Event merchandise at a festival

6 Steps to Creating Event Merchandise That Your Attendees Actually Want

In this guest post, Bonfire CMO Kevin Penney draws on his experience in the world of custom apparel to lay out proven strategies for effective event merchandising.

Whatever sort of events you host, maximizing revenue is likely one of your biggest objectives. Annual B2B events, B2C events, nonprofit fundraisers, and community-organized events must strike the perfect balance of increasing engagement while staying on budget.

Event merchandising, while a classic technique for boosting brand engagement at events, can easily waver between being a net plus or a liability for the final balance of your event. That is, it can be difficult to gauge whether or not your event merch will help to increase the event’s total revenue or lose you money in the long run.

But the meetings and events industry is constantly changing, and maximizing merch ROI can be tricky, particularly for more inexperienced teams or smaller events. The Global Meetings and Events Forecast reports that the average B2B event, for instance, operates on this budget breakdown:

  • 43% marketing and promotion
  • 32% speakers and talent
  • 29% printed materials
  • 18% venues

When your budget’s already tight, it can be difficult to know exactly where merchandise fits in — especially if you’re already creating event SWAG. When developed, designed, and produced in smarter ways, however, merchandise serves as a powerful marketing and promotional tool, engagement booster, and supplemental source of revenue — all in one.

In this post, we’ll cover some best practices that apply to practically any type of custom event merchandise, so you can adapt them to the specifics of your event.

1. Focus on (and update!) the design of your event merchandise.

Many organizations and businesses rely heavily on merchandise designs that worked beautifully at past events to engage audiences and boost sales. Unless you’re working with an ultra-recognizable brand or iconic vintage design, though, updating your look is the best strategy.

For events, we recommend creating an event-specific t-shirt design that highlights the title and year, visually conveys its purpose, and doesn’t rely too heavily on text. There are a few t-shirt design trends we’ve been following over the past year that are particularly popular:

  • Eye-catching minimalist linework, especially containing mystical or folksy elements
  • Simple typography with geometric outlines like boxes and circles
  • Bold, iconographic designs, typically making a statement
  • Hand-drawn styles for simple illustrations and phrases

event merchandise with an outdoor design

Starting with t-shirt templates that incorporate these trends can make it even easier for fundraisers and event planners to have the peace of mind that their merch will be appealing.

Of course, the recognizability and prominence of your branded visual elements are still a priority for event merchandise design. Offering something new can boost sales, but make sure your shirts still serve their marketing and awareness-raising purposes, too.

2. Offer freedom of choice.

This best practice relates closely to the first. Just as you should periodically refresh your merch designs to reflect changing trends (and event calendars), you should make sure your attendees get to choose between those multiple designs.

For most types of events, two or three different designs should do the trick, and you should also offer two or three colors of each design whenever possible. Each design will likely focus on one of these typical subjects:

  • The specific event or its theme
  • Your overarching campaign or mission
  • Your organization’s or company’s brand
  • Industry trends or current events

Simply offering an additional choice to guests can significantly boost sales. Merchandise is often an impulse purchase; if a guest feels motivated to buy a shirt but isn’t interested in the one design you offer, you’ve lost that sale. For smaller events, an event-specific design and a simpler branded offering can effectively cover your bases.

Find venues, manage events and win clients with  free event planning tools.

3. Make sure your merch booth is in the right place.

Now we’re talking about the physical layout of your event. Of course, this will vary greatly depending on the nature of your event and the venue you’ve chosen, but the main point remains constant: Think carefully about how the placement of your merch booth might impact sales.

Thoughtful layouts are important for any type of organized event, but merch placement is particularly crucial when planning fundraising events.

That’s because galas, auctions, street fairs, and similar events offer a range of free and more structured elements; the event follows a schedule, but guests are encouraged to mingle and wander among the auction displays, for instance. A poorly-placed merchandise booth can not only result in fewer sales, but it can also lead to decreased bids and guest satisfaction.

Think about it:

  • A prominent but unpopular booth creates an empty vacuum, and thus leaves a poor impression of the event.
  • A merch booth that’s prominent and too popular will clog the space with lines of customers.
  • A booth that’s in an unintuitive, out-of-the-way or hidden location probably won’t generate sales.

