Perks & Swag: From Teslas to PJs & Everything In-Between

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*drops mic*

— end of blog post —

I mean, sometimes that’s really all you have to say and people come runnin’. Depending on why you’re giving out the swag, they may not be the right people, but you’ll get some excited folks nevertheless.

I have a love/hate relationship with swag. On one hand, it can bring joy and fun to so many people. On the other hand, it’s stuff, and who really needs more stuff?

I like to think about swag as part of a larger category — perks. Perks have more to them than just being about the stuff, and you can achieve a great balance of perks in your community that include swag, but that aren’t all about the swag. To read more about my thoughts on how perks fit into overall community participation incentivization, check out this blog post.

The Teslas

If you asked my favorite story related to swag (you didn’t, but you’re a captive audience, so I’m going to tell you anyway), while there are many good ones, there’s one that will forever stick in my mind as not only one of my greatest swag stories, but also one of my favorite moments as a community manager. Back in 2014, I was running the Atlassian User Group program, and at that time, it was still relatively small. One of the things I implemented that year was creating a community for these leaders (who were in turn, building their own local communities). I wanted to make sure they were connected to each other so they could support each other as leaders. That’s a topic for its own blog post for another time. Anywhoodle, to get them connected, I rolled out a HipChat account (RIP, HipChat) just for the leaders, and everyone started talking to each other regularly. Over the next few months, it turned into a vibrant community.

I made the “mistake” one day of asking everyone for their feedback about what kind of swag they would be most excited about. (Note: This is not actually a mistake. You need to do this). One person chimed in saying they wanted a Tesla. Everyone else piled on, and they never let it go. For months on end, they kept bringing up these Teslas. I pretended to be annoyed, but I secretly thought it was hilarious. It was an inside joke that everyone was in on, and we loved every moment of it.

Every year (well, starting just two years before) we hosted a dinner for all of the Atlassian User Group Leaders to come together at Atlassian’s annual conference, Atlassian Summit. We went to a nice steakhouse, talked about the program roadmap, gave out fun awards, and even had one of Atlassian’s founders/co-CEOs, Scott Farquhar, join us for the event, which was truly a special treat. At the end of the presentation, I took a pause and I said, “One more thing. I believe I promised you some special swag tonight…” At this moment, everyone just knew. Everyone all over the room was screaming, “Teslas!” and laughing hysterically. I shouted out, “Check under your chairs!” and ‘lo and behold, taped under every single chair was a Hot Wheels Tesla. Our CEO, who had no idea what was going on, couldn’t help but be absolutely delighted with this scene surrounding him. Here we were, all grown adults, who as of a year ago had been complete strangers, hootin’ and hollerin’ over a toy car. That night, it wasn’t about the “stuff,” but rather about this amazing community that we had built together.

That Tesla still sits on my desk to this day, and it is my most prized piece of swag.

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Use Swag and Perks to Bring Your Community In

One more swag anecdote before we get off to the races on the details. That same Atlassian Summit, I put together “event kits” for the User Group Leaders. I talk about these event kits in more detail below — what they’re used for and what can be included in them. There’s the standard-type stuff that can be added to these kits, but I want to touch on something else that can be very impactful. In the kits I created for the Atlassian User Group Leaders, I also included items that helped tie in our company culture. Atlassian’s culture and values are very strong, and I knew how important it was to make sure our leaders felt both bought into those values and a part of that culture. They were, afterall, our ambassadors, spreading the Atlassian culture and values to their own communities around the world.

Long ago, and I’m not sure this is still the case, every new hire at Atlassian got a NERF gun. We included those in their kits. Every new hire also got a book about Atlassian’s history, culture, and values. We included those in their kits. Every new hire got a branded water bottle. We included those in their kits. Most importantly was the letter included with the kit. The letter welcomed them to the event, explained the stories behind all of the items included in their kit, walked them through our values as a company, and let them know how much we appreciated the role they played in helping to bring those values and the Atlassian culture to their communities. More than just being a kit of swag, I wanted them to feel the true weight of the contributions they had made and be inspired to continue the amazing work they were doing. It helped them feel connected to a greater cause and a larger community.

Building Your Swag Plan

I hope those couple anecdotes have inspired you to think about giveaways a little differently. There’s more to swag and perks than just picking something that looks cool and moving on.

Just like anything else you’re committing time and budget to, you need to go in with a plan.

