Trade Show Guru

For Those Seeking Trade Show Marketing Enlightenment

Trade Show Guru

Do Trade Show Giveaway Pens Work?

February 16th, 2009 · 37 Comments · Trade Show Marketing

One of the most popular trade show giveaways is custom-imprinted pens. Pens are actually probably one of the most popular freebie giveaways in general. I’m going to guess that there are billions of custom-imprinted pens produced every year. Probably if you stacked all of the trade show giveaway pens and other custom-imprinted pens produced every year, I’d guess that end on end, they’d reach to the moon and back. You can find custom-imprinted pens at banks, restaurants, doctors offices, dentists offices, tax accountants offices, pizza parlors, and car washes. They are everywhere! With all the free pens floating around out there, I’m not sure why anyone would ever pay money and buy a pen. Looking at the mess in front of me hiding the top surface of my desk, I see many pens (plus an empty cup of coffee that needs to be refilled). I’ve got one from Marriott, one from Wyndham Hotels & Restaurants, one from Dr. Ruby (our kids’ dentist), another one from Marriott, plus a regular Bic pen, a Bic highlighter, and a Sharpie fine point black permanent marker. I guess the last three pens aren’t custom-imprinted with a company name, but the first four are. I almost took a pen last night at the Indian restaurant that we went to for Valentines Day, which would have made it five, but still my custom-imprinted pens outnumber my regular pens by 4 to 3.

Anyway, as the trade show guru, I guess I’m supposed to tell you whether or not trade show giveaway pens work. I don’t know. But I recommend using them for trade show giveaways and handouts. It should not be a trade show secret that proper trade show planning means avoiding the mistake of not have some kind of incentive for attendees to visit your trade show booth. When it comes to selecting a trade show giveaway, custom-printed pens are relatively cheap, and they’re useful and people hold on to them. I’m not sure if I’d recommend going with the more expensive fancy versions though. I think I’d stick with the basic ballpoint-style pen, with a company name, a simple line saying what one does, and a website and phone number. I know there are lots of companies that supply these custom-imprinted trade show giveaway pens, but I can’t recommend any one specific company. Just make sure that when you order your trade show giveaway pens that you order plenty, as pens tend to be popular with the trade show zombies.

But back the the question in the title of this post – do trade show giveaway pens actually work? (update – I don’t mean does the ink in them work so that you can write with them, I mean does anyone every buy anything from or do business with the company listed on the outside of the pen!) I’ve never bought anything because I saw a company name on a pen. Never. I’ve stayed at a Marriott, but not because I have their pen. We take our kids to Dr. Ruby, but again, not because we have his pen. We go there because he is an awesome, extremely competent pediatric dentist (and we pay for it). We also recommend him to all of our friends. He is a good example of a business that probably benefits from providing excellent service and having plenty of free word-of-mouth advertising.

But enough about our dentist… back to the question again. Do trade show giveaway pens work? Again, I don’t know. From my own personal experience, I don’t think so. But then again, could you land your biggest account or sale of the year because somebody saw your company name on a giveway pen that cost you fifty cents? Maybe… So I ask you, my loyal readers. Have you every bought a product or service because you saw a company name on a pen?

And if you answer this question, please also mention if you have a custom-imprinted pen handy and what company or business name is on it.


37 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Todd // Feb 17, 2009 at 3:16 am

    Hi Steve,

    The pen on my desk right now says SKILLCRAFT US GOVERNMENT

    I’m not sure whether they’re advertising, hoping I’ll reenlist again next time … or possibly it’s all part of a brilliant plan to get me to rat myself out on the Internet for stealing a pen from work … woops.

    Keep havin FuN!

  • 2 cardiogirl // Feb 17, 2009 at 5:49 am

    Not once have I ever purchased a service because of the pen. I suppose the concept is a subliminal one, as in if the client sees the logo enough times when looking for a mortgage company that logo should pop into the person’s head.

    Since they’re seen it on the pen.

    But I’m going with no, it’s not a productive marketing effort. But it is cheap and useful. Long ago I worked at a mortgage company and part of my responsibilities included trade shows.

    I HATED THEM. Nothing personal. I just hated having to pack that crap up and FedEx to the site. Then if FedEx messed up it was my problem.

    But I did order and send a lot of pens back then. I’ve been at home with the kids so long that I found it wild (but necessary) to print the website on the pen.

    They didn’t have websites back in the day. And I used to walk ten miles in the snow, uphill to work each day.

    Oh. This wasn’t about me.

    No, I’ve never utilized the company that provided the free pen.

