Last week, I attended the first-ever “Swagapalooza,” which was billed as an “experiment in viral media” and allegedly featured the world’s most-followed bloggers, twitterers, and digital influencers, all gathered at a nightclub in Manhattan to review new companies showcasing their products and services.
As we know, swag bags (or “goodie” bags) are often superficial aspects of an industry conference, awards banquet, benefit, or other event. At Swagapalooza, far from being an afterthought, they’re the Main Event. Nobody in attendance was pretending this was anything more than a series of shameless, promotional plugs by entrepreneurs. All documented in real-time in a meta, self-referential style by a live Twitter-feed broadcast on a monitor immediately to the right of presenters onstage. The effect was an entertaining social media Gong Show of sorts. Live tweets ranged from hysterical and often harsh commentary on speakers, products, and audience members… to annoyingly distracting asides — depending on your perspective.
PR’s come a long way, baby. In the New PR, the free stuff is the new “pitch” or newshook. The bloggers are the new journos. But for emerging businesses presenting at the event, which included mSpot, Switch2Health, Surprise Industries, and Bruise Relief among others, it was an opportunity to introduce and market their products with the goal of creating a buzz online via social media channels. It remains to be seen what the impact will be on their brands and bottom lines, but considering the virtually zero level of investment of all involved, it’s hard to see a downside. Any return at all will be a bonus. Can’t beat that, especially in the current economic environment.
The fresh-faced organizer of the more than 200 people selectively assembled for this Swagapalooza experiment was 24-year old Alex Krupp, who conceived the concept with advice from Seth Godin. In keeping with the theme of the event, the keynote presenter was Peter Shankman, a PR entrepreneur who boasts experience with viral experiments of his own. Shankman’s latest endeavor applies an efficient crowd-sourcing type model to connecting reporters with sources for their articles. For those unfamiliar, Help-A-Reporter-Out (@helpareporterout) enables anyone on an opt-in email distribution list to receive nearly a hundred queries daily from media seeking interview sources. I confess to using the service to promote our clients, as well as securing visibility for our own business where we have a relevant voice to add to a story.
The event was nothing if not innovative. An illustrator from Image Think, also a presenter, worked in real-time to capture a “graphic recording” to document the proceedings for posting online afterwards. The result was a fascinating visual map summarizing presenters’ products and key messages.
Participants of the swag-meet seemed delighted with the outcome so far. Voyage TV, a travel company giving away a free trip for a winning tweet of 140 characters or less detailing a dream vacation, tweeted “Home run at #Swagapalooza! Big news soon” before the crowd was barely out the door.
Undoubtedly, Swagapalooza will raise the ethical bar for bloggers who review consumer products. The blogosphere has been buzzing for months with debates on the ethical implications of accepting corporate “sponsorships” of blog content. Absolute transparency in disclosing when bloggers and other digital cognoscenti receive free products is a must for any subsequent or related commentary referencing said brands and products on blogs, tweets, or anywhere else.
One could view the event as a step closer to removing objectivity and credibility from the blogging community, who claim to evangelize the concept of authentic engagement with the public and consumers. Indeed, the temptation to blog for no better reason than landing more swag looms large.
Swagapalooza participants, however, took a leap of faith in coming at all, considering the concept was little more than getting bloggers to show up for free stuff. For now, I’m willing to give this new form of event marketing the benefit of the doubt. You could even say I’m looking forward to its next iteration.
Oh, and full disclosure: I took home no swag. At least, not this time around.