(By Gil Gerretsen) There are a lot of foolish companies who buy stuff with their brand name imprinted on it, then pass it around to everyone they meet, and in the process think they are doing great marketing. Most are NOT!

Promotional products, also referred to as advertising specialties or swag, are generally used to remind prospects and customers about a business and build favorable attention. However, they're not much good if misunderstood or deployed in the wrong way.

Before proceeding, let me refresh your memory that 1) Marketing is the process of securing the interest of potential new customers, 2) Sales is the process of converting those new leads into paying customers, and 3) Retention is the process of optimizing those relationships over time.

More often than not, promotional products are given to people who already know the company. Giveaways serve to endear the company to people who already know and like them. In most instances, that makes them a sales tool, and more likely a retention tool.

However, if you change your thinking, you CAN convert them into a marketing tool that will drive new leads into your marketing stream. The key element to consider is what your gift recipient would use in the presence of someone else who might also be a potential customer. It should trigger a "Hey, what's that" conversation that requires telling a story that includes your business. If no conversation happens, then the giveaway is wasted money.

For example, how many branded pens have you received over your lifetime? Has anyone ever asked you about one of them? Has that generated business for the issuer of the pen? Probably not. I have a bunch sitting in my office drawer. I appreciate the free office supplies, but it doesn't cause me to pick up the phone and tell a friend about the thoughtful person who gives away free office supplies. I just use it until the ink runs out and then toss it away.

So, try a different approach. Think about what people use or do when in the presence of other people who might be a fit for you. Perhaps at an industry event or networking event. I don't give people free pens, but I HAVE given them pocket/purse sized "Networking Booklets" that they can (and do) use to make quick notes about people they meet. They stick the business cards into each little page with their note. Someone looking on often asks a question about that process. Bingo, a conversation about BizTrek begins.

Here's your call to action. Go look at the stuff you give away. Why? Does it create the right kind of conversations? Could you use it differently? Could you use something else that would do the job better?

Finally, if you have a promotional product that works well to drive new leads, share your ideas and insights on BizTrek's Linkedin page.