We call members of our customer support team “Happiness Heroes,” and positivity is one of our core values. Smiley faces are a key element of our communication.

And like many tech companies, we have lots of swag items, like T-shirts, water bottles, stickers, socks and more.

So it’s long been our policy to give out lots of swag. We send goodies to anyone, (pretty much) anywhere! Free stuff makes people happy, right?

swag1

We ask for a mailing address anytime we get a hint that someone might need cheering up. We reach out to new faces at our weekly Twitter chat, #bufferchat, and thank them with a personalized note and stickers.

We’re blown away by our fans and so grateful that so many people want to represent Buffer with branded items.

But as we grow, a few questions have been nagging at us lately. Questions like:

  • How sustainable is it to put an ever-increasing amount of stuff out into the world?
  • And to mail it all around the globe?
  • Is stuff the best way to show our love and gratitude? Could there be other ways?

We don’t have all the answers yet, and these questions have taken on a whole new perspective in the wake of our cashflow crisis. Nonetheless, we’d love to share our thinking with you so far as we explore this topic.

Doing the Right Thing

There are many benefits to sending out lots of swag:

  • It’s incredible to see Buffer gear “out in the wild”
  • The smiles and tweets we get completely warm our hearts!
  • There are marketing benefits, when people may ask, “What’s Buffer?” and a member of our community can share with them how Buffer might help them out
  • It’s just plain fun to brighten people’s day!

 

 

There are also a few drawbacks. Here are some that we see:

  • T-shirts and other swag may be easily discarded and end up in landfills.
  • The cost of purchasing and sending t-shirts can range from $15 to $50+ depending on the shipping destination.
  • Our Community Champion, Bonnie, has limited time to send swag as she has other responsibilities on the team, too.

When thinking a bit more on the ripples that our swag can have in the larger context, there is potentially a lot of waste in these efforts.

Here are some stats from the documentary, True Cost, that led us to question our strategy:

  • Clothing is now more “disposable” – “The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That adds up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone.“
  • Cotton production can damage the environment – “More than 90% of that cotton is now genetically modified, using vast amounts of water as well as chemicals.”
  • Nearly 97% of our clothing is produced overseas – “They are some of the lowest paid workers in the world and roughly 85% of all garment workers are women.”

swag2

In response to this, we made a switch to locally made, organic cotton shirts from Royal Apparel. We wanted to be aware of where our dollars are going and which industries we are supporting.

But is there more we could do? In thinking about these tough questions, we’re becoming more conscious of how and why we send our swag.

Taking time to reflect: How can community budget better?

One motivating factor behind this self-evaluation comes from an overall deeper look into our finances at Buffer after our cash-flow crisis and layoffs and how we can do more with the resources – both time and money – we have.

From the time our first community champion was hired until June of 2016, the budget for swag and mailings was fairly unlimited. Once we recalibrate our finances and examined how much we were spending (up to $40,000 in shipping for a year! Eep!), we realized some guidelines would help.

Currently, we have a budget of $500 per month for both shipping and swag purchasing, a cut of about 160% for the year. Here’s what our output has looked like in 2016:

2016 Cards Mailed Packages Mailed
Q1 654 338
Q2 417 227
Q3 140 71

At the same time we created a budget for our swag, the community team merged with marketing, which also created a slight shift in focus from swag fulfillment to building and deepening relationships.

What our swag approach looks like going forward

Although we’re not able to send quite as much Buffer love out into the world in swag form, we still think there’s lots of potential to do more with less.

In Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism, he emphasizes the power of less, but better. How putting more effort into a few things will result in more progress and a wider impact than putting lots of energy into a lot of tiny projects.

What if we applied this to our outreach efforts and focused on higher quality, higher impact interactions?

We still widely and freely send thank-you cards and Buffer stickers. We are a bit more reserved in how and when we send out our branded swag items, though the guidelines are a bit loose still (many times the moment just “feels” right). Our community champions are focusing more on opportunities to thank people in a variety of ways that have a lower impact on our world and a higher impact on hearts.

Here are a few examples of this “in the wild:”

More than candy
Bonnie sent some lifesavers to our friends at Helpscout (who truly are life savers!!)