Look for free event planning software that can help you visualize and diagram the space you’re working with. Understanding and anticipating traffic flows will help you ensure that your merch booths are easy to find but also unobtrusive.

a 3D diagram of an event created using Social Tables event diagramming software

A 3D diagram of an event created using Social Tables event diagramming software.

4. Create early access perks.

For any ticketed event, your strategies for offering and promoting tickets should always contribute to your overarching financial and engagement goals. Tiered ticketing options are a classic example. By offering different packages of tickets and bonuses for different prices, you can boost revenue and generate more engagement in particular elements of your event.

Use early access perks to directly increase engagement with your merchandise. The main idea is to offer free or discounted merchandise to early registrants. This will boost sales by increasing visibility and engagement with your t-shirts. This is a straightforward and reliable strategy because everyone loves a deal!

Depending on the nature of your event, there are a number of ways you might market with early access to perks. Get creative to determine the best way to offer early access merch to your guests.

Early access can be a viable strategy for non-ticketed events, too! For a large-scale public fundraising event, for instance, you can launch a related t-shirt crowdfunding campaign in the month leading up to it, and then send each donor their shirt prior to the big day.



5. Ask for User-Generated Content

Here’s another way to ensure your event merchandising efforts hit the mark; get your guests involved in creating and promoting it.

User-generated content, or UGC, has become a staple of large-scale event promotion because it generates new digital material for marketing purposes and boosts engagement. Why? Because guests directly contribute their images, videos, and other submissions. Many companies and organizations have already recognized the power of featuring customer- and constituent-generated content on their Facebook and Instagram pages.

For example, Bonfire uses the unique hashtag #Wearbonfire to collect photos from our community to post to Twitter or on our Instagram feed. Every time someone uses the hashtag, it’s essentially a testimonial — and people are more likely to believe a peer than they are a promoter.

There are two particularly effective UGC strategies for boosting attendee engagement with merch:

  • Ask for t-shirt design submissions ahead of your event, then either choose a winner or allow members to vote on their favorite to then print and offer for sale.
  • Ask guests to submit photos of themselves wearing your branded shirts using an event-specific hashtag, then feature their photos on a scrolling display in a prominent space at the venue.

Both of these strategies can significantly boost awareness and interest in your event merchandise, leading to increased sales. Focus on your design contest or photo hashtag in your promotional messaging for maximum impact.

6. Offer intuitive buying options.

This merchandising best practice goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. To offer early-access merch, you’ll almost certainly rely on an online t-shirt platform or your own eCommerce capabilities.

Make sure to offer plenty of intuitive ways to purchase merch throughout the entirety of your event, from registration to the event itself. For example, you might:

  • Create bundled ticketing packages that include merch discounts or vouchers.
  • Offer easy merch add-on options during the online registration process.
  • Set up a simple online store for registrants to order or reserve their merchandise.
  • Set up and staff a traditional merchandise booth throughout the event.

If you’re already familiar with the world of eCommerce, consider the common problem of shopping cart abandonment. According to a guide from Swoop, cart abandonment derives mainly from the fact that unintuitive processes cause customers to pause and rethink their purchases.

Remember, event attendees very often buy merchandise like t-shirts on impulse! Creating more purchase options and ensuring each method is fully streamlined will ultimately make it easier for them to decide to purchase your merch.

Wrapping Up

Event merchandising can feel like a gamble at times. For more inexperienced teams or smaller events, it can be difficult to know what kind of attendee engagement to expect. However, high-quality merchandise boosts your revenue and guest satisfaction if done right and shouldn’t be overlooked. Elevate the impact of your event merchandise by following these simple tips and best practices.

Published December 5, 2018

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Bonfire CMO Kevin Peneny

Kevin Penney is the CMO and co-founder of Bonfire, a company that’s reinventing how people create, sell and purchase custom apparel. He loves solving difficult problems, working with the Bonfire Product team, and hockey. He has over 10 years experience in digital media, design, and technology.