What we're talking about

When you offer potential customers a freebie, that's known as a product sample. It's a marketing tactic, particularly common in the world of fast-moving consumer goods (eg, food and drink), that involves getting a version of your product in people's hands to achieve a specific goal. That might simply be to get the word out about your brand, encourage sales of a new product, or to test out the popularity of different product options.

Product sampling can take place in supermarkets and stores, in tactical locations, or as part of collaborations with other brands. Increasingly, brands are distributing samples digitally via their own or other websites, but this guide focuses on physical sampling. 

Why it's important 

First and foremost, people prefer to try something before parting with their cash. Even if they don't make a purchase there and then, most respond positively and proactively. One 2021 survey found that 88% of shoppers liked the idea of free samples, with more than half willing to write a review of the product, and a third willing to post about it on social media. 

As a result, sampling can play a big role in increasing (or improving) brand awareness, customer education, sales and brand loyalty. It can lead to user-generated content and reviews (especially online) – with positive ripple effects. And it can precipitate customer feedback that then goes on to shape your business – it's particularly powerful if you're launching a new item, or trying to penetrate a new market. The key, of course, is to achieve whatever your prime goal is without making a big financial loss or wasting time – which is no easy feat; knowing how to budget and measure return on investment properly can be tricky. 

Things to note

Decide if you're going for direct or indirect sampling. This is a key distinction. Direct sampling involves face-to-face interaction with the prospective customer (eg, having a stall in a store), while indirect sampling (eg, a free gift alongside a purchase) doesn't. They both have their pros: with direct sampling, there's naturally more opportunity to communicate your value, educate customers and elicit feedback; indirect sampling is usually cheaper, since you don’t need to pay brand ambassadors or hire space, but it can be harder to measure and track your goals.

You have to budget. Obvious but worth reiterating: giving out products for free means you're covering the costs. This is a substantial investment – from product and logistics costs to employee costs and space hire. All of this can take a big chunk out of your marketing budget. The aim is to make back the money you spend tangibly in direct sales, and less tangibly in brand awareness. You need to create a budget for your sampling campaign, and then have a method to track your return on investment so you know whether it's a good use of your marketing spend. If point-of-sale data isn't available, you might track cost per contact (the full cost of sampling divided by the consumers engaged) or cost per impression (full cost divided by passive impressions, like footfall). 

Your staff are critical. Don't overlook how important your staff members or brand ambassadors are in this process. They are the face of your brand and can make or break the program. Choose wisely, making sure they're experts when it comes to your product and have excellent interpersonal skills. 

Consider the customer's path to purchase. Customers need to have a course of action made clear to them while they are sampling your product. How can they purchase more now? Where can they go to purchase more later? Can they follow and tag you on social media? How can they give feedback on your product and the sampling experience? Plot out your customer journeys – and make it as easy as possible for them to buy from, or spread the word, about your brand. You should incorporate your brand packaging into a display on your demo table and, of course, have products on hand to encourage an impulse purchase during a positive interaction. 

There are hoops to jump through. Sampling can involve a fair bit of bureaucracy; pitching up and getting going without thinking this through isn't advised – unless you're opting to go guerilla. The topic of guerilla marketing is broad enough for an entire guide in itself, but you'll need to do a thorough check of the permissions, insurance and licenses you need – and consider the health and safety around allergen-based products or alcohol. These essential requirements are frequently forgotten when it comes to budgeting or plotting timelines. 

How to sample your products

1. Set narrow goals. Start by figuring out what you want to achieve with your sampling campaign. Is this tied in with a particular moment in your life cycle (eg, a new product or feature launch) or just a routine marketing tactic? Goals should be measurable – ranging from gathering a certain amount of pre-launch feedback to getting a percentage increase in sales.  

2. Set a budget. Your budget should influence the scale of your goals and what you can realistically achieve. You may have to make calls about where you prioritize your cash – whether that's on location, staff members or number of samples. One way to save money is to look for community or company events that align with your brand and demographic – and where you can offer your product as an in-kind donation and not pay sponsorship fees. 

3. Know your audience. Think about the needs, habits and wants of your current customer base, and – if applicable – the new group you're trying to reach. Where do they spend time? What other businesses do they shop from? When are they most approachable? Is seasonality a factor? What kind of sample would be most useful to them? Why would they be hesitant about buying your product in a traditional setting? 

4. Identify which products to sample. Decide on the product you want to get in front of them. Decide what you're going to promote and the form it'll take when you give it out. Will you give out a whole product, a mini version or a small portion? Will it be consumed there and then, or will the customer take it home to use? This will also drive budget: if you're a food brand sampling in a retail store, on-the-spot trial should be your primary objective.  

5. Identify how you'll sample them. Consider the overall sampling experience beyond the product. You could do something basic or opt for something more experiential – perhaps by working with an external agency. There's an extensive list of sampling techniques here. Land upon your chosen method, where you'll do it and for how long. 

6. Set up a feedback system. As part of a broader consideration of customer next steps, think about how you can make it easy for people to tell you (and the world) what they think of your product. You could include a QR code, choose a hashtag so they can get involved on social media, or create an in-person questionnaire or website form. You can also require your staff or brand ambassadors to provide a report with feedback noting examples of questions asked or the most popular flavor.  

7. Manage the logistics – and who'll do what. Translate your plans into action. That could be contacting appropriate venues or businesses, booking slots, ordering and sending over products, signing contracts, assembling a team to run the sampling, and so on. If you won't be in charge of the sampling yourself, working with brand ambassadors is a good idea. Read our guide to finding the best ones here

8. Create supporting materials. If you're running a direct sampling campaign, consider ordering some promotional material, like a banner or some business cards. You may also want to invest in advertising content and build out a social media plan with key messaging planned for the few days prior and during. 

9. Run the campaign. With all preparations in place, get moving. Stay mindful of your stock levels and be sure to record sales. If you're in a retail venue, make sure you know where sales have been for a period before, so you can properly see the impact that sampling has had. 

10. Measure results and implement feedback. Once the campaign is over, gather your thoughts and findings, cross-referencing them with your goals. Discuss what went well and what went badly with your team and incorporate the key takeaways into your product or business strategy going forward. Track everything – don't skip the post-analysis stage. 

Key takeaways 

• You can sample your products with or without face-to-face customer interaction. If you're going for a direct approach, location and staff capability are super important. 

• Product sampling comes at a price, so it's important that you have a system in place to track the right metrics to work out whether it was worth the expense.  

• As with any marketing effort, tailor your sampling – in terms of what you offer and how you offer it – to the group you're trying to reach. 

Learn more 

Perspective. From brand experience agency Elevate, here are five things to in a product sampling program. 

Example. See how pea-based snack brand Yushoi gave out free packets to commuters fitting the ‘adult snacker’ demographic. 

Tool. Sampling platform Peekage goes into the process and metrics needed to measure the impact of your sampling campaign

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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