Swinging wildly at glitter


Marlena Compton speaking at DevRelCon San Francisco 2019

Marlena Compton

Marlena Compton is a software developer, artist, and conference organizer. In this session from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Marlena shows how design thinking can help to figure out how to use your company’s approach to swag as a tool in relationship building with your customers.


Well, hello, and thank you so much. And I want to thank Tamao and the entire team here. They’ve made this such a wonderful experience today. So today, we’re talking about swag. And don’t worry, we will get to this.

But first, I am Marlena Compton and I’ve been in software for a pretty long time. At this point, I own my own company and I organize conferences such as PearConf. If you’ve heard of PearConf or Let’s Sketch Tech. I’m doing Bay Bridge Ruby in Oakland in the fall and the CFP is still open.

But I also do design thinking workshops with developers. And I love design thinking because it helps connect empathy for your users to the value that you’re bringing to them to create these products and services and whatever that are just so meaningful.

And you’ll get to see some of this today. In fact, this is where we’re going to start. So I’m guessing some of you all recognize Sara here. Sara Soueidan. She’s CSS expert, gives these wonderful talks. She loves conferences and she goes to a lot of these.

And she let me use her tweet about this because I think this is kind of an example of one of our personas. You know, she likes to give talks, she loves picking up her badge. She takes it home, she collects them. And so, if we’re going to do design thinking, we would start out with our persona.

And so, for today, our persona is Sylvie, and she is somebody who’s kind of mid-career developer. She’s smart and she loves what she does. She has given some talks. She’s maybe not, you know, in developer relations, but every now and then, she’ll go to a conference and sometimes her company asks her to sit at the table. She doesn’t live in a tech hub, but she just loves keeping up with things.

Empathy mapping

So in design thinking, what we’ll do is we’ll take our persona and we’ll kind of divide it up and look at what our persona is doing, thinking, feeling, and saying.

And so, our persona today, you know, what she does, and she goes to talks, she checks out the vendor booths, she catches up with friends at conferences.

Also takes breaks to recharge because conferences, you know, the energy level can be overwhelming at times. She is excited to be there. Of course, over the conference, the energy kind of lags, and so, you know, eventually, she might take a break. But she’s having fun, you know, she’s talking to people, meeting people.

And so, why does she come to conferences? After organizing several conferences, I’ve kind of boiled it down and my suspicion is that this is not going to be much of a surprise.

She likes to learn new things and she’s kind of building her professional network. If she’s a consultant, then part of this is finding new business. And she’s also like, there’s a component in here of recovering from burnout. I know that I’ve certainly gone to conferences when I wanted to recover and kind of rediscover why it is that I love tech so much and I think this is a very important component.

So I think that most people have probably seen this, but I’ll just go over it quickly. So this was a booth. This just happened a couple of weeks ago. There’s nothing like preparing your talk and then it kind of like, the topic that you’re preparing goes viral in this particular way.

So this was a vendor who put out underwear as their swag, but what I want you all to see in this particular slide is that we actually have a little person down there. I don’t know if anybody noticed this about the slide, and I’m not sure if this person was aware that the photo was being taken, but maybe they are.

In our case, I’m going to say this is Chad. Chad’s getting the short end of the stick here. I’m going to say like, I’ve done this before. You talk to your employer, you say you want to go to a conference, and they’re like, “Sure, but we need you to sit at our booth for a couple of hours. You know, talk to people, help out.” “Sure. Fine.”

So that’s Chad’s story. And he’s also a little bit of our persona too, because there’s this kind of tradeoff in giving talks or being involved in this kind of a scene where sometimes you’ll be giving a talk. Sometimes you’ll just be attending. Sometimes you might be helping out at a booth.

What are your goals?

And so, for Chad, like I think most of us have some connection to this in here, why are we at the conference? Well, our goals are either hiring, we want to hire people, or we’re selling our product, or maybe both.

This is to get people attached to your brand. I don’t think that this is a surprise for anyone to see this, getting people attached to your brand. But in today’s world, we are so connected with each other that I think this has kind of turned into something else because now we see each other, you know, we connect and I think that it’s more about building a good, healthy relationship with our users, and customers, and with each other.

So let’s take it back to, Sylvie, our persona. So in design thinking, the next thing you’re going to do is you’re kind of going to look at the sort of the problem area and break it down into like what is she doing?

