We’ve all been to events - fundraisers, golf tournaments, barbecues, conventions, galas, dinners, dances - and left with a bag of promotional merchandise. From golf balls to lanyards, promotional products pile up fast. Promo products have been called the oldest form of advertising. American businesses spend upwards of $20 billion giving away stuff with logos, evidence that promotional products really work. Humans are hardwired to react and respond if they are given something. Take the compelling example of Disabled Veterans of America, when the group sends a mailing for contributions they get an 18% response rate, but when the same letter is sent with personalized address labels, a 35% response rate is observed. For the minimal cost of these address labels, the group has nearly doubled their return on investment. Marketers have taken advantage of this rule, that people, across cultures, tend to give back when they are given to, for years.

There’s a right and a wrong way to use promo products. If you have no strategy behind your promotional merchandise, it will most likely end up in the garbage. Before you start branding water bottles and fridge magnets, consider these tips:

Give items that are relevant, and are present where business is occurring. Giving a bookmark to the CEO of an electronic tablet company probably won’t get you anywhere. Moreover, many common promotional products are used once and disposed of. If you’re going after executives, provide them with a product that can be of actual use on their desktop or in their office. If the product is around, it’s in their line of view or even in use when decisions are made.

Personalize the products, rather than just printing your own logo. Combining a potential client’s logo and your own logo can immediately give them a sense of partnership and opportunities for the future. They are probably less likely to toss them out upon arrival if they have their own logo front and centre.

Make an impact with your product to differentiate your company. There are so many companies giving away free merchandise, it is essential that your branded product not end up in the pile with your competition. Underscoring your marketing message should be your priority. A computer software client that makes antivirus software once sent Information Technology types boxes of condoms with the message “protect yourself, protect your computers”. The IT employees were predominantly male. While the strategy is edgy, and fairly out of the box, it got a reaction.

Try environmentally friendly products instead of one-use-only merchandise. Eco-friendly products are everywhere, and the trend doesn’t seem to be waning any time soon. Offering environmentally friendly promotional products show that you’re current, and care about green practices. Many companies will place value on the fact that the product adheres to green standards, and are more likely to actually use it over another competitor’s promotional product. For example, reusable enviro-bags are becoming the new standard for grocery shopping - and everyone grocery shops. An enviro-bag will get used, and more importantly, seen.

While notepads and pens are cheap and simple promotional products, they have a short shelf life and they probably won’t give you a return on investment. Incorporating a little strategy into promotional products can increase brand recognition, drive leads and eventually increase profits.