Eight Mistakes to Avoid in a Sampling Program

The Customer Has to Be Ready and Eager to Receive -- And This Demands Careful Measurement

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When I checked out my Facebook page last week, I was delighted to see an offer for a sample of free shampoo . I was even more delighted because it's my favorite brand. As a consumer, I was happy to get something for free that I was going to buy anyway. As a marketer whose company distributed 200 million samples this year, it hurt my heart to see a brand waste its money.

Sampling is one of the most effective ways to market. A study by Opinion Research Group showed that 81 percent of consumers say that if they received a sample and liked the product, they would buy it. But, as my own experience proves, some brands are missing out on the huge opportunities that sampling provides because they're approaching sampling the wrong way. Here are the biggest mistakes brands make and how to fix them.

Sampling to current users. Rewarding people who already love your brand will not impact consumption or change brand loyalty. Even so, many brands insist on fishing where the fish are -- on places like their own Facebook pages or websites. Consumers who seek out brands online are already likely to be buying that brand. If sampling is intended to generate trial -- as it should be -- focus on ways to drive new users into your franchise.

Sampling without permission. Even though everyone loves free stuff, they may not love your free stuff when you want to give it to them. They would much rather receive it when it makes sense to them. That means anticipating when they will need you and welcome the experience.

Focusing on targeting versus trial. So what if you're targeting business professionals? Handing people shampoo as they are walking into their office building creates multiple barriers to trial. Build your program to encourage trial. Sample as close as possible to the point of use or need.

Sampling without starting a conversation. You want earned media? Give someone something for free and an easy way to share his or her opinions with friends on social networks. Pam Cooking Spray created a special experience through an influencer marketing platform when it sent a new product, a baking pan, recipes and all the fixings to women who like to bake and share recipes through their social networks. For brands still nervous about negative posts, the law of reciprocity comes into play. People are much more likely to say something nice when you give them something for free.

Sampling without measurement. It's surprising but true. Often, sampling-program measurement starts and ends with "we distributed 5 million samples." Just getting the brand out there is distribution, not measurement. Measure your sampling effectiveness by looking at the investment you're putting into sampling and the purchase conversion that results. If you've been told that out-of -store sampling can't be measured, you're talking to the wrong people.

Thinking you don't have anything to sample. Sampling doesn't just have to mean handing someone a snack bar to eat; it can mean having your customer experience the essence of your brand. Client Chase Sapphire offered outdoor enthusiasts a VIP experience on ski slopes, available only to current card holders, to drive loyalty and encourage new membership. Sampling a car typically means a test drive, but Lincoln introduced the new MKZ to 10,000+ consumers in the heart of New York City near the High Line, without a car being present. We created the UP Gallery to drive awareness of the MKZ's unique moon roof and Lincoln's support of the arts, featuring gallery-style photos of the vehicle and projection art, surrounding performance artists dancing high on mounted rings. We're hearing more advertisers interchanging the words "seeding" and "sampling." You can't offer samples of products like a Chase card or a Lincoln in every situation, but you can give someone a taste of your brand, with much the same effect.

Eliminating sampling because it doesn't work with your marketing-mix analysis tool. Companies that embrace marketing-mix models tend to breed marketers who gravitate toward tactics that can be neatly measured by the models. Harder-to-measure tactics, such as sampling, are often omitted, especially when bonuses are tied to performance metrics based off the model. But just because something doesn't fit into the model doesn't mean that it's not a great tactic for a brand. Smart companies allow brands to reserve a portion of their budget for tried-and-true tactics that aren't subject to the same criteria.

Not measuring the impact of sampling at new-product launch. The topic of measurement is worth repeating. Some of the biggest sampling budgets are in support of new products. Those levels of support are not likely to be repeated beyond year one, and since launches are often evaluated on an overall hit-or-miss basis, few marketers bother to measure the sampling as a stand-alone element. If the launch fails, who cares that consumers who got a sample were 50 times more likely to buy the product? The brand manager might not, as he prepares for his next assignment, but the marketing director or general manager certainly should, so that they can establish benchmarks and apply them to the next, hopefully successful, new-product launch.

Sherry Orel is CEO, Brand Connections.
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