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How to product sample effectively in ecommerce

illustration of a person opening a box with a toiletry sample inside

From top department stores to big-box retailers like Walmart, product sampling campaigns have long been a popular strategy to drive product experimentation and brand loyalty. It’s an interactive, tactile experience that engages customers and adds value to the overall shopping experience.

In the age of ecommerce, it’s the tangible nature of product samples that makes them a solution to the impersonal nature of online shopping. Even Amazon, the behemoth of generic retail experiences, has invested heavily in utilizing order histories to match customers with product samples they’re likely to enjoy. 

In this guide, we’re going to explore how ecommerce brands can run effective product sampling strategies that shape consumer behavior and purchasing decisions.

Why product sampling is a powerful marketing strategy in ecommerce

Customers love experimenting with new products

There’s a joke among marketers about product sampling; it’s the only marketing strategy with a 100% open rate.

Most consumers like to stick to what they know when shopping – especially when shopping online. Even with today’s flexible return policies, we’d rather avoid the hassle of returning items by making the right purchasing decision in the first place. 

This makes ‘try before you buy’ strategies like product sampling a valuable service for your customers. By offering trial-size samples for free or a low price, customers get to try a product from the comfort of their own homes and decide whether it works for them. 

Surveys show that not only do product samples help boost brand awareness; they’re also a source of high conversion rates. According to Peekage, 92% of customers will try product samples when they’re on offer, with 53% going on to buy the full-size product. 

You don’t have to rely on store foot traffic

Traditional sampling strategies practiced by grocery stores and big-box retailers rely on customers wanting to linger around for immersive store experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to this due to hygiene concerns and consumer anxiety about spending time in stores. 

Digital product trials, such as including individually-packed samples with customer orders, are a much safer, contactless alternative that is set to be the consumer preference even after the pandemic. According to Forbes, 79% of consumers say that contactless shopping/browsing methods will continue to be important to them.

It enhances the post-purchase experience

In ecommerce, the post-purchase experience is easily the most important part of the entire shopping journey. Why? Because the moment of delivery is the final impression you leave your customer with. If the unboxing experience is memorable and enjoyable, you’ll be much more successful at turning first-time customers into repeat business.

Product samples are a valuable addition to any package because they help tell a story about what kind of business you are. It’s a tactile gesture that transforms an online order from an everyday purchase into a gift-like experience. 

It’s cost-effective

One of the biggest advantages of ecommerce product sampling is that it involves few extra costs. By comparison, in-store sampling may require businesses to hire extra staff or coordinate expensive events.

Because a customer has already placed an order with associated handling, packaging, and shipping fees, adding in a trial-sized sample is a relatively simple process. It’s even more cost-effective if you have a 3PL on-side who can coordinate effective packing workflows (more on this later).

5 Ways to product sample effectively in ecommerce

1. Enticing purchases of full-size products

This is the end goal for most brands running product sampling campaigns. However, you can’t just send out samples and expect customers to make a purchase; you need to nurture them into making this commitment.

a kosas Instagram post displaying a sample kit

Kosas is one brand that has taken an alternative approach to product sampling. They’ve curated sampler kits at a price tag of $35, and individual samples at $3-5. Customers can then redeem this as credit on any full-sized item.

Charging for samples might seem like an odd strategy in the world of freebies. But this approach means that customers are testing products they’re both financially and emotionally invested in. By offering redeemable credit, Kosa is bringing customers into a longer-term purchasing cycle that’s very lucrative for the business.

2. For customer reviews

Reviews are the virtual extension of WOM (word of mouth) marketing. They allow consumers to consult a variety of sources before committing to a purchase. According to Testimonial Engine, 72% of consumers will read reviews before making a buying decision. 

So, if one of your products has no reviews while a competitor has hundreds, it’s not rocket science which consumers will choose. This makes it very tough to attract new customers, who are wary of untested products.

