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Do the Right Thing: Why We’re Becoming More Mindful in Sharing Swag

Oct 26, 2016 7 min readWorkplace of the future
Photo of Nicole Miller
Nicole Miller

Director of People @ Buffer

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?


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 cash–flow 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.”

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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