The problem with t-shirt schwag at tech conferences

Ever wonder why there’s not more t-shirts at tech conferences? Marketing people hate getting t-shirts for booths at conferences. In last week’s Tanzu Talk about platform marketing I went over why:

Tech conference attendees love t-shirts. They’re also good for brand- and idenity-marketing: if you’re wearing the shirt, you’re likely a fan. Or, at least, you tolerate the brand.

You don’t see a lot of t-shirts at tech conferences because marketing people usually hate t-shirts. Here’s why

First, t-shirts are expensive compared to, say, pencils or other weird, branded doo-dads. But, there are even more annoying aspects.

Second, you have to decide what’s on the t-shirt. Even if it’s more than just a simple name, do you put that centered on the front, on the sleeve, the back? Then there’s type: do you have a polo shirt, a t-shirt… will programmers wear a polo shirt? How about ops people? And if you want a new, custom design on your shirt: forget about it. That’s going to be a lot of meetings. It’s a bunch of bike shed meetings.

Third, how many of each sizes and styles do you get? Predicting the right distribution of sizes it tough. You have to anticipate how many of each size (XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL, XXXL, etc.) will be needed. Additionally, geographic factors must be taken into account as American sizing differs from that used in other parts of the world. Predictably, American sizes are larger than European sizes.

The cut of the shirts is a related issue: how many “regular” versus women’s cut do you get?

Back when I helped with the planning and booth staffing for DevOpsDays at Pivotal, I used to be pretty good at predicting the size and cut splits for DevOpsDays. But this was built up over years of experience for a specific conference for a specific type of attendee.

You can imagine picking a t-shirt cut adds another uncomfortable dimension to this planning: you have to think about people in terms of body size and gender, and predict how many will be at the conference. This is something our corporate training (and, you know, the general goal of trying to be a better person) tries to rip out of your brain and corporate decision-making machine. You’ll literally be talking with co-workers saying things like “well, this is the American mid-west, so we better order more XXL’s than we do for Amsterdam” or “well, this is Bologna, so order a lot less women’s cut than we would for San Francisco.” (And by the way, should I even be saying “women’s cut”? I guess “fitted”?)

Forth, shipping these t-shirts introduces even more potential problems. If your conference is outside of your country (or, like, the EU), you’re gambling that customs won’t hold up your shipment. Or, you’ve figured out how to pay customs, adding expense and complication. Also, the shipment might just get lost. I’ve seen both of these happen a lot over the years. In addition to being held up and the additional cost and cognitive load of dealing with customers, what do you do when the box does finally show up, days after the conference? Do you talk with the conference people and somehow ask them to ship it back? Will FedEx/DHL/etc. do that for you? Or just you abandon the t-shirts?

Speaking of, fifth, once the conference is over you, there's often a surplus of leftover t-shirts. These typically fall into the extreme size categories of XS or XXXL, leading to unnecessary waste and inefficiency. And, even if you got past customers, you need to figure out shipping the t-shirts back. This is actually the easiest part, really. Most conferences have a courier come to pick things up, or you can schedule the pick up. Then you just ship a return label with the box, ask the people doing the booth work to tape the label on (make sure to ship some packing tape and scissors in the box!), and make sure the box gets the courier.

T-shirts seem like a really good idea, but they’re super tedious and costly to do at a conference. It’s why you don’t see more of them. It does mean, however, that they’re one of the rarer and more valuable things. Also, the bigger and more mature the company, they more capabilities and knowledge they should have about t-shirts. Big companies should be the ones giving away the most! But, since they’re often so penny-pinching, big companies don’t give t-shirts away too much. Oddly, it’s the smaller companies, the startups. This is likely because they’re being asked to burn money (rather than save it), the marketing people are probably more, like, “go getters,” and they might just be a little naive about how annoying it all is.

I think a vendor should always have t-shirts. It’s worth all the problems to get that brand and “in the club” feel. But, I wouldn’t want to be the one in charge of it.

(I wrote a long post years back on designing tech conference t-shirts. I should find that!)

I don’t write about marketing all the time, but I have a lot of advice to give on the topic. Check out past episodes on marketing, and subscribe if you like what you see. If you’re doing marketing at a tech place, you should subscribe!

Back in 2000, I worked at a startup with some friends. We worked right next to an Asian grocery story and drank a lot of Mr. Brown Coffee. The result was predictable.

Relative to your interests

  • A4 Issue 1 July 2022 – Notes from the Drawing Board - This kind of thing is fantastic.