  • 3 Lee (Tarheel Rambler) // Feb 17, 2009 at 9:33 am

    As a consumer of trade-show-giveaway-pens, I can say that they are handy when you need the phone number of your dentist and he’s given you a pen (or you’ve stolen the one you signed your credit card slip with). But I’ve never been to a dentist’s trade show, so maybe that doesn’t count.

  • 4 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 17, 2009 at 11:53 am

    @Todd, No worries. Your secret is safe with me. πŸ™‚
    @Cardiogirl, I think I lived in your same neighborhood with that 10 feet of snow when I was growing up! πŸ™‚
    @Lee, I keep business cards for the numbers that I need handy since pens have a way of “floating off” around here πŸ™‚
    So far it sounds like four of us say they have never bought anything based on seeing a pen.
    That said, I think marketing is a bit like planting seeds. You may plant hundreds, or thousands, in hope of one or two coming up… actually, a farmer probably wants a lot more than that to sprout… I’d better come up with a better analogy. ~ Steve

  • 5 Øyvind // Feb 17, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Steve πŸ™‚

    Sometimes I grab a few pens from work with our logo on, and when we get lottery sales knocking on our door I try to push my pens on them. πŸ™‚ That way I hoped to get our company more known. hehe

  • 6 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 17, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Hi Øyvind,
    Thanks for stopping by. I love your pushing your own advertising on the door-to-door salesman. Sounds like a Seinfeld episode! ~ Steve

  • 7 Lin Burress // Feb 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Having been to a few dental conventions/ trade shows, I’d have to agree with you that trade show giveaway pens are not likely to cause someone to buy a product just because of the pen or its logo.

    I have never, ever bought a product from any company because of their pen or any other trade show giveaways.

    At the most recent dental trade show – convention, many of us noticed that there weren’t nearly as many giveaways this time around as previous years. My co worker told me she only walks through the trade show section at the convention just to get the free giveaways but went away disappointed that she only got one free toothbrush and that was it.

    I don’t have a pen anywhere near me (I’m on vacation out of town) and even the hotel doesn’t have a pen laying around for me to use.

  • 8 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    hi Lin,
    Blogging while you’re on vacation? πŸ™‚
    It does seem like everyone is cutting back on everything. I’m surprised the hotel doesn’t have any pens around, since most of my freebie pens are from hotels.
    Enjoy your vacation! ~ Steve
    PS. 20 minutes. Not quite as good as you. πŸ˜‰

  • 9 drivelocity // Feb 17, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    I’ve debated this over and over and over and have yet to purchase any promotional advertising like this. If I were to have a trade show or event booth, I’m sure I would though. You need something to get people to come to your booth. If they take a pen, there’s a better chance that they’ll take a brochure or business card. At the very least, they’ll see that you exist. But, like anything, you have to analyze ROI – if your pens cost $.65/person and if 1/10 people become customers, is $6.50 per customer worth it? 1/100 at $65.50 ea.?

  • 10 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 17, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    hi drivelocity,
    As you point out, it’s good to have something to hand out along with a brochure and a business card, but one should calculate the ROI. If you’re at the World of Concrete show in Las Vegas selling million dollar earth-moving equipment, you’ve got a little more room to hand out things. πŸ™‚ ~ Steve

  • 11 Tim // Feb 17, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    I have a Super 8 Motel pen here…. I wonder how that got on my desk? πŸ™‚
    I don’t think giving away pens makes sales. I think not giving away pens, etc. loses sales, if all your competition is giving them away. You don’t want to look cheap!
    We went to a Recreational Vehicle show last weekend, and were disappointed that there were no givaways, hardly any draws to enter and not even a free coffee to be found. This Super 8 pen has gotta last me, because I sure didn’t pick up any new ones there.

  • 12 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 17, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    Hey Tim,
    Good to hear from you! Hope all is well up there in the Great White North. Good point on keeping up with the competition whether it works or not. Image and impressions are very important.
    And to clarify, just because I have a Marriott pen doesn’t mean I stay there. It’s just that Motel 6 doesn’t give out pens. πŸ™‚ ~ Steve

  • 13 Brian D. Hawkins // Feb 18, 2009 at 12:30 am

    The pen on my desk says, ‘Get Extreme!’ oh wait, that’s mine lol I can’t say I’ve ever made a purchase because of a pen but I have bought custom pens obviously. I’ve honestly wondered if they really work or not. No way to really know if I’m wasting my money or not. I look at ity like this…

    They’re pretty inexpensive. They are used over and over and carried around. And people do look at them. It doesn’t mean they act on it but hand someone a pen and watch what they do. Many will roll the pen in their fingers reading the imprint. Besides, doesn’t having my own pens with my website automatically make me cool? πŸ˜‰

  • 14 Mitch // Feb 18, 2009 at 12:38 am

    I’m going to say that I like picking up pens, but only those that seem somewhat different are ones that catch my attention once I get home. Believe it or not, just changing the color of a pen to something bright like red or green (which I give to my wife because I hate green) offers something different. And, when it catches your eye, you look at it to figure out where you got it from, and then you see the name and figure it out. and, if you had a good time, and the convention was related to something you enjoyed,… well, you just never know, right?

