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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How to be a Swag Ninja

The first step in the program is to admit that you have a problem.  I have a shoe problem...

When I first started this blog, I announced that one of my purposes in developing it was a openly hostile attempt to acquire as much free shit as I possibly could.  Turns out...I'm really f-ing good at it.  I'm a swag ninja.  I have so many shoes now that I could wear a different pair of running shoes every day of the month.  I haven't paid for any item of running gear in almost a year.  And in that time I have collected over $3000 worth of free footwear alone.

Now I'm probably way beyond the point where most people want to be in terms of running gear.  From a practical perspective, I'm even beyond the point I want to be.  Most of my test shoes sit in a box and collect dust.  My purpose in getting shoes from nearly every major manufacturer is more for me than just having a bunch of shoes.  My intent is to be the only person on the interwebs that has tried all of these minimal shoes....and thus TAKE OVER THE WORLD!  Or, my less Pinky and the Brain-style goal...just be a go-to source of information for all things minimal.

But I know a lot of you have aspirations, probably a lot more realistic and less shoe-whorish ones, to snag some free swag of your own.  The reason could be that you don't want to pay ridiculous prices for what in all likelihood could be a disappointing minimal shoe (a pretty realistic fear in this market).  Or maybe you just want to drive a little bit more traffic to your blog.  Whatever the case, here's a few tips that I've learned during my crash course in ninja training.

Rule #1: You Need Experience to Get Experience

Companies aren't interested in just giving their products away.  That's why they put a retail price on them.  At the same time, these companies recognize that giving away some of their product to the right consumers is a good investment.  Specifically, they want to give it to a consumer who will tell people that their product is awesome.  Word of mouth advertising is one of the most powerful forms of getting people excited about your product because people trust their friends more than big corporations.

That's why companies are lining up to give products away to bloggers.  For an investment of around $100 in free product, they can reach hundreds or thousands of people after that blogger writes a review of that product.  For example, for a mere $85 my Merrell Trail Glove review has been read by over 4,000 people since February 2011, and gets around 400 additional views each week.  And those views aren't random.  They represent folks who set out to find that review on the internet because they are considering buying the product.  That's pennies on the dollar for some very targeted advertising.  Can't beat that!

That said, companies don't just want to give their product to any blogger.  They want a good return on investment.  That means a couple of things.  First, they want someone who can effectively convey the benefits of their product.  In other words, they want someone who can write a good review.  How to write a good review is another episode.  But the point is that you can't expect to review stuff unless you've already reviewed stuff.

Okay smart guy...but how can I be expected to have reviews already if I've never gotten anything free to review?  Well, maybe your first couple of reviews are of stuff that you didn't get for free.  That doesn't mean that you have to go out and pop for a couple hundred bucks worth of stuff to review in order to get the same amount of free stuff.  You might as well have bought the product you wanted for free in the first place.  Instead, one idea is to review a product that you already own.  The first review I ever did was of my Original Sport Kilt, which I had purchased for a Halloween costume (and also because kilts are kind of my thing).  By the way, that review remains one of my favorite posts of all time.  I had a ton of fun writing it.  If you haven't read it, you should.

Keep in mind though that folks don't want to read a review of your stanky 1970s New Balance racing flats.  They want to hear about products that they can go out and buy somewhere today.  So if all of your stuff is old, you might have to pony up some cash to purchase something for your first review.  That doesn't mean you need to go buy the most expensive shoes on the market.  People look for reviews for just about every product they buy nowadays.  So maybe your first review is of a less-expensive piece of running gear.  My second review ever was of the Luna Equus Lace for my huaraches, which I paid a whopping $14 to purchase.

Rule #2: Swag...It Isn't Just for Bloggers Anymore

I don't want to make it sound like you need a blog to get free stuff.  You don't.  It just helps ease your transition to ninja-dom.  But plenty of folks I know have gotten swag without a single blog entry.  That's because companies don't just want a handful of random reviews floating around on the interwebs.  They are also looking for folks to contribute reviews to their website. 

