May 2011

“Would You Like to Try One?”

by Susan Zweibaum on May 12, 2011

Keys to Developing a Successful Sampling Campaign

Sampling is an important tactic within marketing and there are a variety of sampling types and vehicles you can use to distribute your product to a target audience.  Additionally, there are many times within a product’s lifecycle that you may want to sample, including a new product launch, trial to a new or expanded target audience, as a sales incentive with a retailer, to name just a few.  However, sampling programs are a not one-size-fits-all proposition and each brand team should approach their plan through a customized lens that looks at who is your target, where do you find them, how big is your budget and how are you measuring success?  Sampling also should be approached as an integrated effort and not just a standalone tactic.  It works best when supported by a larger marketing communications plan.

I have developed many sampling programs throughout my career.  They have ranged from the very small (1000 units) to the very large (14 million units) and in each case I examined the key components I am outlining for you below.   I would like to tell you that there is a magic formula for successful sampling, but there really isn’t.  Different sampling vehicles have unique response rates and each target demographic responds differently to each sampling method as well as your individual product.  Sampling won’t help if the product doesn’t connect with your target audience.   If you develop a sampling plan methodically and take into account these considerations you will be more likely to be successful.

1)       Make sure sampling is the right vehicle for your product:  Not every product should be sampled or can be sampled effectively given the size of your budget.  Establish strong objectives and goals for the sampling program and make sure that sampling will help you achieve those goals.  For instance, your product must be refrigerated but you don’t want to sample at retail and you want to reach 250,000 18-24 year olds with a budget of only $150,000. Sampling may not be feasible in this case, and you may want to change your parameters or your goals.

2)      Be Targeted:  Sampling will be totally ineffective if your sample doesn’t hit your target audience effectively and efficiently.  For instance, you don’t want to sample at Spring Break if your target audience is 45 to 54 year-old women.  The more targeted the sampling the higher chance of converting that sample to trial and ultimately to purchase.  That doesn’t mean that all your sampling should be direct mail, but you want to ensure that the greatest number of samples are reaching your target without duplication.

3)      Test-and-Learn:  What seems like a good way to sample may turn out to be the absolute worst, either due to the delivery method, the fulfillment agency or the venue.  On the other hand, what seemed like a slightly odd venue may turn out to be the most productive in terms of trial.  When possible, test smaller programs to determine if they are delivering the ROI you need and they are meeting the objectives of the total program.  Once you’ve determined which programs are going to be successful, build these into your larger plan.  Sampling is often part of the long-term strategy and something that a brand does every year.  In these cases, test-and-learns offer the most effective means of developing a truly efficient and successful sampling plan with programs that work well for the brand.  For others, sampling is just part of a new product launch and seen as a short-term hit.  If that is the case, then test-and-learns are tougher, but still can be considered as part of the in-market test phase of the product launch.

4)      Include as part of an integrated plan:  Sampling in and of itself will not necessarily drive sales.  Sampling should be part of a broader plan that drives awareness and trial.  Just because a person has tried a product and liked it doesn’t mean that they will automatically go and buy it.  In-store offers, online advertising and outreach, advertising and other media vehicles will continue to drive awareness and remind that consumer of the product they sampled.  In some cases, they will receive the sample but not try it until they are reminded by the other messages around them.  Include different sample delivery methods that coordinate with your integrated plan to broaden your reach and provide an ability to determine the best vehicle that drives trial and purchase by your target audience.

5)      Look for Value-Added Programs:  Often sampling is part of a larger sponsorship or media partnership.  These sampling opportunities may be tougher to see a positive ROI, but they often bring a more intrinsic connection to your brand’s psychographic as well as increased opportunities for expanded media.

6)      Provide a sales incentive to trial:  Even when someone has tried a sample and liked it, they often need some help putting it in their kitchen cabinet.  A financial incentive such as a coupon will bridge any hesitation the consumer has in a first-time purchase.  Furthermore, if you are conducting a sampling program as part of a customer marketing initiative or a retailer direct mail program, the retailer is more likely to support the program if there is an incentive sending that consumer into the store to purchase.

7)      Research and Measurement:  Use market research for as many sampling programs as possible in order to determine actual ROI.  Use outside, third-party test methods and do not rely on the sampling agency results or standardized questions.  You want to develop research questions that are appropriate to your brand and brand objectives.  You want to achieve a positive ROI based on purchase intent and actual incremental purchase, and the only way to determine that is through research.  When used in conjunction with test-and-learn scenarios, you will begin to develop a sampling plan that will drive incremental sales.  Additionally, use a consistent measurement methodology across each program so that you ensure an apples-to-apples comparison.

