Offering a bit more than a free sample

Research seen exclusively by Marketing Week suggests there are many factors affecting the success of a sampling occasion, as consumers look for more than just a freebie.


Offering free stuff is not a good enough incentive for consumers to try out a product, according to the latest results from Evolution Insights’ monthly shopper survey, commissioned by experiential marketing agency Hot Cow. Marketers need to think about location, incentives and even the attractiveness of staff when planning sampling activity. The research, seen exclusively by Marketing Week, shows that 71% of consumers will approach a sampling stand if it is visually appealing and 76% will come over if the product is new. But only 38% are more likely to take a sample if it is combined with some kind of interactive experience.

Sally Durcan, managing director of Hot Cow, explains: “Normal is boring. People need something that stands out if they’re going to make the effort to interrupt their day. It’s not enough to have dancing girls in fluffy outfits. The activity has to resonate and fit in with the consumer’s need.”

Try before you buy: An essential technique for the health and leisure club industry

Unsurprisingly, with an interruption-dependent marketing tool consumers would be more likely (57%) to accept a sample if it was handed out by attractive and approachable people. More than half (56%) would be put off taking a sample if they also had to complete a survey but 58% would engage in sampling if they had more time.

The majority of consumers (63%) would go on to buy the free sample if the occasion provided a great experience that then changed their perception of the brand.

Just 3% of those surveyed would accept a sample of a product they would never consider buying themselves, but 29% claim they hardly ever go on to buy products they receive samples of. This compares with 54% who say they sometimes go on to buy these products and 5% who claim they always buy a product after trying it for free.

Brand consideration as a result of sampling was encouragingly high with 38% of respondents claiming they would go on to immediately purchase the product themselves, 36% stating they would be likely to buy it if they saw it while out shopping and 18% claim they would probably go on to buy a free sample within seven days.

Durcan insists that marketers have to help consumers follow through with these high consideration rates. “The frustrating thing for all involved is to get the sample, go in store and find that it’s not available,” she says. “Customers will say that they are going to buy a product after sampling it but if they can’t find it they will buy something else. They have no brand affinity.”

Product benefit ranked highly as an incentive to purchase, with 85% of respondents saying they were more likely to buy again because they enjoyed the product. Financial incentive is also a significant influencer, with 80% of consumers saying they would buy if they also received a discount coupon.

Alpro: Uses sampling activity to challenge perceptions about the brand

Location plays a significant part in the success of a sampling occasion and the insights into consumer attitudes to sampling in transport hubs are surprising.

Only 23% of consumers would be likely to sample a product in a train station and only 24% would do so on the street. The majority, however, are not convinced about either location, with 66% saying they would not be more likely to take a sample from the street and 65% saying the same about train stations, compared with other locations.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, are good sampling locations, according to 89% of those surveyed. This demonstrates a clear correlation with the findings on product benefit and incentive to buy, where the majority would buy if they had a relevant coupon and more than half would buy if they could do so immediately.

Time and embarrassment are key elements of consumer reticence to try as 38% feel uncomfortable taking samples and 34% feel under pressure to buy as the quid pro quo. Another 30% of those questioned claim they don’t have the time to stop.

Overall, consumers view sampling positively as an incentive to try a new product but marketers would be wrong to think that they will get new customers simply by handing a sample out for free.



The frontline

We ask marketers on the frontline whether our ‘trends’ research matches their experience on the ground


Chris Collis
Senior marketer

For us, sampling is done to challenge public perception of the brand. Many consumers think Alpro is going to be strange and unusual due to the idea promoted years ago by the industry that it’s ‘just like dairy milk’ when it has its own unique flavour.

We have to get the right message and product into the consumer’s hands and do it at the right time. Our morning sampling campaigns in commuter hotspots are all about breakfast so we provide a breakfast bag not just with the product but also with cereal and a spoon and some literature. In the afternoon it’s a dessert occasion so we provide pudding.

