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U.S. Postal Service gets creative with samples discount program

Nescafe samples in the mail, with coupon.

“I remember growing up and seeing boxes of cereal come with the newspaper,” recalls Jen Drexler, V.P. at Insight Strategy Group. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that happen.”

If you can package it, you can sample it -– toothpaste, deodorant, beauty supplies, medicine. If you have the best product, all you need to do is get a consumer to try it, right?

But samples have fallen out of favor somewhat over the past 10 years, according to Sherry Orel. She is CEO of Brand Connections and heads theProduct Sampling Council at the Brand Activation Association. “It’s a bit of a lost art,” she says.

Orel says it’s not because sending samples isn’t effective –- she says it’s perhaps the single most effective marketing method there is, especially for new products. But success can be hard to measure.

If you put out a bottle of shampoo at the gym, how do you know if that makes people buy it later?

“Make it accountable,” says Doug Guyer, president of product sampling company Brand Share. “It cannot just be 'Here’s your free sample.'”

So include coupons that can be tracked, or invitations or incentives to take surveys online. That way a direct mail sample can be tracked.

Marketing has always depended heavily on sussing out the “who” -- who should an ad or message target. But with sampling, there’s also the “when and how” involved in getting consumers to actually try the product, says Orel.

Orel gives an example: “If your target is Vanessa, and she’s 27 and is in a book club and drinks red wine" -- making her the perfect demographic for your shampoo -- “and you hand Vanessa a bottle of shampoo when she gets off the subway, that bottle is going into her bag. There are a great many hurdles associated with getting it out of her bag and into the shower. If you hand her the sample as she’s walking into the shower, the trial rates will be three times higher.”

Part of the art of product sampling is getting that timing right, says Guyer. Sending sunscreen samples in May, for instance, so consumers buy the big bottles for June and July. Food is easy -- serve it hot at dinner time at a Costco. Combine related product samples with e-commerce orders.

“It’s the most expensive marketing tactic, yet most effective," says Guyer.

Drexler, with Insight Strategy Group, says consumers love the thrill of the surprise to such an extent that they actually pay to receive free samples.

“Birch Box, Glam Box, there are others -- there are subscription services where consumers pay to receive a surprise box of free samples.”

That is perhaps an indication that the appeal for free stuff has not dissipated. Orlen, with the Brand Activation Association, says big companies are becoming more aware of the lost art of product samples.

“They’ve come to the realization that their lack of utilization of this tactic is leading to situations where brands aren’t performing as well as they used to.”

So between that and the postal service discount, maybe we can all expect more freebies at front door.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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