Scenario mapping

And we do this with a scenario map. So there’s a lot on this slide, but if you focus on the left of here and just think of this as a sequence. Sylvie arrives at the venue, she watches some talks, she meets some people, maybe she knows them from somewhere else, maybe not. And then she goes to check out the vendor booths.

So we have the sequence and then as we go through each of those, we want to talk about what Sylvie is doing, thinking, feeling, and saying at each step.

So we can see that she arrives at the venue, she’s picking up her lanyard. You know, like in Sara’s picture, she’s probably pretty excited at this point. Maybe she takes the swag bag, maybe she’s like me, I usually leave the swag bag.

She’s excited. Watches some talks, learns new things, meets some people. And at some point, she might feel her energy flagging a little bit. And so, she’s like, “Hey, I’ll go check out the vendor booths.”

And so, then she walks into the vendor hall and she sees men’s underwear. So this isn’t the cute like baggy boxers you can wear at home that have like cute little unicorns or donuts or something on them. No, this is plain, boring, every day, men’s underpants where the, so we talk about the relationship and feedback.

Here is some feedback. This is from Chloe Condon who let me use her tweet. So what she is saying is she just wants to run away from this booth. What is this? This is feedback for you about your swag or Chad for Chad about Chad’s swag because I know you all wouldn’t do this.

So this is what we call a pain point, right? And I want you to notice the thing all the way over here on the right, the silence because it’s really hard to talk about something like this.

An important moment for swag

You know, you’re in this environment where you’ve been so excited and you’re meeting new people and it’s hard to feel like you can say, you know, “WTF, what’s up with this?” And I want to thank Ann Coldwater for posting this because somebody needed to do it. This is pretty important moment for swag.

But to be sure, the company that put out this swag, you know, let’s, do this exercise for a minute. So how did this happen? Maybe the CEO had like ordered himself a bunch of this with the logo on it and this conference came up and they were caught like unprepared. And the CEO’s like, “Well, we have this. You know, we can just send this.”

And I think there’s a bit in here that it kind of is, if you switch out the underwear for something like, I don’t know, a stress ball or whatever, you know, something, we all know people don’t really want anymore, but it’s the stuff that we still have. You have to put something on the table so you put it out there, right?

And that’s when we tell ourselves there’s no such thing as bad press. I think that BP, Enron, and ValuJet could probably tell you otherwise. In BPs case, they had this gigantic oil spill in 2010. Guessing most folks remember it. You couldn’t buy a Gulf shrimp for a very long time. In the case of Enron, wow, what do they even do, oil and swindling? By the way, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, her father was a VP at Enron.

Bad press

The last one is the most interesting, ValuJet. So this happened quite a while ago. And ValuJet was a low-priced airline. They had a horrific crash. Everyone died. And it was because they weren’t, you know, it was kind of a quality issue. They weren’t paying attention to how they were changing out oxygen or something like that.

So what ValuJet had to do to keep going as a business, was change their name. Here is what’s interesting about that. You know, when you’re changing a name, maybe some of y’all have looked at changing a name.

There’s this wonderful book called, “Don’t Call it That.” The golden rule about picking a name is it has to be memorable. In ValuJet’s case, the name that they chose was deliberately forgettable because they didn’t want anyone to remember who they were because of the bad press.

So I would say that there is such a thing as bad press and this is when you’re, you know, somebody is telling you, “Well, hey, we have this, you can just put it out, put it out there. You know, it’s no big deal.”

This is kind of an argument that you can use to say, “Well, hey, wait a minute. This might not be serving the purpose you think it is.”

And while we’re on this topic of like how do you kind of position the argument for this if you’re talking about like, “Well, how do we get something new, something that people think is more valuable?”

There is another little pain point in here that is smaller. So notice that I mentioned that Sylvie leaves the swag bag. She doesn’t pick it up and take it. And the reason for this is because of the waste.

I think we were all aware of just how bad things are getting in terms of waste in the environment. And the really sad part of it is it’s not getting better for along time, if it is, which is kind of a downer. But if that’s the case, then this pressure of thinking about waste at conferences is not going to turn around. If anything, it’s going to intensify.