As long as you're willing to write a thoughtful review, several websites are willing to give you free stuff to do it.  A ton of my friends have gotten free stuff by contacting companies like Planet Shoes, which has a great selection of minimal shoes to choose from.  I've gone that route as well for a review of the Patagonia Advocate that I did for Barefoot Running University

Rule #3: Free Stuff Doesn't Just Come From the Manufacturer

Okay, but what if I'm a lazy wanker?  What if I don't even want to write a review to get free stuff?  For the most part, that's tough shit buddy.  Suck it up and do it.  But there are still some options for those who aren't willing to put out much, if any effort towards acquiring swag.  The way I do this the most is to participate in events held by a company whose swag I desire.  This can be as simple as signing up for a race hosted by a manufacturer and getting something in your grab bag.

Just note that the more you participate in an event, the more stuff you'll likely get.  For example, a while back I volunteered to be the local race director for The Naked Foot 5K in Minneapolis, which is sponsored by Merrell.  Due to my participation, I've snagged a free pair of Trail Gloves, as well as jackets, tech t-shirts, hats, and other Merrell goodies.  I've probably received over $500 worth of stuff overall.  I didn't volunteer to run the race for all of this, but it is a nice added bonus.

That is just one example of where free stuff comes from.  In reality, free stuff can come from just about anywhere.  Just use your imagination.  And be quick to take advantage of opportunities as they come along.  A large part of my ridiculous shoe collection comes from the grand daddy of swag himself, Jason "Shoe-tard" Robillard.  As he got ready to become a homeless person (albeit a homeless person sponsored by a big company), he was looking to dump a load of shoes from his past shoe reviews.  We happen to be the same shoe size.  I was like a woman at a Payless BOGO event and snagged nearly all of them.  I'm not ashamed...he had a lot of cool stuff.  And now it's mine.  Booyah!

SIDE NOTE: I'm looking to unload some of my massive shoe collection for a reasonable price.  If you are a US size 11-12 and are interested, please shoot me an email and I'll let you know what's in stock at my new store: The Maple Grove Shoe Salesman Guy. 

Rule #4: You Never Get Anything Unless You Ask

The saying "good things come to those who wait" is crap; at least as it applies to swag.  If you sit on your ass and wait for swag to fall in your lap, you will find yourself with an empty lap.  Swag comes to those who ask. 

That doesn't mean that you email Vibram today and say, "Please give me some ugly toe shoes!" and expect a shoe box on your doorstep 6-8 days later.  I guarantee that you do that you will hear crickets.  You will be ignored. 

Now, if I go and ask a company like Vibram for some shoes, I probably will get a response.  But that's because I have spent some time building a swag empire and an abundance of awesomeness.  When just starting out on your swag hunt, you'll have to be more selective in who you ask.  That means that your first swag will probably come from smaller companies.  I found it easiest to get swag from small companies that didn't have any reviews from barefoot runners yet.  The first company to agree to furnish me with free stuff was Unshoes, which at the time had only been reviewed by a barefoot runner once. 

And it's not just who you ask, but how you ask that matters.  By agreeing to review a piece of swag, you are entering into a business transaction with a company.  They will exchange something that you want only if you have something they want.  So what do you have that they want?  This is where you need to be marketing yourself.  Why should they give you free stuff?  What can you offer them?

There are lots of different answers to these questions, but the most obvious answer is exposure.  If you are a towering pillar of awesomeness in the barefoot community like me, then the exposure you can provide a company is pretty clear.  But when I first started out, I had to explain how amazing I was to companies.  I had to make it known that although I didn't have a lot of followers, I had connections in the barefoot community.  I name dropped like crazy.  I also sweetened the deal by offered things above and beyond the normal review, like giveaways and follow-up reviews.  I also trotted out my previous resume of reviews to show the quality of my writing. 