8)      Evaluate and Adjust:  Go back at the end of the year and evaluate all of your sampling vehicles both separately and as a whole.  Determine your overall program ROI and evaluate if each vehicle and the total plan is delivering against objectives.  If your sampling initiatives occur year over year, adjust your plan based on the evaluations of objectives and ROI.

So, how you may ask does this translate to the real world?  Here is an example.

A brand team was given the challenge of delivering 8 million samples for a product launch, but they were told to keep the delivery cost to an average of $.12.  The only way the agency putting the plan together could deliver that was to utilize commodity sampling, meaning that they throw them out there broadly the cheapest way possible with limited ability to ensure the target was getting the product with no duplication.  The actual ROI was around $.20 when what they wanted was much closer to $1.00.  There was limited market research so they had no way of determining if the sampling worked.  One year post launch they were still sampling this way and there was little additional promotional activity to connect the sample to the overall brand message.  A lot of money spent with little to show for it.

As year two and three plans were executed the sampling plan evolved and the team moved away from commodity sampling to a more integrated approach.  They looked for vehicles that provided added value through additional media, sponsorships and coupons.  They moved to more targeted vehicles such as direct mail and retailer sponsored programs that while more expensive deliver the product directly into the hands of the target and offer more of an incentive to purchase.  They added market research to every program and began to eliminate vehicles which were not working for them.  By the end of the third year the overall ROI was around $1.00 and they upped the number of samples to 14 million.

I have determined through working with many different products that developing a successful  integrated sampling plan is a little bit art and a little bit science.  You need to fully understand your target audience and their motivations – demographics and psychographics, but you also need to look at the program financials, ROI and market research results.  You also need to do your research.  There are so many different ways to get a product into the hands of your target consumer and you need to search a little to find ones that will fulfill your product goals.  I discover new vehicles every day that can get a product out there in ways I never have thought of.  Just do some web surfing and listen to the vendors that call.

In a future post I will provide some examples of good sampling programs that have taken these concepts into account.


Recently I was catching up with a former agency partner and we got into a conversation revolving around two specific points:  1) The ability of midsize agencies to survive in these tough times; and 2) How to grow the business at a particular client who has never retained an agency or spent consistently.  In my friend’s case, it was the area of PR.  This conversation made me realize that often agencies do not understand how their clients think.  The answers to both of his concerns lay in better understanding client motivations and spending. 

I have spent many days sitting in an RFP pitch or as part of an agency bid process, and I am often amazed at how an agency doesn’t follow the brief, hasn’t done their homework about the brand or is just clueless about how the client is going to evaluate them. Furthermore, there are many on the agency side who have never been on the other side of the table and don’t really understand how the client thinks.   So, I am going to provide a little insider information, starting with the answers to my friend’s two points.

The size of the agency doesn’t matter 

The prevailing thought to my friend’s statement is that the client will either want a big agency with big resources or a small boutique with a niche in specific talents or industry knowledge, thus leaving the ones in the middle lost.  In some cases, that may be true, but often it is about three key elements:  chemistry between client and agency team; creative that delivers; and the knowledge base of the agency team.  An agency of any size can deliver these things and will survive if they are a good agency.  So size is not the issue – it comes down to how you connect with the client and what you deliver.   

Additionally, the actual size of an agency can be hidden.  More than once I have used sister agencies and subcontractors as part of our potential client team.  I have been open that these folks extend beyond the actual employees of the agency, but the client was satisfied in that these were dedicated resources to their project.

You can’t get water from a dry well

There are very specific reasons that a client will spend only so much on a given marketing tactic.  In the case of the client my friend was trying to grow, there were a couple of reasons: 1) The company did not have a need for ongoing PR support, just bursts for new project launches;  2) Social media, which is often managed by PR, was being handled by the media buying and promotion agencies.  Upon evaluation, my friend’s agency would probably have found it a waste of time and effort to try and push for more immediate business because their client would never be interested in ongoing PR initiatives and their business didn’t demand it.  Understanding how a client manages your agency’s area of expertise will provide you with direction on how to not only manage your client’s day-to-day business, but provide more appropriate new opportunities for you to pursue with them.  Generally, these kinds of clients use you as a service provider and not as a partner, so maintain an ongoing relationship to ensure you get the next bit of business that comes up.  Don’t push too hard for something that isn’t there; it will just frustrate you and annoy the client, since you can assume they already know that you are looking to grow the business. 

Chemistry is everything

Following the thoughts from above, when it all comes down to the final decision on who your agency is going to be, there is one key evaluation – are you a good fit with this client, and do THEY feel the chemistry?  Pricing, creative, location all do play a part, but the team choosing to work with the agency has to feel they “like” them, that the agency “gets” them.  It is sort of like dating – do you feel chemistry or not? I have been a part of agency RFP’s where an agency was chosen not because they had the best creative, but because the V.P. felt a connection with the team.  The agency didn’t work out, but that gut feeling often is a driving force.