Here’s all of the questions I ask myself when I build out a swag/perks plan:

  1. What’s the purpose of these perks?
  • Some examples: Incentivizing behavior, a direct reward for behavior, celebrating a milestone (which ultimately incentivizes behaviors), surprise and delight
  • You might have a mix of several reasons. Also, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, have at least some budget set aside for surprise and delight (more on that below)

2. What’s my budget for perks?

  • How do I want to break that budget down between programs/initiatives/campaigns/audiences?
  • How much of my budget do I need to set aside for shipping costs? (This one can get out of control quickly. I generally estimate around 30% of the total swag cost for shipping, but that can vary greatly depending on where you are shipping to and from).
  • Prioritize the above reasons/purposes for the perks and make sure your budget reflects that prioritization (and the size of the program). Resources are almost always going to be limited, so make sure you are thinking about the larger strategy, not only for your program(s), but for your company/organization as a whole.

3. Who’s my audience for each of these perks? What kind of perks can I offer that will help incentivize the behaviors I’m looking for and push the program forward in the right way?

  • Are these perks scalable? As these programs grow over the next 1–5 years, what do these perks look like? Is this something that’s sustainable in the long-term, and if not, what does changing them look like?
  • You may offer different perks in the beginning than you do a few years down the line. That’s just the nature of a program evolving and the needs of the program changing. However, try to identify perks that you know will scale and that you won’t have to make big, sweeping changes to in the next few years.

4. What new, creative ideas can we come up with? What’s been done before and worked? What’s been done before and hasn’t worked?

  • You don’t have to do this part alone. In fact, it’s better if you don’t! Ask for feedback from your community. Ask other community managers what they’ve done before. Host a brainstorming session with your team where you throw out even the craziest of ideas.
  • The idea of an inflatable lounger came up during a brainstorming session with a Community Manager on my team at Salesforce, Sofia Rodriguez Mata. We sat for an unreasonable amount of time trying to imagine people using these on the lawn at our annual conference, Dreamforce, whacking each other with them and hopping around trying to inflate them in the wind. Needless to say, we didn’t get them, but we still laugh hysterically to this day when we see one.

Beep, Beep. There Goes the Money Truck.

YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HAVE A HUGE BUDGET TO BE ABLE TO OFFER VALUABLE PERKS TO YOUR COMMUNITY. Let me say it again for those in the back — YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DUMP A TRUCKLOAD OF MONEY ON TOP OF YOUR PROGRAMS TO OFFER AMAZING PERKS TO YOUR COMMUNITY. In fact, I recommend you DON’T do that. A little excerpt from my post last week about incentivizing community members to contribute:

I’ve definitely dealt with the mishegas of swinging too far in one direction and dealing with entitlement issues down the line. Focus on things that add value and that are sustainable/scalable. If you want to give a benefit to these community members, whether it be something like swag, free training, 1:1 time with product managers, you have to keep growth in mind. If your program doubles over the next two years, is this sustainable? It might be, but it also might not, and you don’t want to go overboard in the beginning only to end up constantly stripping things away later. Sure, programs evolve, and things will likely have to change at some point in time, but you can build a scalable strategy in the beginning that helps limit how frequently you have to make those changes.

There’s perks for every budget and other factors to consider when you’re thinking about making these decisions. You don’t always have to buy the most expensive, flashy swag for it to be effective. Sometimes, the most expensive, flashy swag can have the opposite effect of what you’re trying to do.*

Think about your community. What’s important to them? What kind of perks could make their day to day lives easier? What about sustainability? If this is something your company and community value, how can you make sure you’re being thoughtful about this as well?

A perk can even be something you might not generally consider a perk. Don’t discount the value of something like a handwritten note. When I worked at Atlassian, at the end of the year, I hand wrote a note to each of the leaders to thank them for the work they had done over the past year. I wrote them on my way to work every day for three weeks. I got more comments from the leaders about those handwritten notes than I did about the $200 branded- messenger bags we gave them that same night.

When I announced I was leaving Atlassian, I got this touching email from one of the AUG Leaders:

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He never once mentioned the “stuff,” but he did mention those handwritten notes.

To Scale or Not to Scale, I Thought That Wasn’t The Question

“But wait, Holly, you said to do things that are scalable! Handwriting notes is not scalable! Now you’re just trying to confuse me!” You are correct about that — well, not the trying to confuse you part. I might be confusing you, but it’s definitely not on purpose. Everything you do won’t always be scalable. That’s OK, and I would even say, necessary. That’s part of that extra pocket of surprise and delight perks. Just because you can’t do something for everyone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it for anyone. Use your best judgement. Empower your community team to use their best judgement, too.

There’s a lot more to think about when it comes to scaling programs — including the perks. I could talk about just that for hours — in fact — I have a future blog post lined up about tips to help you scale your community programs.

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire?

