The challenges of reinventing sampling


Sampling is one of the simplest and most powerful instruments in a marketer’s toolkit.

With the help of a brand rep on the ground, brands can easily introduce new products to shoppers and also collect feedback from them. But the strongest point of sampling, the presence of a trained individual representing the brand and interacting closely with the shoppers, proves to be also its weakest point.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, all sampling activities were halted in order to safeguard public health. And this sparked an age-old question to all retail marketers: is it possible to do sampling without brand reps in the field, or even without shoppers in store? 

In the past there were a number of attempts made to re-imagine sampling and to break its dependence on the human factor. Distribution of samples through printed magazines proved to be a solid option for many years, until the collapse of printed media, following the 2008 financial crisis. Although still a viable solution, it became a niche tactic most suitable for personal care or home care brands.

Another approach that proved to have some success is the direct to home delivery of syndicated boxes of samples from multiple brands. These boxes can be thematic and targeted to certain consumer or household profiles. Still, this makes it difficult to have a more tactical approach, as it relies on a stable, non-dynamic audience. Basically, the same consumers that subscribed for the service will be provided with samples over and over again.

During the pandemic, with activities in retail restricted, we’ve tried to find alternative channels for sampling. We’ve approached players from the hospitality and the transportation industries, but finding a seamless sample distribution process and attractive pricing proved to be serious challenges.

We’ve also looked at technology as a solution, investigating the viability of an automated sampling machine, similar to a vending machine. But the capital required for setting up a large fleet of such machines makes it impossible to deploy as a mass solution.

One area that showed potential is in the space of online shopping. Partnerships with e-tailers make sense for sampling and we’ve managed to implement a couple of such projects, in which shoppers receive a sample that is delivered with their online order to their home.

The truth is that there’s no magic solution that has the potential to comply with all the requirements of perfect sampling which is delivering a sample and a brand experience at the right moment, close to a point of sale, at an optimal cost per contact. But the current challenges and the wider transformation of how people shop pushes us to find novel ways of doing sampling.

Our view is that to reinvent sampling, agencies need to develop stable partnerships with players from other industries. It can be restaurants for food brands, hotels for consumer electronic brands, or any other example we can think of. But these methods  won’t work  if they are only employed as a   once-off project.

We need to develop  constant working relationships and to build a business model that makes sense for the agency, the partner and the client alike. We also need to identify the process that makes it possible to add sampling to the partners’ workflow without disrupting their current operations. We also need to think about sampling in a more holistic way.

How can we use technology to better target our audience, how can we use Augmented Reality to enhance the sampling experience and what kind of digital platforms do we need to have in order to collect feedback and contact details? Because, in the end, sampling is not about placing a sample in somebody’s hands, but about starting a conversation with a potential consumer.

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