With Sam, we sent him a bag of Starbursts with a note that shared how we are bursting with gratitude to have him as a part of the community!

The First Buffer Pizza

Our Twitter chat, #bufferchat, gives us the awesome pleasure of getting to know our community and their personalities.

Two of our most steadfast “regulars” started using the hashtag #bufferpizzaparty, which took on a life of its own!

Bonnie, our community champion, began thinking outside the box (or inside the pizza box), and it become her personal mission to have “Buffer pizzas” delivered to these regulars during #bufferchat. She located their home/work addresses, talked two Dominos locations (shoutout to the stores in Golden, Colorado & Palm Beach, Florida) into making the Buffer logo on two pizzas, one out of pepperoni and one out of black olives.

She had them all set to deliver the following Wednesday during #bufferchat. In the quest for a surprise, we sadly received two calls from very kind delivery people who couldn’t find the intended recipients. In one case, Bonnie requested that the delivery folks leave the pizzas at the office and the other the Dominos crew took the other pizza. Bonnie says, “I don’t consider it a total failure because someone out there enjoyed some Buffer pizza!” We also learned valuable lessons and are anxious to do this again!

In the past, we’d also sent dog treats and cat journals to our pet-loving friends, and many more surprise-and-delight gifts. We found these to be highly rewarding for all parties involved and are excited to get more to our foundation here.

Some gifts don’t even need to be physical! Our Twitter Happiness Heroes send personalized gifs that rock the socks off our customers:

Twitter Hero, Paul, also has been responding and checking in with customers via video and gif:

In the case of our pizza delivery, we consider this a success still because we learned a bit about how to go about this next time (give our Buffer community members a heads up that something is coming!) and also, we helped spread the word about Buffer in a fun way (perhaps those amazing Domino’s team members remember us and our crazy ideas!)

We’re excited to try new things here, and learn from any bumps along the way. We’re open to your thoughts here and excited to learn and grow as a team. We’ll constantly re-evaluate our new approach and adjust as it feels appropriate.

Sending gifts goes beyond a branded t-shirt – the meaning and intention behind the gift matters greatly. We’ve found that to live our values and send gifts relating and echoing our values goes hand in hand.

Our long-term goal is to open a swag store, with all proceeds going to charity. We feel this could be a powerful way to share Buffer gear and do some good in the world.

Until then, we’re keen to continue with mindfulness and diligence in spreading happiness as we can, while being conscious of our budget and footprint in the world.

Over to you

What do you think about our new approach? We’re open to all thoughts and comments!

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Written by Nicole Miller

Community Champion at Buffer. Writer, reader, dreamer. Hanging around the home office with a baby, some chickens, ducks, dogs and horses.

  • eccoyle

    One thing that always comes to mind for me in regards to “swag” – you’re sending things (or handing them out at an expo) without knowing if it’s something the person actually wants. And the recipient tends to accept or grab up things without really wanting them because free! special! But does asking someone if they want a Buffer tshirt before sending it take away the specialness?

    For instance, I don’t put stickers on anything or wear many tshirts so while I would enjoy the experience of receiving one from you, I don’t know what I would do with it. But, I would totally rock some Buffer socks :D Maybe, once the swag store is up and running, you can mail cards with a swag code that people can redeem for the item of their choice from the swag store. Or choose to just give x amount directly to a charity instead. That way people still get the surprise and delight of a handwritten note but they can choose the gift that is the right fit for them.

    • Bonnie Porter

      Love these ideas!! You’re so right, I don’t think asking someone if they’d like a t-shirt takes away it’s specialness (I think for the most part people have been pleased, hehe). I’ve seen quite a few fulfillment services offering codes to redeem in stores, I think it’s always fun to pick something out for yourself! :) For me personally, no matter what direction we go with swag, writing the notes will always be key. :) P.S. If you’d be up for emailing me at bonnie@buffer.com, I think I might be able to help you rock some socks!