I told you before that I’ve seen and done it all when it comes to perks. Well, that was a lie. Ok, let’s not call it a lie. That’s a little harsh. Let’s call it an exaggeration. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen and done A LOT, but when it comes to perks, the list is never ending, and I see other brilliant teams coming up with amazing, fresh, new ideas all of the time. The following is a brain dump of some of the things I have seen and done:

Perks around Product Education

  • Product training
  • Product certifications/certification courses
  • Training materials
  • Free tickets to conferences
  • 1:1 time with a Product Manager
  • Access to top tier support (if you have different tiers of support)
  • Free product (to dig into, train on, build on, learn with, test with)
  • Access to special events

Perks around Professional Development

  • Workshops (Resume Writing, Public Speaking, Interviewing, Storytelling, Writing)
  • Speaking Opportunities
  • Networking Opportunities
  • Social Media Shout Outs/Promotion

Swaggy Perks (the stuff)

  • Wearables that show off their top contributor status/logo- pins, bags, shirts, jackets, hats, badges/patches
  • Tools that help them with community contributions- microphones for podcasting, webcams for virtual meetings, handheld projectors
  • Fun branded items (the stuff you usually think of when you think of swag)- stickers, good quality shirts (in Men’s and Women’s sizes), hoodies, pens, office decor, reusable water bottles, external batteries, branded bags, packing cubes, multi-country adapters, blue light glasses, stress balls, notepads, branded hot sauce (this was a hit), webcam covers (inexpensive and popular), cord organizers, reusable bags, phone soap, cookies/other sweet treats, notebooks, lip balm, hand sanitizer, coffee mug warmers, aprons, slippers, socks, and more. This list goes on forever.
  • Get creative! You can brand almost anything these days. One time, we had a camping themed event and did branded smores and branded travel grills. The gifts were well-received, but it was a logistical nightmare to get these to the event and for our participants to get them home. Definitely keep that type of thing in mind when you’re looking at items like this!
  • Also, a donation in their name to a charity of their choice can be very special and valuable to them

Event-related items

  • Bag drops in hotel rooms before events that include “kits” for the event (these are always appreciated!): bandaids, EmergenC, Advil, hand sanitizer, snacks, mints, lozenges, safety pin, floss sticks, candy, water, stain wipes, kleenex, sunscreen, lint roller, fun giveaways, and a welcome note (photo below).
  • Gear related to the location- going somewhere cold, give away scarves and beanies.
  • Gear/swag related to the event/activity- doing a cooking class, give away aprons. Going to hear an author speak, give away copies of their book.

Events as a perk

  • Special events
  • Product “summits”
  • Appreciation events/parties
  • Happy Hours
  • Exclusive sessions at conferences**

Milestone celebrations to recognize (send a card and/or small gift)

  • Birthdays
  • Anniversaries
  • Milestones as community leaders/contributors (plaques, certificates, pins)
  • Holidays (even digital holiday cards)
  • Awards

Other “surprise and delight” and Community support

  • I mentioned having a “reserve” for surprise and delight. This could be for a lot of things. You might have someone (anyone!) in the community that randomly does something awesome. You can’t perfectly plan for these things, so having that reserve ready to recognize those folks when they do something special is very helpful. You might also consider having some small perks for internal folks’ participation as well. We’ll dig deeper into internal incentivization another blog post.
  • Unfortunately, you will also have times where someone in your community has something happen where you will want to provide support. A death in the family, losing a job, an illness — these things will always happen. That’s part of life, and your community members and leaders are all individuals with families, friends, jobs, and their lives outside of the community. Make sure that you’re thinking about and have a plan on how you want to support members of your community during tough times like these mentioned. I’ll be writing a future blog post to share some of my experiences on this specifically as well.

Size Matters.

When someone on my team would come to me with a swag idea that required sizing, we’d have “the chat.” Anyone who has worked on a team of mine before is familiar with “the chat.”

Me: “Are you sure? Can you commit the time to this both before and after you give these away? Are you going to collect sizes or do a best guess? If you’re doing a best guess, what percent extra are you going to order of every size? If you’re going to collect sizes, what does that process look like? What does the process look like if something doesn’t fit someone? Will you be able to accommodate everyone’s sizes? How will these be distributed?”

Geez, now that I write it all out it sounds like more of an interrogation than a chat! To anyone I’ve pummeled with these questions, sorry y’all, but I had to.

It sounds like I have a personal vendetta against swag that requires sizing — I really don’t. In fact, I think it is some of the best swag I have ever given away. I am very proud of a pajamas giveaway I once did (photo and story shared below). The reality is that sometimes, the best giveaways are going to take the most work.