    That’s what marketing is sometimes all about; just getting that spark, that little bit of name recognition.

  • 15 jackie sheeler // Feb 18, 2009 at 6:27 am

    i have no idea at all whether or not these pens WORK as a marketing tool, but i can tell you that every time i see a branded pen i WANT — not theirs, but my own. i want one for my blog, one for my litzine, i want a branded pen for everything i do and i want to pass them out to strangers on the street!

    no wonder i’m still working a dayjob, lol.

  • 16 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 18, 2009 at 10:39 am

    @Brian, You have a pen for your website? I’m jealous! And I agree with your reasoning.
    @Mitch, I agree with your sage reasoning as well. Good point on have a unique pen.
    @Jackie, Maybe Brian will let you know where he got his. πŸ™‚
    Seems like everyone so far has said they have never actually bought anything because of a pen, but many think it’s a good idea to hand them out because you never know… which I tend to agree with.

  • 17 drivelocity // Feb 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    I suppose you could have a separate URL printed on your promotional material that you could use to track its effectiveness, kind of like those infomercials that have the “” type URLs. Another thought I had was that you could offer a coupon code which you could then use to both get more traffic and track where it comes from.

    I have been picking up pens much less frequently I’ve noticed, since I requested a catalog from Amsterdam printing and they send me free sample pens periodically. I have a pretty large collection at the moment.

    Lastly, I read somewhere that people will leave their pens when they sign a receipt at a restaurant. Many waitresses will continue to use the pen and you have a chance to reach each customer who is served after you, unless someone takes the pen…

  • 18 Lin Burress // Feb 18, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    @Brian, I’ve wondered sometimes whether having a promotional pen for my site would be beneficial or not. I do have business cards for my site that get passed around regularly, and I include my business card in every single outgoing piece of mail that leaves my house. I’ve had a few people contact me through my contact form on my site telling me they learned of my site from the business card, so I know it works in some ways. I’ll have to consider getting some pens with the url and title/logo from my site as free giveaways to people. Interesting idea for sure.

  • 19 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 18, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    @drivelocity, interesting idea to track if the pen brings in any business, and I like the idea of leaving a pen here and there… sounds like “guerrilla marketing.” πŸ™‚ ~ Steve
    @Lin, business cards work better in an envelope than a pen, but I’m sure there other places to “drop them” like drivelocity pointed out. ~ Steve

  • 20 Rudy // Feb 19, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Hey Steve, just to follow up on your question from the Zombie post, I don’t remember buying anything advertised on trade show pens. For example, the one on my desk is from Prudential, and I don’t use them at all. πŸ™‚

    Actually, come to think about it, some of my pens are from the business that I used before. They gave me the pens AFTER I bought something. πŸ˜‰

  • 21 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 19, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Hi Rudy,
    I’m in the same boat. I’ve got some pens from companies I did business with (but not because of the pen), and other pens that I have no idea how I ended up with them. Probably given to me by someone like Øyvind. πŸ™‚ Thanks for stopping by. ~ Steve

  • 22 Sheryl Loch // Feb 20, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I have worked ‘trade shows’ at High Schools for a Collage I worked for before the internet was so big. We handed out pens and had some response. But, like anything else if all you are counting on bringing you business is a pen you may be doomed. I think our biggest response came from the personality of the people handing the pens out.

    I don’t know as I have bought from a pen I got but, if it is from a place I have already done business with then it serves as a reminder to check back in with them. So, they may be great for getting return customers.

  • 23 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 20, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    hi Sheryl,
    Thanks for stopping by. Good point that a pen can be part of the process, but it probably won’t work if it’s the only part of the process. πŸ™‚ ~ Steve

  • 24 Will // Feb 22, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Give away pens do work, although I have to say quality is an issue. Most that I get do not work well. Although have a few, some from a title company that were high quality and I still use them a long time after I originally received them.

  • 25 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 22, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Hi Will,
    I think you are stating that trade show giveaway pens work to write with (usually), while I was asking if they work to generate sales… You answered the literal question that I never even thought of. Thanks.
    As to the quality, it is important to get pens that literally work (for writing), for what would one think of a company that handed out defective pens? Thanks as always for stopping by! ~ Steve

  • 26 RT Cunningham // Feb 25, 2009 at 7:38 am

    Sorry for being late in the game, but I’ve been busy, um, programming (and it sucks).