It's hard to tell people how to market themselves because we're all different.  So what you have to bring to the table is unique to you.  The owner of Unshoes once told me that he agreed to let me review his Wokova Sandals because I took a more critical stance on footwear than other bloggers.  In other words, I don't feed people a line of bullshit just because I got the product for free and I want to play nice-nice.  I tell it like it is.  That's my gift to the blogosphere.  Companies know that they run the risk that I will poop on their products.  But they also know a good review from me is more credible than from some other sources.

The qualities that you bring to the table will be different, and let's face it...probably inferior to mine.  But you need to figure out what they are, and why they will make you a good choice for a company.      

Rule #5: Put Shit In, Get Shit Out

So of all of the rules that I've laid out so far, this is the most important.  It should be the pillar of everything you do.  That means that if you want free swag, you can't write crappy stuff.  Companies want people who can clearly articulate the pros and cons of their product in a persuasive and believable way.  If you can't do that, they will notice in a hurry, and your swag stream will dry up. 

On the other hand, good writing advertises itself.  The best bloggers don't link their posts in many places.  They let others do it for them.  They let their work filter out and build on itself organically.  Most of my pageviews come from Google searches, not any link that I post on places like facebook.  Of course, it wasn't always that way.  As people liked my reviews, they linked them on their own sites.  That viewership moved those reviews up the list of search results.  And as a result, I got more Google traffic.   

It all builds on itself, and you have to just let it happen.  And it certainly doesn't happen overnight.  I know a ton of bloggers who try to attract more traffic to their site by posting links to their blog posts everywhere over and over.  But that's like political campaign commercials.  The frequency of the commercials might generate a bit of interest, but for the most part it's just annoying noise that most people tune out.  Don't be that blogger.  Make people read your stuff because they want to read it, not because you annoyed them into reading it. 

I hope this guide puts you on the path to becoming swag-scoring samurais.  Good luck out there citizens, and CHEERS!


  1. Hit me up with what you have left of your minimalist collection. I wear a size 12 in NB100s, 11.5 in Mizuno Wave Mushas, and 11 in Merrell MBTGs. Would your shoes fit me? I am especially interested in sandals.

  2. Email headed your way about possible shoe acquirement!

  3. I want to be a swag ninja, just like you! ! ! You are my hero! ! Thanks for the info. My blog is seriously lacking but maybe I'll get my butt in gear and start reviewing my own stuff and who knows, I just might get an offer like you. :-)

  4. I tried to be a swag ninja but failed, because I'm 16 and my permanent address is in Europe... Oh well, some day :P

  5. I'm not sure I want to be a "swag ninja," with my pack rat tendencies being what they are already.

    Since I started running my house is already filling up with race shirts. My shirt collection in general has gotten so out of control I now have a strict rule that if I keep a new shirt, two gotta go. I can't imagine if other running favors were thrown into the mix.

  6. Zoe, you were on your way. Blogs just take time to cook, and you have just started. But you have talent and a different perspective on barefoot running. I hope you give it another try...maybe when you're in a better place.

  7. This is all very interesting and educational. Thanks sensei!

  8. If a person can only buy one pair of shoes which would it be?

  9. Garrett, take a look at my review of the VIVOBAREFOOT Evo II. That, and the Neo are my recommendations for best all-around minimal shoe.

  10. Great review of the EVO II, but like hell I am going to fork over that much for a pair of shoes. I think there is some mental roadblock that a person must over come to paying that much for shoes. When compared to other sports though like golf, clubs only start at that price and go way up, cycling requires a minimum of about $1000 to get started. So if running is what you do then $160 isn't all that bad.

  11. It is true, you seemed to have a more critical stance and that was important to me. Another large factor was that you were planning to run an ultramarathon so I knew that you were a dedicated runner.

    I will admit that I almost re-considered when I saw some of your more "colorful" language because I thought it might detract readers but all it took was a little bit of looking around to see that you had interesting topics and a good reader base.



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