Promotional items are a great way to grow a small business working with a small marketing budget – and those key rings, thumb drives, organizers, coffee mugs, and other giveaways can deliver business weeks, months, even years from now.

Although everybody loves to get free stuff, not all free stuff is created equal. It’s important to plan any promotional campaign to avoid wasting money and time on giveaways that don’t boost company sales.

Your plan should include:

The goals and objectives of the promotion, including the most desired action – the action you want prospects to take, whether that’s giving your business a call, dropping the sales manager an email, or visiting your restaurant.

What the promotional give-away is, i.e. a t-shirt, a pen imprinted with company contact information, or, during the holidays, an expensive embossed attaché case for your best clients.

The means of distributing the promotional item. Will it be sent by mail or will you station an employee at your store entrance in the mall with free samples of the products you sell?

The timing of the promo to deliver the greatest impact.

The “hip” factor. Ten years ago mouse pads were a popular promotional give-away, but with increased access to the Internet using mobile technology like smartphones and tablets, people won’t get too excited about your free mouse pad give-away. However, a thumb drive might actually be used every day.

Be consistent with your brand. The gift should be relevant to your target market or customer. If you’re a certified financial planner, a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo isn’t your best choice to hand out to potential clients. A free calculator might better fit your occupation and company brand.

Be seen. A few thousand people wearing a t-shirt with your logo and contact info is a virtual army of walking billboards!

Include complete business contact information on all promotional giveaways. This is part of the power of promotional giveaways – they tend to stick around. A nice pen with your company’s phone number and email address imprinted may be seen a hundred times by the person who grabbed a freebie from your tradeshow booth.

Employ cooperative promotions with other businesses. Give out discount coupons for the other businesses in the mall and have those businesses hand out your company’s free promo. Hey, you’re just two doors down from where that prospect is standing – and your mall neighbor just handed the prospective customer a nice, useful gift with your business’ name on it.

If you really want to save on promo costs, design a promo that can be used by several nearby businesses and split the cost. “Enjoy 50% off your favorite foods at The Acme Mall Food Court.” All food court business owners give away the same promos to pull in business to the food court.

A business promo doesn’t have to cost a bundle, but it should be planned down to the smallest detail to make sure you get the best return on your investment.

So, reach out. Go pro-active. Keep your name in front of prospects and existing customers or clients. Make your customers feel special and help bring in new customers with promotional items and giveaways.