When you create swag that is dependent on sizing, you are going to have a lot more legwork in the beginning and sometimes also on the back end to get the correct sizes/ switch out sizes that just don’t work. You have to be committed to doing this right or you’re going to run into some issues.

  • If you are doing personalized swag, you’ll obviously want to get sizes in advance. Don’t guess. You may have collected sizes previously, which can work in some cases, but sizes do change, and different brands size differently, so for personalized items, it’s probably worth another ask.
  • If the swag is a higher price point, I would also highly recommend getting sizes in advance to avoid extra ordering.
  • Do as much research as you can beforehand with the brand’s specific measurements.
  • Give your community members ample time to measure and respond with their measurements.
  • Don’t forget about country conversions if you run a global community. Also, um, “pants” are called “trousers” in the UK. Good one to remember.
  • Make sure you have extended sizing options if needed. The last thing you want to do is exclude someone because of sizing needs.
  • Think about your distribution plan. If you’re going to give these away at an event, think about the best way to do that with your whole array of sizes. Also, if people pre-ordered sizes, keep lists handy of the sizes they ordered. They won’t remember. I promise.

There is no question of whether it’s worth going out of your way to make sure everyone is included. If you are not willing to do all of this above, pick another type of swag.

Pics Or It Didn’t Happen

There’s a million more perks I’ve shared in my time as a community professional — I would never be able to name or remember them all. I also always regret not remembering to take pictures of everything! Don’t be me — remember to document everything! Here’s some pictures I do have:

You may notice some that look similar. I definitely repurposed some of my favorite ideas a few times!

Event Kits

Atlassian 2014 on the left and Salesforce 2015 on the right. I decided to use little lunch boxes to hold everything instead of paper boxes to limit the amount of waste and packaging. Stuffed to the brim!

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Valentines Day Conversation Hearts

This is a fun one I did when I was at Atlassian for our User Group Leaders and then again at Salesforce for our Salesforce MVPs. I wrote fun sayings for the hearts that were related to each of the companies and a little poem on the back. I even got a shoutout from Atlassian’s CEO!

The conversation hearts for Atlassian User Group Leaders:

The conversation hearts for Salesforce MVPs:

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If you know me at all (or if you’ve read my Twitter bio), you know I love a good pun. Once I got the idea for MVPJs in my head, there was no stopping that train. I worked with one of the community managers on my team, Mallory Ranahan, to develop the design for these beauties. At first, the designs that we were getting back from our vendor were all over the place — covered in the Salesforce characters, wacky styles, etc. Ultimately, we decided the best thing to do was pick a very nice set of PJs and keep it simple with just the Salesforce MVP logo on the front. They were a hit!

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If you’re curious, we ended up sourcing the MVPJs from JCrew. We had a few needs for extended sizing, and we found almost an exact pair in the same color and in the sizes we needed from Nordstrom.

Atlassian User Group Leader Bags and Salesforce MVP Bags

This is a great example of swag that shows off status. People were always proud to wear these bags because they showed off the awesome titles they earned for their hard work in the community.

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Boombotix Speaker

These were also pretty popular. Years later, I still hear from people that these simple little speakers are still being used regularly.

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The Bungee Rockets From Hell

These were my horrible, horrible idea. At Atlassian Summit one year, we gave out these fingers rockets that people could launch across a room. They ended up in people’s food, faces, laptops — you name it. Everywhere you looked there was a bungee rocket flying over someone’s head. Some (but definitely not all) of our customers thought it was hilarious. I spent most of that event strategically hiding myself from our legal team. 🙈

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What have been some of your favorite perks that you’ve given away or received? What made those perks so appealing? Share in the comments below! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and comments!


* I once got a FIVE paragraph email from someone in one of my communities explaining why they hated the very expensive, branded bag we gifted them. I had never seen anything like it. A solid five paragraphs about how awful this bag was. I couldn’t believe it. I also had a top contributor publicly claiming that they shouldn’t have to wait in line at events because of their status. That was not a perk of the program. Entitlement is a real issue, and it’s something to always keep an eye out for. It reflects the program poorly, which is completely unfair to the rest of the incredible individuals in the program who are giving back for all of the right reasons.

** My favorite event at Salesforce was the annual User Group Leader Session at Dreamforce. It’s an event that I started in 2015 and has carried on every year since. It was a great benefit of being a part of the User Group Program as a leader. They appreciated the exclusive access they got to this event, and we got great feedback from the leaders about it every year. I’ll write another blog post just about that special event, how it came to be, and what it included!

Written by

Community Strategist. Currently: Head of Community at Venafi. Previously Salesforce & Atlassian. Challenge me to a pun-off. Twitter: @hollyfirestone

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