From the July 2000 issue of Startups

Urban loves mice. Well, mouse pads. He hands them out to everyone who visits Computer Masters, his retail computer store in Vermillion, Ohio. Urban credits the custom pads-imprinted with his store's name and phone number-with generating 25 percent of his sales since opening in November 1998.

"I use them like I'd use a business card," Urban says. "We give them out to everybody, even if they're just looking. It lets them know I'm interested in them, and that brings them back to my store."

Urban says the pads are ever-present ads. "I like the idea that people have them on their desks. When they're showing off their new computer, there's the mouse pad with my name on it, and they tell their friends 'This is where I got it.' When they need an upgrade, repairs or anything to do with computers, they've got my name right in front of them."

Costing Urban $1.75 each, the mouse pads show what promotional products-giveaways imprinted with a business's name and phone number-can do. But achieving the results Urban got requires some effort.

"[Most entrepreneurs] flip through a catalog and pick out something cheap and familiar," says Don Anderson, founder and president of Printed Designs & Creative Promotions Inc. in Houston, a promotional-products company with 950 clients in 42 states. "If that's your strategy, you're wasting your cash. You've got to give away something worth giving away."

Once you've chosen an appropriate product, the next step is figuring out who gets the goodies. Handing out items at random is not as effective as giving them to a select group already thinking about giving you business. For customers who are close to making a purchase (like the visitors to Urban's shop), the promo item can reinforce their thinking and push them closer to a sale.

Handled correctly, advertising specialties outdo regular advertising by up to 19 percent, according to the Promotional Products Association International. Used in direct mail, they boost response by as much as 75 percent. The association says goodies generate repeat sales, too.

Not sure what your business's perfect promo product is? For your giveaways to work, find a distributor with creativity and experience. Interview prospective partners like you would potential employees, Anderson says. "Find people who are curious about your customers," he urges. "Check out other promotions they've put together." Ask about promotions they've done for their own businesses. If they can't be dynamic when promoting themselves, what will they be able to do for you?

Few industries are as fad-conscious as promotional products. A good distributor knows what the next hot giveaway will be and the audience it works for. Today's technology means anything can be customized-from crystal goblets to football-shaped salami. If a distributor suggests only a bulk buy of coffee mugs from a catalog, call someone else.

You can find promotional-product companies in the Yellow Pages under "Ad Specialties," or visit the Promotional Products Association International Web site for distributors near you. The association also offers a fax-on-demand service at (888) 345-6772, but most information can be found at the Web site.

Top 10 List

Wondering Where to start? According to the Promotional Products Association, these are the 10 most popular giveaways:

Wearables: (aprons, caps, visors, T-shirts, ties): 27.9%
Writing instruments: 11.7%
Glass and ceramics (all hail the coffee mug!): 8%
Calendars: 6.9%
Office and business accessories (mouse pads, notebooks, desk lamps): 5.9%
Trophies and awards (clocks, jewelry, watches): 5.6%
Textiles (tote bags, flags, umbrellas, towels): 5.3%
Badges, ribbons, stickers, magnets, buttons: 4.4%
Auto accessories: 4%
Sporting goods and leisure products (camping equipment, luggage, party goods, binoculars, bar tools, passport cases): 3.2%

Fran Severn is a public relations professional and freelance writer.