So I did the most scientific thing possible and put up a survey on Twitter and I honestly thought that it was going to be the water bottle or the tote bag, but it was the paper waste and a lot of those things that you get in swag bags.

Bad swag actively drives away your customers

But this kind of brings home the point that now that we’re in this age of being connected and having relationships and feedback with people, bad swag actively drives away your customers.

Remember our persona is running away from your table. That’s pretty bad. When somebody rocks up to your conference booth and they’re looking at your water bottles, maybe they’re thinking about like all of the plastic in the ocean.

Tote bags are like the worst of both worlds because, on the one hand, it used to be that nobody had these and so, we were like, “Oh, this is useful.” But now, we all have way too many of these.

This is a quote from a professional organizer telling people not to take any more tote bags at events and, but on the other hand, it’s like you’re giving them out as like a, “Well, this is earth-friendly.”

Creating friction

But it’s not if you’re, like, creating this friction of somebody having to decide between, you know, “Do I take more stuff into my house” versus, you know, “I don’t know, just leave it.”

Yes, we’re going to talk about t-shirts. Of course, we’re going to talk about t-shirts. And I know that I’m being videoed and I’m going to be real brave here and I’m going to tell you that I own exactly one conference t-shirt. I own one because it’s the only women’s 5X I have ever found at a conference.

So you know what happens? Okay, so even if I get to the point where it’s actually a t-shirt that looks good and I would wear it, which most of them are no way, it has to be flattering, not just that it fits on my body, like we have a whole bunch of cats up here who they are fitting, but that doesn’t mean it looks great.

And this isn’t even the only reason why somebody would turn down a t-shirt. You know, maybe somebody prefers to dress modestly and they don’t even wear t-shirts, then your swag is just kind of meaningless to them.

At the worst, I heard at one conference that they had ordered, you know, a good range of sizes, but all the men took the larger-sized women’s t-shirts for their wives, which that’s tough, you know?

Oh, yeah. And unisex, if you take a photo in this talk, take a photo of this, unisex is men’s. There is no such thing as unisex. This is just men’s. And it actually, like if somebody tells me, “Oh, it’s unisex, then that just makes me angrier because I’m like, “Well, no, it’s not.”

Swag is not about stuff

All of this is to say that swag is not about stuff. Swag is about your relationship to your customer.

So I’ve said a lot of what we don’t want. I will give you an example of something that’s pretty awesome. This is Atlassian at Grace Hopper in 2018. They took their swag budget and instead of buying the stuff, they said, “Okay. We are going to let people vote. We pick three of these wonderful charities that we partner with and we’re going to let people put a sticker on the one that they want us to donate to.”

And this is how they apportioned the budget for the swag. It’s pretty awesome. This isn’t the first instance of this I’ve heard either, but I know I would love to see more things like this.

And there are certainly some wonderful tech organizations out there such as Black Girls Code, Techtonica, hello, who could use our, you know, our extra dollars.

Swag is a sponsor’s relationship to its users

Swag is a sponsor’s relationship to its users. So here’s Chad. In this world of being connected and having relationships, if this is where you end up when you’re sitting at your booth, this is what happens.

I’m going to give this person the benefit of the doubt and say they’re probably pretty embarrassed, probably feeling pretty low, not to mention when this whole tweet thing blows up and goes viral, what do you think he’s going to do? He’s going to turn around and be like, “Oh, my God, that was such a bad experience. I didn’t want to work here anymore. I don’t want to go to this, sit at this booth anymore.”

He might even know Sylvie, our persona and he might talk to her about getting another job. Relationships and being connected. That’s where we are today.

What could we be doing instead?

So to wrap up, we’ve gone through some of the pain points, but what I want to leave you with is in design thinking, you go through this like surfacing the pain points, which I only had 20 minutes today, so that’s most of what I did.

But this is when you get to start imagining what could we be doing instead? And it can and should be very, very different for each company. Each team has something to offer its users and now that we’re in the age of feedback, we can talk to them more about what is meaningful and useful for them. What do we do that’s going to help them get through their day?

So I love doing this type of thing. If you, like, want to try design thinking, I’m here. Ask me questions. I want to thank all these wonderful people for letting me use their tweets, for having their photos up on Unsplash. The glitter ones are awesome.

And thank you so much for listening today. Hope this gives you some tips to take away so we can kind of up the ante on the swag. Thank you.

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