Sure, good marketers are experts at explaining to consumers the many benefits and advantages of a new product or brand. But convincing those same customers to purchase isn’t always as simple as broadcasting a commercial or aiming e-mails at them.
Sometimes, say experts, winning consumers to a product means letting them try it before they buy it. Sometimes, a brand has to lead by a sample.
“Product samples are a way of creating excitement,” explains Rico Cipriaso, a corporate marketing veteran who has spearheaded product sampling campaigns for major international beauty brands. “Sending samples is one of the best ways to reproduce a store experience in the customer’s home.”
Indeed, sampling continues to rank among the most effective tactics in the history of direct marketing, in part because of its ability to do what no other medium can: put a physical product in customers’ hands. Moreover, the practice is finding new adherents even in the digital age.
Consequently, while some CMOs struggle to make sense of new media initiatives, many others are enjoying steady success thanks to a rediscovery of the appeal of product sampling and the power of direct mail to get these campaigns to customers.
“Sampling is growing in importance [because] consumers are bombarded with messages,” says Cindy Johnson, who worked as the corporate sampling programs manager for Procter & Gamble before starting her own marketing consultancy. “It’s just really hard to make an impact on consumers today. But people love samples.”
Certainly, sampling allows companies to extend their message. According to figures from the Promotion Marketing Association (PMA), product samples reach 70 million households each quarter. A recent PMA poll also found that 75 percent of customers say they have become aware of a product through a sample.
And consumers are acting on this awareness, with many saying that product sampling helps them choose among brands. For instance, 81 percent of consumers said they would try a product after receiving a sample, according to a poll conducted in December by Opinion Research Corp. on behalf of the United States Postal Service.® Moreover, 61 percent of those polled said that sampling a product is the most effective way to get them to try a brand.
“It is the consumer-preferred method of marketing,” Johnson says. “Consumers are tuning out the advertising, but they love to try new things. That’s why product sampling works.”
Like Cipriaso, Johnson maintains that product sampling is an ideal way to win customers’ faith in a product. “Consumers feel the sample gives them the actual experience of the product,” she says. “They don’t have to risk any investment to be able to try it.”
This is important, continues Johnson, because many consumers are still anxious about the current economy and have become much more discriminating about their purchases. “That’s why sampling is even more successful right now,” she says. “Because they don’t want to invest dollars in new products. So they are relying on that trial experience to tell them whether they are going to like the product or not.”
Brands can get samples to consumers through an assortment of avenues, of course, from event marketing giveaways to newspaper inserts. Direct mail efforts, though, offer one of the surest avenues to reach consumers, say marketers.
Nick Peragine, product sales manager for Georgia-based lighting manufacturer PureSpectrum, says his company recently used mail to send samples of a new energy-efficient light bulb to a wide assortment of B-to-B contacts. “We came to the decision to use direct mail primarily because it was the easiest way to introduce our products to a large number of potential constituents over a broad area — and to be able to get actual samples of our product in their hands.”
Johnson says the precision of mail marketing also gives it an advantage in product sampling campaigns, although she acknowledges that targeting isn’t everything when it comes to sampling. “With sampling, targeting is very important, but there are other elements that go into the return on investment. Like if you’re resampling the same person: I don’t care if you have the right target, if you have poor sample control there’s no point in doing the program.”
And while it’s a natural fit with direct mail, product sampling also can be integrated into larger, multimedia campaigns. In the Opinion Research Corp. poll, 84 percent of respondents said they would be likely to log on to a website to receive samples if they received a post card driving them to the site.
“A lot of retailers have sites where you can request a sample,” Johnson notes, pointing out how one grocery chain has blended mail and sampling with digital elements of its marketing mix. “And because consumers are thinking they get the sample through that supermarket, then that’s where they go to find the product if they want to buy it. Consumers link the brand with the retailer.”
Thus, the retailer enjoys the bump up in brand opinion and recognition, she says, while its sampling vendor carries the actual responsibility for distributing the products.
Johnson says these integrated programs also give marketers a chance to learn more about their customers. “A lot of times [after sending a sample], we give them a website to register on,” she explains. “We say, ‘Here’s a website. We’re collecting information about your sample, giving away a small prize.’ And they will go online and register, and provide us with the feedback that way.”
Likewise, many brands are making use of social media networks in their sampling efforts. It’s becoming increasingly common, for instance, for brands to mail samples of new products to a select list of targets and then watch as those recipients go to Facebook® and other sites to post rave reviews about the samples.
This suggests that product sampling also engenders consumer loyalty, much like frequent flyer programs and other initiatives, Cipriaso says. He notes how quality product samples, despite usually being distributed in small quantities, have a way of getting consumers to come back to certain brands.
“After we introduce you to our products, we want to make sure we keep you forever,” he says. “We also know that the best customers tend to replenish. They buy the same product over and over again because they use it every day and they love it.”
And these customers also present ideal targets for sampling campaigns designed to expand a brand line, says Johnson: “Let’s say you’re already using a shampoo by a particular brand. If that brand is expanding into the antiperspirant and moisturizer categories, the person who already uses another product by that brand may be more receptive to buying the product. Sometimes, giving them a sample will help make that transition happen.”
But for all their enthusiasm about product sampling, Johnson and others don’t hesitate to warn CMOs about taking sampling campaigns too lightly. No marketing strategy is ever easy to execute, Johnson points out, so marketers need to approach sampling as wisely as they would any other tactic. “The famous misconception is that product sampling is easy,” she says. “You really do need to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.”
In the end, though, when done right, product sampling can yield not only invaluable brand exposure, but also solid ROI, richer knowledge about customers and a stronger bond between companies and the people who buy their goods. Put simply, says Cipriaso, “It’s a business case that works.”Brand Marketing, Large Business, Loyalty, Medium Business, Product Samples, Small Business, Targeting