  • MGR

    I think it’s a wonderful surprise to receive swag – though, sad to say, it hasn’t happened to me personally in quite a few years :(
    But it should be something universally ‘meaningful’ – which may be hard to determine. Food for example (whether it’s candy or ‘real’ food) would not be my “cup of tea” since taste can be quite subjective (pun intended). However, other consumables (sorry, lots of puns today) like pens, or memo/pot-it pads, or, these days, power packs (though admittedly a different price range), I think are useful to pretty much everyone and one-size-fits-all! Even if someone isn’t personally using the item all the time, just having it out in sight on one’s desk makes it available to others to use as well, and yet still usable to the owner whenever necessary. It also ‘spreads the word’ about (your/a) company at the same time. – everyone wins!

    • Bonnie Porter

      Yes, finding something everyone finds meaningful or useful is tough! :) Visibility or spreading the word is a great point to remember. I really appreciated your puns and I’d love to rectify the swag situation, would you be up for emailing me at bonnie@buffer.com? :)

  • This made me very sad, “In response to this, we made a switch to locally made…” I understand wanting to support local businesses, but most of the world lives on pennies, and the women were working in a factory instead of on the streets, and you took away the jobs! I firmly believe that those of us who do not struggle to find water and food each day owe it to the world to provide jobs. (Even poor paying, 12 hour days – at least they have a job – thats better than watching their children die of hunger or selling their bodies on the street).

    Local businesses need to be providing jobs overseas. I think we have it completely backward with the “stop buying cheap clothing” movement. If we do, what will those people do?

    • Bonnie Porter

      Hi Cathy, I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts & I’m so sorry that it brought up some unpleasant feelings. This is such tough one, as it can be really hard to figure out exactly what doing the right thing means here. We tried really hard to get close to the least harm principle – what is the least harm to people & the planet? If those women & girls working 12 hour days are being treated poorly, could we really feel good supporting that kind of system? I totally agree with you that there is a long way to go and more we can do! I just learned of an amazing brand based in Cambodia called tonlé that is zero waste & a really supportive environment for it’s employees. I think these are the kind of efforts that would feel great to get behind going forward. Thank you again for bringing up a really important point!

  • I read this post with a lot of interest because I used to be in charge of trade shows and events for a large, well-known brand and I often struggled with swag. People saw it as a way to get some attention and buzz but at the end of the day, as you ask, do people need more stuff? What happens with it? I’m jazzed when I see something new and unique but it’s not like I need any of it. At the end of the day, I think people are still just shocked when a company or brand even acknowledges or replies to them on social. Is swag necessary to amplify that feeling?

    As a sidebar, I do feel compelled to ask why you feel genetically modified cotton is harmful to the environment? I’m not a cotton farmer but I grew up on a family farm where we enjoy fishing in the nearby creek and drink water from a well on the farm. We are very careful to ensure we aren’t polluting our soil or water because we live on the land and have chosen to grow GM crops because they help us do that.

    • Bonnie Porter

      Hi Jen! I think you and I and several other community managers I know could start a support group for picking out swag items. :) You’re so right, I think (hope) we can make people feel special without necessarily giving more “stuff”. That, paired with being really mindful about the quality, source, usefulness, etc. of the swag we do give out is really important.

      I could be totally off here, but as I understand it, organic cotton uses less water due to crop rotation and more organic matters in the soil. There are also no (or dramatically less) insecticides, pesticides, and fertilizers used. Again, my understanding could be totally flawed here, but I think this is from larger commercial farms.

      I applaud and have the utmost respect for your family! I’m sure running a family farm is by no means easy, but it does sound like a wonderful place to grow up! :)

  • I love that you all take time to include hand written notes. It’s funny that now something that seems “old fashioned” really manages to make people feel special. My friends and I like to mail letters to each other still, especially around the holidays, because it is something that feels more personal and more considered than a quick and easy text.

    The concept of “less but better” is a great ambition but hard to achieve all the time. Your examples show mindfulness and a real sense of understanding the people in your ‘crowd’ which is really amazing. To be honest, I think swag-aside I’d be honored just to get a real, handwritten note and maybe on the idea of charitable giving some sort of token or redeemable way that instead of taking swag for myself I could ensure it goes towards that. What I mean is a note with some sort of on-brand token that I could turn around and say I want to redeem for a water bottle or socks or for a $10 donation to whatever charity. I think people that were already in a good place off of receiving anything in the mail would generally choose the donation!

    Thanks for all that you do!
    Kaitlyn

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