members of your community. Be sure to pick a quality, soft t-shirt to get people wearing it for you.

Examples: Inbound.org used t-shirts to reward their most loyal evangelist members. For a short time, anyone who referred 5 members to the site got a free t-shirt, anywhere in the world.

Sujan Patel wrote about giving away t-shirts in his popular ebook on growth. By giving away t-shirts (that people wore) the company received a lot of word of mouth and were able to growth hack their way to more users.

Stickers- One of the most economical ways to give physical products to your members, because they can be quite inexpensive and cheap to ship. A lot of companies will include die cut stickers as additional gifts in shipping because they are fun and low cost.

Be smart and give your users a list of ideas of where to use your stickers , too.

Some ideas:

  • Laptop covers
  • Back of their tablets
  • On street posts
  • Posted to bulletin boards
  • On skateboards or helmets
  • Vehicles
  • Moleskine notebooks

Example: Reddit is one of the most popular communities sites online and they’ve used stickers quite extensively to help their brand grow.

A quick search on Google will display several subreddits that have used stickers to connect with their communities as well. Here are a few from that search:

sticker subreddits

These stickers have been used all around towns to get people exposed to new brands, on packages for the same reason, in sticker exchanges, on game consoles, bikes, briefcases, laptop bags and more.

Notebooks - Business people are constantly taking notes and writing things down, and a moleskine notebook is the perfect place to do it. That’s why we love branded notebooks.

Examples: Here is a moleskine notebook Elevator Agency got from HubSpot. As an added bonus for HubSpot, the agency posted it on Twitter (exposure).

Moleskine notebook from HubSpot

When I first joined Coschedule in 2014 as a paid member I received a notebook and a couple of stickers in the mail.

A month later when I unexpectedly stopped blogging I continued as a paying member for a few more months because I loved the notebook so much and wanted to support them.

Another option for getting your swag out to members when you don’t have a budget for it, is to set up a store they can shop. There are several companies that act as fulfillment centers and you can put your brand on a lot of items without having to worry about ordering, stocking and shipping.

Swag can get expensive & here’s how to fix it

One of the main drawbacks of using swag is the cost. Sending 1000 t-shirts can cost $15,000 or more with shipping. Stickers can cost $500-$1000 to send to the same number of members with shipping and often get more exposure.

A few ways you can lower swag expenses:

Only send swag to the most active members- many people will want free gifts so you’ll need to be selective. Sending gifts to members who are never active can be a huge waste of resources.

Choose items within your budget- T-shirts and gift cards are for communities with big budgets. Notebooks and stickers are great for communities of all budgets. What really matters is the presentation of the gifts.

Avoid low quality gifts- Totes seem like a great gift, but are often low quality, unless you are willing to foot a higher cost. Skip items that are low quality, like stiff t-shirts, because you’ll end up replacing them, or the member won’t use them as you’d hoped.

Don’t offer items your audience won’t want- If you’ve recently wrote a book, you might be inclined to offer the book as a gift (this helps increase your sales and promotes the book to your members), but you still end up footing the bill. If they want your book, they will buy it, swag should be a gift just for them.


Offering your community gifts or swag is a great way to encourage more engagement, word-of-mouth and new members.

By following the tips we’ve included here, you should be able to stay within your campaign budgets, while getting the most return on investment.

If you have a community you'd like to reward with swag, why not start with stickers? Get $10 off your first order when you sign up by clicking the button below.

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