I've collected a vast array of promotional items from conferences, subcontractors, and "technical lunches" where a vendor is trying to sell something and we're trying to score free food. So here's the Short Geologist's guide to common promotional gear, from least to most useful.
1. baseball cap: If I'm outside, I'm wearing either a hard hat or a wide-brimmed sunhat. A baseball cap is useless to me. And even if I were a baseball cap-wearer, how many caps could I possibly need? Or if a baseball cap is an intrinsic part of my personal style, would I really wear a cheap one with "bob's tanks" or whatever printed on it?
2. CD of promotional material: Not reusable and if I really needed that info, I could look it up on your website in 12 seconds, rather than rummaging around for a CD on my desk. If you hand me a sheaf of papers, I can at least use the back to scribble notes on.
3. Cheap windbreaker: I need raingear that actually works because there's a good chance I'll be out for hours and hours in inclement weather. If it doesn't keep me dry after 3 uses, it's just going to take up closet space.
3. Polo t-shirt: This is a sensitive topic because when you receive a polo shirt from your employer it's supposed to be a Nice Thing. I have a couple problems with company polo shirts: they're impossible to layer under anything; they're never quite the right size; and at least where I've worked, they were really only appropriate for casual Fridays at the office. In the summer. When you were sure that the air conditioning wouldn't kick on. They were nice for my instructing gig if the room was super hot, but that was about it.
4. Miscellaneous tchochkes: I don't need more magnets, CD openers, luggage tags, or corkscrews, but they're small and inoffensive.
Ok, on to the stuff I actually appreciate:
5. good ballpoint pen: not fancy pens, but working pens. Pens that have retractable points (clicky pens) are best,
but I'm just looking for something that won't ooze globs of ink when
writing or disintegrate at the bottom of a backpack. For some reason,
every place I've worked has cheaped out on pens and it drives me
6. Food: I'll eat anything, really. For my personal use,
reasonably healthy snacks (granola bars, nuts) are best because they
work with both travel and fieldwork. But field crews love when vendors send a big box of chocolates to the trailer.
7. Bag: I've gotten reusable grocery bags, canvas tote bags, insulated bags for picnics/bringing over stuff for potlucks, and duffel bags. All are appreciated, and they pack away to essentially nothing when not in use.
8. regular t-shirt: the stuff I get from vendors is usually sized mens' large or bigger, but I can always use t-shirts to sleep in. Bonus if it's actually sized for me (for an undershirt, if nothing else).
9. Thumb drive: you can never have too many of these. Especially if you're working with contractors who are producing draft data in the field, so you can send out the early results and get buy-in for field adjustments. Or you need a copy of an entire sub-directory so you can work remotely. Or your field printer breaks and you need to make a run to kinkos to print forms.
10. business card: I am a big believer in business cards and go through my own (I always have at least 10 with me) at an astounding rate. They're small, handy to write notes on, and they have the person's name on them so I can actually contact the right person later/spell their name correctly in the logbook. If I am trying to get information/access from someone, pre-emptively handing over a card prompts them to respond more readily than just firing questions.
Any major category I forgot?