We have to provide the whole experience. If we just gave a sip cup from a stand the consumer would walk five yards and forget about it. We have one chance and it has to be a high quality interaction. The team we have working on our stands at stations or festivals have been doing it for years so they know our brand. We audition them so that they can prove to us that they’re engaging, friendly people who can relate to our audience.

The joined-up campaign is crucial. You have to take the consumer on a journey from the TV ad to the stand, through to engagement and sharing with peers. Feedback through social media is giving people a reason to continue the conversation with us. We use a variety of mechanics and test them all – coupon redemption, competition entries, research on station platforms. Above all, it’s the quality of the experience and the sample that is key.


Mary Rodger
Marketing manager
Harpers Leisure

Try before you buy is essential in the gym industry. Potential customers are hesitant to try the equipment and some have never been to a gym before. To get beyond this face-to-face interaction with Harpers staff is very important. The 15-minute gym induction isn’t just a health and safety requirement, it’s a chance for a sales opportunity. People who just potter in might not see everything that is available such as the spa or studio. We’d have a much lower conversion rate if people couldn’t get a sense of everything there is to offer.

Local communities respond to different incentives so we rely on the local teams to go into the community – fetes, schools and women’s institute (WI) meetings – not just to hand out free passes on fliers but to talk to people. Sampling is on-going throughout the year via the website but we do support two annual campaigns – around the January sale and our summer campaign, which are two of the most important times of the year recruitment-wise. Whenever we invite potential customers in to try the facilities, we always need to challenge the perception that there’s more to a centre than a gym.

It’s clearly important to have a fun aspect to the outreach, moving beyond the branded T-shirt. Wherever we issue sample passes, whether all year round via the website or during one of the seasonal campaigns, it’s the face time, one on one between centre staff and potential customers, that is most effective.


Steve Harger
Marketing manager
Pom Bear, Intersnack

Marketing to children is heavily regulated and we are signatories to the EU pledge on this. Our sampling activity is linked to our various sponsorship activities such as the programme we are running with the Camping and Caravanning Club’s National Camping and Caravanning Week (June 2-8). In particular, its attempt to break the Guinness World Record for most paper crowns worn. It’s a natural fit for us because the Pom Bear mascot is recognisable by his crown.

Most consumers expect that at an event where you have a presence there will also be product and so we will be giving out samples but one of the most effective parts of our activity is meeting the lifesize mascot. A lot of parents and kids know the brand already and relish the opportunity to meet the bear and have their picture taken with him. It’s helpful that the mascot is pretty big and recognisable from a distance. We’ve taken it to county shows and it does attract an audience.

Sampling without an incentive to purchase is useless but we’ve seen with Intersnack’s Penn State brand that coupon redemption is low compared to the numbers issued. Equally, we don’t want to do sampling in supermarkets because our experience has shown us that it is an expensive strategy that generates a high spike that week which then drops off.


Michelle Wilde
Brand director of cake
Premier Foods

Our sampling strategy has centred around making cake engaging as a ‘go to’ snack and so our mission has been to put product in unusual places. Fun is a huge element of the strategy – everything from the signage and stand which reflects the zingyness of the Mr Kipling Lemon and Angel slices to engaging activities encouraging people to win more than one sample.

Sampling near points of purchase delivers much more tangible benefits so we park our bright sampling van in Tesco car parks. The customer has the brand experience which is then reinforced by cues in store.

We’re looking for consistency – sampling and deals in store run at the same time – and it ensures that the period between sampling and purchasing is very short. Staff are trained to know the aisle where product can be found and we tailor the message from store to store.

Sampling also helps us generate wider word of mouth buzz. We used dispensers in 20 bus shelters which dispensed cake for free at one-minute intervals. It’s not a controlled environment and brings the element of surprise – we’re not just shoving samples in people’s hands. This has delivered thousands of tweets and Facebook mentions. We even sampled at the London Marathon, not to runners but to their families and friends supporting them. Sampling is not something we traditionally use on the Mr Kipling band, but this was a real push to get cake considered in a different way.



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