Sampling: a 20th century model perfect for 21st century marketing

Ever try a piece of that mystery meat in the supermarket?  Ever been to a trade show and strapped on some gizmo to “see how this thing really works?”  Ever take a free bottle of thirst-quenching ade at an outdoor event or concert?  Ever taken a test drive at your local auto dealer?  Then you’ve engaged with a sampling program and, perhaps, one of the most underrated routes to marketing success.

Sampling – sometimes called product sampling, or product seeding –  is the simple act of giving products and even services (think massages) away to get prospects to engage with the experience at no cost.  Typically, the results are very positive, as prospects that interact with or try a product at low risk tend to enjoy the interaction and tend to favorably recall the experience.

Sampling jumpstarts many of the most desired marketing outcomes:
–    creates brand and feature awareness
–    is an engaging and memorable experience
–    is real-time, and therefore creates immediacy
–    is a trial-based experience (perhaps the most important facet here)
–    is a strong acquisition tool

Sampling may reach more prospects than you might consider.  According to a 2008 study by Arbitron and Edison Media Research, nearly 70 million consumers aged 12 and older sample a product every quarter. And talk about lift:  about one out of every three consumers who try a sample buy the sampled product during the same shopping trip.  Further, sampling can impact future buying decisions, as the known experience creates a bond to the brand: six out of 10 consumers who sample products plan to buy these products again. That’s a pretty convincing ROI.

Now, no one here is saying that sampling is so monumental an option that you should abandon your other tactics and shift all your dollars into a seeding program.  However, there are aspects of sampling that simply outgain many of the more known marketing approaches.  For instance, advertising, long accepted as the heavyweight champion of marketing communication, can, at best, only serve to stimulate demand for a product.  Sampling, on the other hand, induces trial.  It’s simply a matter of scale: if advertising didn’t have the benefit of riding along the broadcast channels, it would lose to sampling as a model of efficiency.

Does sampling have any drawbacks?  A few minor shortcomings are evident.  Sampling is hyper-local, and with that comes a scaling challenge. [You can get around this by including a product sample in your next physical mailing program…scaling problem overcome, but watch out for postage fees.] Also, sampling creates a minor headache if you’re bent on attribution.  It’s easy to see same day sales lift, but long-term brand building and incremental sales gains are hard to attribute unless you’re isolating markets or specific product varieties.

Finally, sampling does have a few parameters that must be considered…it’s hard to sample large or expensive products outside of the confines of the test-drive model.  You do have to eat the manufacturing costs of the products you’re giving away as you hedge your bets against future sales.  But regardless of these minor drawbacks, you can gain advantages in your market through sampling.  And if you do it with an intelligently conceived, creatively executed program, promoted through social media and even mobile alerts, chances are you’ll be enjoying those advantages with newly acquired customers for years to come.