While you can make an effort to elicit reviews from those buying full-size products, a widespread product sampling campaign is the most effective way of quickly boosting customer reviews for core products. To maximize this approach., you could also consider offering customers a discount in exchange for leaving a review on your site.

3. For user-generated content

UGC (user-generated content) finds a fertile home on social media for one key reason; people trust what customers say about a product far more than the brand itself. It’s important to note that UGC differs from classic influencer marketing. The best UGC comes from regular people passionate about your brand who want to share this with their followers. 79% of people say that UGC highly impacts their purchasing decisions, while only 8% said influencer content would have the same effect.

a UGC Instagram post about their glossier sample

To inspire great UGC content, you need to give customers something exciting to make noise about. An ongoing sampling program ensures that your biggest fans always have something fresh to talk about with your community.

4. Trialling/marketing new products

So-called ‘soft launches’ of new products are a great way to gauge customer reception and see whether your current marketing strategy is effective. Product sampling campaigns are well-suited for luxury products that come at a high price point, as customers are unlikely to purchase without the chance to test them first. This is why sampling is particularly common within the CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) category.

When executed well, sampling strategies expose your brand to new audience segments who aren’t aware of your offerings – especially they’re presented through a trusted source.

scentbird site with glossier subscription program

Rather than just sending samples to their existing customers, Glossier chose to make samples of its new perfume Glossier You available to subscribers of retail partner Scentbird, a perfume subscription company. This partnership gave Glossier access to a fresh consumer base, as well as a powerful ecommerce platform full of helpful reviews and product information.

5. As a loyalty benefit

Loyalty programs are a great strategy for fostering brand loyalty and repeat purchasing behaviors – but only if the benefits are enticing enough. Consumers are showing a growing preference for experiential over transaction-based perks. According to Yotpo, 29% of consumers wish that loyalty rewards on offer were more interesting and varied than just discounts. This is particularly marked in the millennial demographic, where 81% favor loyalty programs that do more than offer rewards for purchases.

a UGC Instagram post about Sephora samples

Samples offer your members genuine value, enabling them to experiment with new products from a brand they’re passionate about. This is a major incentive to keep supporting your brand over alternatives.

3 Common product sampling mistakes in ecommerce

​1. Not adding a call to action

In theory, product sampling doesn’t sound all that difficult. You prepare your samples and then drop them in the box with a customer’s order, right?

Not quite. Samples certainly help to increase customer satisfaction and experimentation with new products. But unless they come with a wraparound story and a call to action, your customer isn’t going to know what to do next. Your sampling strategy is reduced to a random freebie that sparks confusion and questions like:

  • Why did they send me this specific product?
  • What makes this product special?
  • Where can I find a full-size version of this product?

If your product sampling campaign is trying to accomplish a specific goal, you need to effectively communicate this to your customer using the right collateral. 

CTAs provide your customer with another key touchpoint that enhances the post-purchase customer experience and builds loyalty. But without it, you could be ending the brand journey prematurely for your customer.

Let’s say that you want feedback on a new product from a select group of loyal customers. You should include an insert that explains how they’ve received this product as a valued customer, along with basic product information and benefits. Even better, you could also add a QR code that takes your customer straight to the review page.

2. Not personalizing sample selection

Product sampling is so attractive to consumers that it’s become a business model in its own right. There’s a huge variety of subscriptions available that offer samples of everything from coffee to air fresheners. 

But one brand is a prime example of what happens when ecommerce sampling doesn’t make use of robust customer data.

Subscription box service Birchbox was a major success when it first launched in 2010. The idea was simple and appealing. For a monthly fee of $10, subscribers receive five curated product samples a month across, haircare, skincare, and cosmetics. When signing up, they fill out a beauty quiz about their skin type, hair type, and product preferences to help guide sample selections.

Reddit thread discussing the personalization of subscription boxes

But this didn’t work so well in practice. Reddit threads are full of consumers complaining about receiving the same product multiple times, or products that didn’t fit with the skin tone or hair type they’d selected.

