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For years new products have tried to get our attention by using Sampling.

Last month I was given 3 tea bags at a Sydney train station neatly enclosed in an envelope advertising the new lipton tea favours. Train stations are not a bad way to sample in mass, particularly if your product is aimed at the mass market, however it was surprising how many of the tea bag envelopes were dumped in the bin before people had exited the station.

Why would this be?
I think in part, people are walking so fast that they don’t really know what they are being given until after they have already received it. In that case, non-tea drinkers would probably dump the sample anyway. That said, sampling at train stations is a game of numbers. For example, let’s say that 10,000 samples were given out. Lipton would have hoped that say 5,000 of the sample packets were read by the consumers, and that 3,000 made it to the place of work or home next to the hot water jug, and then perhaps 1,000 of those were consumed as a drink. Finally, the big test is how many of those who trialled enjoyed the experience of the trial pack so much that they went and purchased one of the new flavours from the grocery store.

As mass media becomes a more difficult medium to communicate new products to consumers, techniques like sampling will become a more integrated part of the marketing mix. But rather than treat the exercise as just an awareness campaign, I think product managers should be applying some basic rules to maximise the return on their expenditure.

1. Built in buzz
To increase the trial rates of the sample, it’s important to build in as much “buzz” as you can. Make sure the sample goes beyond “just try this” and try and create a “memorable experience” from the product involvement.

2. Pick the right audience
Not all samples are tea-bags, and depending on the sample costs you can get better value by giving samples to the target demographic. Even within a train station, product samples can be directed to the target demographic. Japan railway stations regularly hand out tissue packs complete with advertising and most are directed at either male or female depending on the advertisement on the tissue pack. If the product sample is of reasonable cost, make sure you spend time up front identifying the best people who should be given the opportunity to benefit from participation in the trial.

3. Test the Sample
Before organising 1000 samples, organise 3 different samples and get 10 made up. Test these to determine which one works best. You may need to do this a few times, but it’s guaranteed to improve your percentages!

4. Pass it on
If possible, provide an easy way for people who try the product to promote the experience to their network of friends and colleagues. A positive trial experience can be multiplied 10 times if the person who samples the product can relieve the product association by telling friends and colleagues with his or her own story. This is called “Consumer Generated Media” and can be a powerful way to expand the reach of any sampling program.

5. Collect Consumer Insight.
If you are going to the trouble of handing out your samples, make sure there is a way to collect consumer feedback from the trial. This can be done using the sample fulfillment agency by ensuring that comments and experiences are recorded. In addition, you should always provide an easy way for consumers to provide comments on what they liked or how the product could be improved either through a call centre, website or paper form.

6. Measurement of the program.
Great sampling programs have a way of tracking the trial to purchase percentages. The local bakery always samples one of their new breads on the front counter. By measuring the sales of that particular variety during the day it is sampled provides an ROI model for the sampling. Another techniques is to include a
“where did you hear about us” question on signing up for a product or service.

I would welcome any other experiences with sampling or ideas on making it work.

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