    Custom imprinted pens are subliminal advertising and nothing more. If I ordered a thousand, I know that thousand would disappear into someone else’s hands. I would make sure it had one of my website addresses on it with some stupid slogan. Eventually, one person out of that thousand would visit the site on the pen, for one reason or another.

    Todd has a US government purchased Skillcraft pen. I’ve actually been to their website, so 20 years of using them must’ve worked on me.

  • 27 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 25, 2009 at 10:20 am

    hey RT,
    Yes, programming can suck. So can trying to understand and fill out tax forms… πŸ™‚
    I think you are correct that trade show giveaway pens are a form of subliminal advertising. Excellent point and comment, and worthy of the Master of the Philippines. πŸ™‚ ~ Steve

  • 28 Gail Hernandez // Mar 3, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Pens are Trade Show Zombie fake-outs, that’s all. When you want to distract them, you throw a pen in the aisle or at other exhibitors and the zombies go for it every time. Elsewise – not so useful, but I always have them because zombies NEVER DIE!


  • 29 The Trade Show Guru // Mar 4, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    hi Gail,
    Thanks for stopping by. You raise a very good point about another use for trade show giveaway pens. I’d never thought of using them as zombie bait to send the trade show zombies to your competitor’s booth. πŸ™‚ I like your sense of humor. ~ Steve

  • 30 Niamh // Apr 1, 2009 at 5:28 am

    I don’t know if they work or not but this post has made me realise how many of these type pens I have. On my desk I have 24. That’s not even counting the pencils. I also have one set of 5 highlighters for a uni open day and one set of post it’s. The worst part? I can’t even remember half the companies. Actually I think that answers the question about if they work or not.

  • 31 Internet Strategist@GrowMap // May 11, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    I am rather surprised at the comments here as I think something useful I have handy is a great way to remember business names, keep phone numbers handy, and quickly find their URL when I want to recommend them to someone.

    What if the pen were for your favorite restaurant or something you regularly visited? Then would you think a pen was handy? What about a business card magnet from you favorite pizza or other food delivery place?

    When I go to trade shows I pick up a pen from each business I want to research further or already know and recommend. I put them in a container by my PC and then I have their name and contact info handy whenever I want it.

    P.S. I’m claiming my “Friend of the Guru” exemption to the rules. πŸ™‚ I’ve already shared this post at Twitter. If you leave a comment in my blog and include your Twitter ID it will “automagically” be added to all comments you have ever left.

  • 32 The Trade Show Guru // May 11, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    I agree with you that pens can be good for local restaurants. But local pizza parlors usually aren’t exhibiting at trade shows, so its more a question of whether it works for trade show exhibitors. In theory it seems they may get some business from promotional pens, but I haven’t heard of any actual cases where it worked. So that is the question… ~ Steve

  • 33 Steve Cherry // Oct 5, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    This question has been around for a long while. For 30 years I puchased tens of 1,000’s of product imprinted ink pens to use in the pharma industry (as a brand marketer). Now, I’m retired and sell promotional products part-time. The most popular items purchased are: 1) pens, 2) calendars, 3) office products, 4) home-use products, and 5) T-shirts. It’s all about the branding of your product or service.

  • 34 The Trade Show Guru // Oct 6, 2009 at 10:53 am

    hi Steve Cherry,
    Thanks for stopping by and providing input. It’s interesting to see what the most popular promotional items are. I have no doubt that imprinted pens remain popular for trade show giveaway items, I’m just not sure how effective they are (I think they are somewhat effective, but how effective, I’m just not sure). That said, there is little doubt how popular they are. And I agree with you on the importance of branding your product or service. Thanks again for your input. ~ Steve

  • 35 Rudy // Dec 3, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Speaking of pens, these will sure leave an impression.

    Maybe yours should be as provocative? πŸ˜‰

  • 36 The Trade Show Guru // Dec 4, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Hey Rudy,
    Interesting link and site. If I needed to get you a Christmas present, now I know what to get. πŸ˜‰
    Thanks for remembering this post and stopping by.
    ~ Steve

  • 37 Robert // Mar 11, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    I got a pen, from an auction house. Was board, and read they had a website, and went there. Actually found they had upcoming sales posted there, so I went to another of interet, and spend $600,
    Sure, they do work! Id say I might only make contact with 2 in 100 because of the pen, but never know.

    Bob C

Leave a Comment

  • We welcome all comments. First-time comments are moderated, and will not show up until they have been reviewed and approved. Comments that do not meet the Trade Show Guru's 10 Rules for Enlightened Comments will not be approved.

  • *