Marketers like to put things into buckets. Are you a digital or a social agency? Does this come out of the trade or the advertising budget? Is this an above- or below-the-line spend? It takes a lot of work to convince a decision-maker that you are an expert in a new discipline because once your company is in an industry bucket, it’s difficult to get out.
A recent success is how PR leapt into social media after a concerted effort led by industry giants like Edelman that realized that if they allowed those whipper-snappers at new, so-called “digital media agencies” to stake claim to social media, PR could be left fighting for event marketing dollars, something they realized they couldn’t dominate a decade earlier.
It’s even more challenging to get a marketing tactic into a different budget. As a long-time advocate of product sampling, I’ve always taken issue with the tactic being lumped into the consumer promotion category. Sampling doesn’t fit into the criteria:
Consumer promotion is a marketing strategy that provides a limited, time-sensitive offer to drive purchase causing immediate and measurable short term sales spikes.
Common promotions are coupons, sweepstakes, contests, TPRs (temporary price reductions), BOGOs and the like. The coupon expires, the contest ends, the sale is for a limited time only while supplies last. With sampling, there are a limited number produced, and therefore the supply will run out, but that’s where the similarities end. The goals of sampling are not the same as promotion, and should not be expected to perform or be measured the same way.
Best practices for the majority of product sampling executions should be:
No other consumer promotion tactics need to work as hard as sampling to be successful. Give a current user a coupon and they will stock up, which helps spike sales. But will they purchase next week without the coupon? Promotions train consumers to wait for incentives. Bed Bath & Beyond has acknowledged that it has created a problem with its flow of 20%-off coupons. Now that it's distributing fewer, its customers are shopping less often. With sampling, the brand is in more control of the who, how and when. Consumers rarely expect samples and assuming the timing and targeting are right, they are a pleasantly surprised when they get one; research shows that only 30% of consumers say they received a free sample in the past year.
Another “anti-promotion” attribute is that sampling doesn’t create a sense of urgency. Consumers must find the opportunity to use the sample, and then finish whatever brand they currently have before purchasing the sampled brand. This can happen quickly for categories like food, but for laundry detergent, where the consumer may have just stocked up, it could be months before they shop the category again. And, large sample quantities are typically distributed nationally, with purchases spread across many retailers per market over many weeks/months, so expecting a sales spike two weeks after a sampling program like you would after an FSI is a recipe for disappointment.
Sampling is a proven, long-term, equity building tactic that is the most effective tool in the marketing mix to convince a consumer to buy your product. Maybe it’s time we add another bucket called Product Experience, because experiential marketing is also lumped into promotion and has similar challenges when being held to the same standards as other forms of promotion. If the PR industry can do it, I think the growing number of companies in the sampling and experiential space have the ability, and the upside, to shift the paradigm.