Free Sampling – When It Pays, When It Doesn’t

““The truth shall make you free.”” – American proverb

The Post-it note – which today comes in more than 50 colors, shapes, and sizes – began as a failed idea at 3M 20 years ago.

It is surprising to think of it now, but when the little (at that time) yellow memo slips were introduced to the market in 1980, the public wasn’t interested. At least that is what sales figures indicated after an aggressive and costly advertising campaign.

What turned it around for 3M and made Post-its the most successful office product since whiteout? Free samples.

Convinced that the little notes would click once tried, 3M launched a big giveaway program, handing out hundreds of thousands of them to just about anyone who could use them.

The strategy worked. Big time. Today, Post-its (and their generic knock-offs) rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. Who would have guessed?

The Best Marketing Ideas Are The Oldest Ideas

Sampling is not new, but using free samples as the basis of a new product launch is relatively rare. At least, it was rare until the Internet age. In the past five or six years, dozens of software products have been brought into the market through giveaway plans. In fact, sampling has become so commonplace in the “new economy” that many marketing gurus consider it the only way to sell. Give it to them free. If they like it, they will pay to get more.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

It depends on what you are selling, how desirable it is, how it’s priced, the cost of the sampling program, and the distribution scheme.

The Products:

Some products/services do not lend themselves to sampling. Anything expensive that has a long life span, for example, would pose a problem. (I can’t imagine how you could sample tractors, for example.)

And it is highly unlikely that you can create a successful sampling promotion with anything that is (a) ordinary – not discernibly better than what the competition offers – and/or (b) more wish-fulfillment than reality-based – i.e, anything that promises to make you smarter, sexier, richer, etc. (except ETR, course).

The truth is, so much of what we buy in life is purchased to fill psychological needs that can never be satisfied by the items bought. The art of selling is the art of suggesting that your product/service will fill a need or satisfy a desire. But many of your customers’ most important (and insatiable) desires can’t be satisfied by things they need.

The Pricing:

If your product is as good as the competition’s but considerably less expensive, sampling might be a way to let the market know about your better deal. This approach would work with food, nutritional supplements, cosmetics, and so on.

The Cost of Sampling:

To run a successful sampling promotion, you need to keep close track of cash flow and related sales. You have to be able to demonstrate that for each dollar in cost, a dollar or more was eventually returned.

That usually means a significant cost/price differential.

The reason so much software has been promoted this way has much more to do with the low cost of Internet distribution than with any newfangled idea about marketing to the “new economy.”

If You Can Make Sampling Work, You Have 3 Big Advantages:

1. You can gain market share quickly.

2. You will enjoy a high degree of customer satisfaction (since your customers will know exactly what they are buying).

3. You can gain a “halo” effect for your product/service by entering into a joint venture with a prestige brand. (For example, you might be able to get a well-known car magazine to give away your motor oil free with a new subscription.)

Once you start to think about it, you’ll realize that the opportunities for promoting your product/service by sampling are enormous. Spend a few minutes today imagining the possibilities.