Should we offer swag?

Swag, a common member benefit, brings a sense of fun, delight, and belonging to your membership program and can reinforce your brand identity if it’s consistent with your branding, but it’s not a must. MPP research found that swag is not a primary reason people become members of a news organization

To be a true value add, swag needs to make members feel a stronger sense of community and it needs to be cost effective and feasible to provide.

Here are some questions to ask as you consider whether to offer swag and what to offer:

  • Will people wear or use this item? 
  • If you plan to mail the swag, how will you get addresses?
  • How much will it cost to produce/purchase?
  • How will you distribute it? 
  • How much staff time will swag fulfillment require, or how much will it cost to outsource this? 
  • Is your swag equally appealing to differently abled individuals and people with different body types? 

Swag fulfillment – in other words, the packaging and delivery of swag – consistently flummoxes newsrooms who underestimate the costs in staff time associated with it. But assessing how much swag costs you beyond the actual production costs is simple. The Narwhal in Canada decided to hire a person to manage swag fulfillment after estimating how much staff time it would take and multiplying that by the hourly compensation of the staff members who would do it. It was immediately clear that it was more cost effective to bring someone on to do it on an hourly basis and free up the staff’s time to do things only they could do. 

When WTF Just Happened Today first launched a membership program, founder Matt Kiser offered different swag for each membership tier. Fulfilling all the orders was eating into the time he needed to actually produce the newsletter. So he stopped offering swag… and the members didn’t really mind.

“After speaking with members, it became clear that while physical rewards are nice, the real reward is supporting the continued production of WTF Just Happened Today,” he wrote on his membership FAQ.

If you can’t deliver on your membership value proposition and offer swag, MPP recommends setting swag aside until you can do both.

The other thing to consider with swag fulfillment is how you’ll get the information you need, such as size (if the swag is a clothing item) and address (if you plan to mail it). You want to ask for as little information as possible before someone completes the membership sign-up process (Jump to “Launching our membership program” for more on that ) so Membership Puzzle Project does not recommend asking for a mailing address at the signup point. Many organizations retrieve members’ mailing addresses in one of the first onboarding emails instead. 

If you are unsure if your members are excited about receiving swag, asking for information at a later stage is one way to gauge enthusiasm. How many people take this small step to ensure they receive it?

Sometimes the opportunity to get limited-time swag motivates people to become members during a particular campaign. It can bring you members you might not have otherwise earned, but you’ll have to work hard to keep them – DCist found that offering coveted Washington, D.C., themed socks brought them many new members who canceled a couple months later. 

Sometimes swag is more powerful as its own independent revenue source, rather than as an incentive for membership. Minnesota Public Radio’s #MPRraccoon campaign happened a few years ago, but it remains one of the best examples of harnessing a community moment to make swag that could bring in additional revenue: it took advantage of a moment, harnessed a sense of community, and tapped into a capability that MPR already had.