  • Throw someone a pep rally - Two thumbs up!

  • “that’s the American spirit!” - Yes, exactly this: “America’s public culture really does valorize pragmatic problem-solving.” As he writes, for example: “I remember going to Germany in, I think, 2009 with a small group of American journalists. We were in some eastern city in a van driving down a narrow alley when we had to stop because there was a Smart Car incorrectly parked in the alley, leaving us with no space to pass. Our van driver couldn’t back out and he couldn’t go forward, so he said we’d just have to wait. A middle-aged American woman in the group said that was absurd, and that yours truly and a few other younger guys on the trip could just get out, pick up the Smart Car, and move it. The driver said, “no, no, no, it’s not possible.” But she insisted that the four of us get out and move the car, and so we did, kind of like in the Mentos ad. We got back in the van, and she said to the driver very definitively, “that’s the American spirit!” // Now, that said: you have to also remember that after millenniums of war, Europe has been at peace for 78 years. So, things are going well on that front, perhaps the most important of all things.

  • 202306 - ’If you take a single pull request (PR) that adds a new feature, and launch it without tests or documentation, you will definitely get the benefits of that PR sooner. Every PR you try to write after that, before adding the tests and docs (ie. repaying the debt) will be slower because you risk creating undetected bugs or running into undocumented edge cases. If you take a long time to pay off the debt, the slowdown in future launches will outweigh the speedup from the first launch. This is exactly how CFOs manage corporate financial debt. Debt is a drain on your revenues; the thing you did to incur the debt is a boost to your revenues; if you take too long to pay back the debt, it’s an overall loss.’ Also: “Tech debt, in its simplest form, is the time you didn’t spend making tasks more efficient. When you think of it that way, it’s obvious that zero tech debt is a silly choice.”

  • DevOps and Cloud InfoQ Trends Report – July 2023 - Trends!

  • The Rise Of DIY In FinOps - “But some DIY efforts do work. These tools are generally powered by teams of between 15 and 45 engineers acting as a dedicated product and support team that builds new capabilities, maintains and updates the tool as new cloud services emerge, and troubleshoots any existing user issues. The most famous example is Target, which dedicates two teams focused on the data pipeline, data acquisition, dashboards, and engineer persona application and has built everything from the ground up.”

  • No one has an “appetite for risk” - “I think there is a better way to express what we aim to express when we say ‘risk appetite.’ What we are talking about is the organization’s failure tolerance. How often is it okay for the organization to experience security failures? How big can the failures be (impact) and still be tolerable?”

  • IT spending soars, generative AI investments barely leave a mark - These forecasts have been confusing in recent years. They’re always increasing, and yet the trends are always cost savings: ‘“Digital business transformations are beginning to morph,” said Lovelock. “IT projects are shifting from a focus on external-facing deliverables such as revenue and customer experience, to more inward facing efforts focused on optimization." The trend is reflected in where spending growth is highest. Gartner expects software, the fastest-growing segment, to achieve a double-digit growth rate of 14% on the year, as organizations reallocate spending to squeezing more value out of ERP and CRM applications, as well as other core platforms that deliver efficiency gains.’ // Also, yeah: with AI it’s way too early in the corporate planning and strategy cycle to be allocating lots of cash to it. It’ll just be small PoCs for at least a year.


Talks I’ll be giving, places I’ll be, things I’ll be doing, etc.

July 19th Improving FinTech with cloud native think, speaking. July 19th Stop Tech Debt and Start Using Faster, More Secure Paths to Production. Sep 6th to 7thDevOpsDays Des Moines, speaking. Sep 13th, stackconf, Berlin. Sep 14th to 15thSREday, London, speaking Sep 18th to 19th SHIFT in Zadar, speaking. Oct 3rd Enterprise DevOps Techron, Utrecht, speaking.

Bavarian village with field print by Wassily Kandinsky | Posterlounge
Bavarian Village with Field, Wassily Kandinsky, 1908.


Tonight, I have my last online talk of the month - for a long time actually. It’s with Alvin from Forrester. They’ve put a lot of thinking into modeling and planning taking care of legacy IT stuff. We have it planned out as, you know, podcast-y discussion. I’m looking forward to learning a lot from him. Check it out!

After that, it’s hopefully time for a lot of content creation. Hopefully, this will mean helping out some of my marketing friends with stuff they need and plans for engagement and that shit. Also, I have a list of tiny videos I want to make. Do they work? WHO KNOWS. But, they’re fun and satisfying to make.,, @cote,,