Free Sample Marketing: The Psychology and The Right Way to Do It

Understand why free sample marketing can help you get more customers and more sales

Photo by Brodie Vissers from Burst

Gillette is famous for the freebie marketing strategy “Give ’em the razor, sell ’em the blades.”

They created two Free Starter Kits: a ProGlide Shield Starter Kit with 5 anti-friction blades and a SkinGuard Starter Kit with 2 low-cutting force blades. Shoppers can get either of these kits for free — all they need to do is pay the shipping ($4 plus tax).

When doing this, Gillette also applies free sample marketing — they’re giving away free razors and blades.

Another excellent example of free sample marketing is Sephora. The brand offers free samples and trial sizes to help shoppers find the right makeup and skincare products. Visit this Beautify Offers page, and you’ll see all of their sweet deals, updated weekly.

For every order, you get two free samples. There are many samples for you to choose from.

Source: Sephora

The question is, does free sample marketing actually work? Is it beneficial for popular brands only? Can non-popular brands apply this tactic?

Here are the answers you might be looking for.

The Psychology Behind Free Sample Marketing

Samples are free, and human beings love free stuff.

And, when we get a bit of something free and new or unique, we want to have more. According to the well-known behavioral economist Dan Ariely, “what samples do is they give you a particular desire for something. If I gave you a tiny bit of chocolate, all of a sudden it would remind you about the exact taste of chocolate and would increase your craving.”

Another reason free sample marketing works is consumers are frequently uncertain about the benefits of new products, whether goods or services. Research showed that by offering free samples, you help them remove that feeling and make them trust you.

In a research article, professor of marketing H. Bruce Lammers at California State University (Northridge) explained that the effectiveness of sampling is backed up by separate theoretical perspectives, including:

1. Operant Conditioning: Shaping Effects

“Sampling is akin to what is known as “shaping” in learning theory. Reinforcing behaviors that closely approximate the desired behaviors, sampling tends to bring about conditioning of the desired response more effectively and efficiently,” he wrote. It’s a form of shaping the actual purchase and consumption of the product.

2. Self-perception Theory: The Foot-in-the-door Effect

When you give shoppers a free sample of your product, you encourage them to make a small choice (getting your free sample), which sets the stage for them to make a larger choice (buying your product) later on.

As Lammers explained, “by accepting a free sample, the consumer presumably goes through a process of forming self-perceptions and attributions about her or his behavior. For example, consumers who accept the offered sample may label themselves as being willing to try products of the sampled sort, and consequently, may even perceive themselves as being willing to buy the product when the purchase opportunity presents itself.”

3. Attribution Theory: Stimulus Salience Effect

Lammers said that a free food sample may heighten or accentuate the cues associated with the consumption of the product, such as the odor and the tastes. When consumers feel these sampling cues are positive, they’ll more likely purchase products.

Free Sample Marketing Works for All Brands

Free sample marketing isn’t new. In fact, many brands have been using this technique for years to build brand awareness for new products, get more customers, build brand loyalty, and increase sales.

Free sample marketing isn’t limited to physical products like food, wine, cosmetics, or personal care. Today, free samples work for many industries and come in different forms, for example, free products, trial periods for premium services, flat rates, free minutes, free download of a particular song, or free chapters of a new book.

In a 2017 study on dynamic sales impacts of online physical product sampling, three researchers found that the provision of a free high-quality sample increased the sales of high-quality digital content. Specifically, “online sampling could increase sales of physical products by 41.6% than those without sampling,” they wrote.

More interestingly, they also found that both non-popular and popular brands benefit from product sampling. Popular brands enjoyed greater advantages in terms of an increase in both immediate and lagged sales, though.

How free sampling benefits popular and non-popular brands. Source: Yao, X., Lu, X., Phang, C. W., & Ba, L. (2017). Dynamic sales impacts of online physical product sampling, Information & Management, 54 (5), 599–612

How to Do Free Sample Marketing the Right Way

Now that you understand free sample marketing works. Let’s learn how you can start with it.

To implement free sample marketing successfully, you need to clarify an objective from the get-go.

In other words, what do you want to accomplish by offering free samples? What is your goal? Is it to drive brand awareness for a new product, get new customers for existing products, collect email addresses, generate user-generated content (e.g., reviews) or increase followers for your Instagram account?

Understanding your goal is essential because it’ll determine what type of free sample you should give out, how much you should invest, how you should promote your campaign, how many free samples you should offer, who you should try to target, and more.

Another critical thing is always to ensure your free samples’ quality is the same as that of your product. Otherwise, your marketing campaign will backfire — customers will have a bad impression of your brand, and they may spread that experience to others, which you may never want to happen.

Have you tried free sample marketing? What were your results? Feel free to share with me in the comments below.

Freelance Content Marketing Writer. I write about marketing and personal development. Work with me:

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