I knew of a client that was unhappy with their agency.  Staffing had changed, and the agency was dropping the ball when it came to delivering what the client needed.  The client was about to pull their very large business from the agency.  A new leader joined the agency, and his personality, dedication and overall chemistry with the client was evident when they presented to this client.  The client believed in this new leader and the plans he presented because this agency leader knew how to connect and what needed to be said to save the business.  Through the chemistry and the connection, the leader saved the client from exiting the relationship.

Chemistry is everything, unless there are politics involved

Here is my caveat to “chemistry is everything” – politics trumps chemistry.  You’ve walked out of the pitch, you feel great because you know you really connected with the senior team evaluating you.  The team complemented you on the creative, and you feel like this one is in the bag – that is, until the phone call comes that says it went to another agency.  What happened?  Probably politics.  We all know that corporate politics can be brutal, and in the realm of agency selection, it can change the tide of the decision.  For example, on a recent agency search I was involved in, it came down to two agencies.  Agency A was the AOR of another business unit and well respected.  Their creative was dead on, and they connected well with the team.  Agency B gave a great presentation and connected well with the team.  However, the team was split on which agency to choose.  It was apparent that the V.P. felt more chemistry with Agency B and liked the creative better.  The final decision was hers to make, and the team was sure it would be Agency B.  Much to everyone’s surprise, Agency A won. The reason? Politics.  The V.P. had no issues going against key members in the decision-making team, but what she couldn’t fight against was the pressure from above to consolidate agencies and go for the well-respected agency already working with the other business unit.  While frustrating for her, politics won out once again.

Agencies prefer retainers, but companies often don’t

This has forever been the dilemma I have faced on both sides of this equation.  As the service provider, the best way to ensure a steady monthly revenue stream is to have your client on retainer.  You can better manage your staffing and overhead.  Moreover, it is the best way to be seen as a marketing partner and not just a service provider.  For many clients, especially large ones, they support the idea of a retainered agency and even embrace it.  However, many companies much prefer to work with agencies on a project basis.  Their budgets are tight, and they want the agencies to come up with great ideas and execute them, but they don’t feel the need for ongoing support.   Whether you get hired back depends on how well you execute that one promotion vs. being judged on the overall promotional strategy you helped them develop.  While some clients do have agencies of record that aren’t retainered, those agencies are always in sell mode because they don’t have commitment.

 A couple of additional points on ways this isn’t always the case.  As companies have moved away from internal marketing services teams, there is a greater push for agencies of record and retainers.  This is mostly because the company doesn’t have the in-house personnel to manage the programs.  Social media and product ingredient issues are also putting a greater emphasis on things such as PR and consumer outreach programs.  Many companies that utilized PR only for new product launches and general outreach are seeing more of a need for ongoing support.  I saw this first hand while working on sun-care and infant products.  Because product ingredients and packaging such as plastics where consistently being called into question, there was a need for constant media monitoring.  Additionally, enough of a case was made internally for management to approach things differently.  Therefore, PR became an ongoing need requiring a retainered relationship. 

Following the creative brief is important

Your creative may be awesome, your insights into the target demo dead on and your chemistry with the team palpable, but if you don’t provide the answers to the questions the creative brief asked, you are basically dead in the water.  You are being evaluated against other agencies on how well you responded to the brief.  You miss the target, you are evaluated poorly.  You can claim misinterpretation of the brief, but it is your responsibility to ask questions upon receiving it.  There are times in the early rounds where you may be given a second chance, especially if the client liked your creative and your team.  Don’t count on this because sometimes there aren’t multiple rounds.  Your agency may be known for stepping outside of the box and taking briefs in another direction.  That is fine as long as you don’t completely challenge the client’s intended strategy and ignore the direction in the brief.

Clients want to know that you can work with other agencies

In these days of integrated marketing, clients need to know that you can play nice in the sandbox.  You need to always provide examples of agency alliances and instances where you worked as part of an integrated agency team.  The clients don’t want to play referee, and they don’t have time to manage all of the intricacies of how the different elements of the program are going to come together within the different agencies. 

Some of you may think what I have presented is common sense and obvious.  In many ways it is, and those that are aware of these lessons are ahead of the game.  However, you will be surprised how many agencies I have encountered that don’t understand what the client really needs or is looking for.  They get so wrapped up in their amazing creative or wealth of experience that they fail to understand what is motivating the client.  Hopefully, this will help provide some of that basic insight so those agencies that are less aware will be more successful in their pitches.