Promotional items are everywhere.

Chances are you have one now in your briefcase or purse. Perhaps even giving them out to plug your own business.

Still, the key to hitting the mark with any promo item is knowing your audience and finding the one that not only delivers value but also provides ongoing brand recognition, say experts.

"The best promotional products fit the culture of the company giving them away, represent the brand and are practical and useful," explains Timothy M. Andrews, of the Advertising Specialty Institute in Trevose, Pa.

When done right, they can be powerful marketing tools because they're actually one form of advertising people generally like receiving, experts say.

"Even something like a pen, when you give it to somebody and it's presented well, the response is likely to be a thank you," says David Blaise, co-author of The Power of Promotional Products (Blaise Drake & Co; $19.95) and a principal in Blaise Drake & Co., a business growth/development consultancy in Wyommising, Pa.

"If you buy a cheap pen and it runs out of ink, people throw it in the trash, and that's the last mental image of your logo," he says.

When choosing an item, keep in mind the following, recommends Blaise:

1. Who is your customer?

2. Where is your customer most likely to be when most in need of your products or services?

3. How can you advertise to that customer/prospect when their need is most desperate?

For instance, if you were selling tractor parts, it's likely a farmer would most need your services out in their field if a problem arose. So it may make sense to do a key ring or windshield sticker with your logo and contact info on it, he says.

If the item is useful enough, they'll hang onto it, says Mark Calisi, owner of Eagle Auto Mall in Riverhead.

Speaking from experience, Calisi found that to be the case with the logo clipboards he sent to prospects in the automotive supply chain.

"They're always using them," Calisi says. "When a product becomes part of their environment, you're passing through your message subliminally."

Six months ago, when Eagle launched its janitorial supplies division, it sent mugs, clipboards and pens to customers/prospects that said, "I Heart Eagle Janitorial." When they followed up with phone calls, "we had a 60 percent better reception as opposed to cold conversions because there was familiarity there," says Calisi.

Proforma Executive Business Services, a St. James graphic communications firm that also sells promotional products, has found similar success. They routinely mail out a custom-printed box to prospects that has a branded squeezable stress reliever figure inside called "Proforma Pete." If they don't get a response from that initial mailing, they follow up with a "Vacation Pete" and a "Superman Pete" stress reliever.

"We went on appointments and people would say, it's the Proforma Pete guys," says Andrew Janosick, vice president of sales. "It helps warm up the prospect."

It can also help trigger a response. He's had customers give out a promotional card and sticker with a Web address and code on it. If the prospect fills out a survey on the site, they can enter the code for a free music download, he says.

"There's fun ways to do things," notes Andrews of ASI, recalling a company that as a recruitment tool handed out iPods to various game developers with their names and a code engraved on it that led them to a personalized website touting the benefits of working for the company.

"Try to pick something that's funny, interesting, practical and definitely memorable," he suggests.


Top 5 promo items

The most commonly owned promotional products among U.S. respondents are shirts (21.1 percent), bags (9.7 percent), writing instruments (6.4 percent), caps/headwear (5.8 percent) and desk/office/business accessories (5.4 percent).


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