Hot Or Not: The Sampling Engine

Regular readers of these columns know that I manage to embarrass my family in a multitude of ways. The dirty little secret of Dads is that the really good ones aren't just attentive and involved with their kids, but also creative in humiliating them publicly. My week is not complete without at least one massive eye roll from my daughter and an exasperated "DAD!! JEEZ!!" She's 15, so I am running out of material, but Monty Python silly walks or a Teaberry Shuffle in the mall are pretty reliable.

So is sampling. During our seashore vacation, I pushed the envelope of proper fudge sampling outside of the boardwalk candy shops. "DAD!! JEEZ!!" could be heard throughout Cape May, because my daughter seemed to think that security cams were counting the number of times I snatched handfuls of tiny fudge samples each night. It was time to teach my young lady a lesson in merchandising. I flipped my phone to show her the music services at Verizon and demonstrate just how effective sampling can be in motivating people to buy -- and buy often.

One of the few positive aspects in an otherwise disappointing mobile music market is how both Sprint and Verizon stores let us play around in the catalogs. You can snatch 15 seconds or so of different tunes in much the way you do on iTunes. Apple has one-upped everyone yet again with its release of the Wi-Fi iTunes store for the iPhone and iTouch iPods. Tapping any song in the catalog on these devices now calls up a half-minute clip. Actually, the sampling on Wi-Fi iTunes is so generous that I can get my mobile joke of the day just by pulling down a few clips from the comedy section of the library. This is a lot like assembling my dessert during vacation by hitting the sample tray from five or six boardwalk fudge shops.

But the larger principle here is the same. At the end of our vacation I must have dropped $60 buying fudge to get me and friends through the winter. The generous sampling pays off for the candy vendors -- just as I think it should for the content industry if it takes the right approach to mobile. Perusing the iTunes catalog is the perfect time-killer on a handset, and I am sure that it has opened my eyes to new artists already, because the focus is narrower on the iPhone than on the full Web version of iTunes. On this platform, with only five or six choices on the screen at any one time, I am more likely to tap an artist I've only heard about, because I want to hear what she is like. On the massive iTunes Web library, my tendency is to drill through the cross-marketing opportunities for what I want. The mobile iTunes experience has the added benefit of being in complete synch with the Web version, so when I buy and download a song on the iPhone, it loads into iTunes the next time I plug in. That level of synchronization between Web and mobile versions of a brand could be a killer combo at a site like Amazon.

Ironically, the mobile device has a terrible reputation as a discovery tool; it seems like the last place that users will find things. But if you think about the outrageous success of some mobile dating and social sites like Crush or Flush -- or the way that many users push news stories from mobile to their e-mail boxes -- then mobile discovery takes on a different aspect. Users of mobile dating services often screen potential profiles on their handheld, just as others riffle through celebrity photos in the mobile slideshows that are becoming standard at many WAP sites, from CarandDriver to Style. Once users tap into a vertical of interest to them, the tendency is to sample quickly on this device. Keeping the content quick but also deep, something you can drive by but also dwell and drill in, seems to be key here.

Like the seashore fudge shops, make the bites short, sweet, compelling and varied. As I tell my daughter, it's not stealing; it's sampling.