Unless a product sample feels relevant to a customer’s needs and tastes, you’re giving the message that you know absolutely nothing about them. For this reason, only 32% of consumers say that they try all product samples they receive.

Stats indicate that this is a much wider problem. While 80% of consumers want personalization from retailers, only 15% have fully implemented personalization strategies. 

Order histories, browsing data, customer reviews, and loyalty memberships are all fantastic sources of data that help you segment customers based on their shopping and purchasing behaviors. This needs to be updated with the latest customer activity to ensure that your sample selections respond to their latest interests or pain points.

3. Not embracing omnichannel sampling strategies

Digital product sampling has been valuable to brands during the pandemic. But foot traffic now picking up once again, now is a great time to integrate product sampling across your selling channels.

If a customer knows that they get a free sample when shopping online but not in person, they have no incentive to change their shopping behavior. Furthermore, there’s little justification for segmenting customers who are dealing with different facets of the same brand. 

Omnichannel product sampling opens up valuable opportunities to shape consumer behavior. For example, if you’re allowing customers to choose samples, you could make some selections online-only and others store-only. This creates a sense of exclusivity and gives your channels distinct value in their own right, rather than being carbon copies of each other.

Another option is to get more experimental by gamifying the process of earning samples. You could make your most deluxe product samples available only to those who’ve participated in non-transactional activities, such as referring a friend or joining your email list. This deepens the brand experience and rewards favorable behaviors that benefit your marketing strategy.

4 steps to launching a successful product sampling strategy

1. Decide your objective

When running a product sampling campaign, you need to a set clear goal for what you want to achieve. This will guide both logistical and marketing considerations, from how many samples you’re sending out to the collateral you need to accompany them.

For example, if samples are only going out to loyalty program members of a certain tier, you’re going to need far less than you would for a UGC campaign. The presentation of product samples may also differ depending on whether you’re giving them away for free for charging for them as a product. In the latter case, customers will expect samples to be dressed up a bit more, such as through the use of custom packaging.

2. Be ready to provide responsive customer care

Customer service representatives play an important role in advancing the shopping journey both online and offline. After receiving and testing a product sample, your customer is likely to have questions they can’t answer by just checking the product page or reading FAQs. 

This is why your customer care team needs to be prepped with up-to-date product information so they can answer inquiries quickly. This is particularly important in the case of new product trials that aren’t available on your website just yet. Your responsiveness could be the difference between customers buying that product or choosing to buy from a competitor.

3. Always ask for feedback

Undertaking regular customer surveys about your sampling strategy is key to knowing whether your current approach is resonating with customers. You should be asking whether the samples available are of interest to your customers, if they’ve tested them, and how willing they are to write a review about their experience.

Surveys like this will give you insight into how product samples are striking a chord with your target audience or if they’re creating unintended pain points, such as full-size versions of heavily sampled products being sold out or put on backorder. The more information you have, the easier it is to design a sampling strategy that boosts conversion rates.

4. Working with a fulfillment provider

Launching a product sampling strategy adds another layer of complexity to your fulfillment process. Samples need to be stored in the right conditions to maintain product integrity especially in the case of cosmetics samples, which also require extra paperwork to ship as hazmat items. 

The size and dimensions of packages need to be carefully considered to prevent high shipping costs. The right samples also need to be on hand at exactly the right time across fulfillment locations so there’s no delay in getting orders out the door. 

An experienced fulfillment partner like Whiplash can help your brand coordinate successful product sampling campaigns that boost brand loyalty and increase product sales. With state-of-the-art fulfillment locations nationwide and seamless integrations with all major ecommerce platforms, we make it easy to monitor the movement of product samples in real-time via our advanced proprietary management system.

With the power of Whiplash’s Order Rules functionality, brands can set custom Packing Rules for the fulfillment process that include the addition of promotional items. This dynamic and intuitive system enables product samples to be paired with specific SKUs according to seasonal promotions or loyalty rewards, making it easy to set up a responsive sampling strategy that works for you. 

Find out more about Order Rules here.

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