Health-conscious shoppers are discovering new better-for-you products online. But they still prefer buying them in stores: according to a Social Nature survey, 57% of natural product shoppers visit grocery stores at least twice per week, while only 37% buy groceries online at least twice per week.

Digital sampling is a no-brainer solution — meeting natural product shoppers’ needs and getting brands the crucial data they need to grow their businesses quickly and efficiently. Connecting online first lets consumers develop trust with brands, while brands can uncover their target audiences’ needs and desires.

“It’s no news that today’s shoppers and consumers live in a digital world,” said Ainsley Moir, creator of Food Brands That Sell. “Digital-first retail marketing is where you can move shoppers from a passive relationship to an active relationship and can close the gap from online only or in-store only, to bring the two together.”

What is digital sampling?

Online-to-offline (O2O) marketing helps brands mix digital strategies with traditional retail marketing to succeed in launching products.

One important way of doing that is digital product sampling. In a digital sampling program, brands send reviewers physical coupons to redeem in stores to try new products. Brands can vet who receives samples through a pre-trial survey. After trying the product, a reviewer submits a rating and review, followed by a post-trial survey and the option to post on their social media feed. Millennial customers especially are eager to share their newfound treasures with friends, family, and followers. That type of organic marketing is invaluable for brands.

“Any marketer knows understanding what drives millennials is crucial to success in today’s economic climate,” according to supplement brand AOR. “The ability to intimately connect to a hyper-targeted audience was quite simply, a no-brainer.”

Using digital for data

CPG brands historically have very little data to base their marketing efforts on. But you need data to build a brand. Digital sampling is a straightforward, easy to control way of gleaning crucial data, rather than doing guesswork, to grow a brand. It’s also less wasteful than traditional sampling.

“I’ve stopped doing traditional demos and am shifting my budget to digital product sampling for better targeting and results,” said Alison Cayne, Founder of fresh sauce brand Haven’s Kitchen.

Building relationships

Digital sampling is more than a one-and-done exchange. Instead, brands can provide coupons for customers to use after the initial trial. This gives brands more insights: whether customers went back to buy more items, what they bought, and where. It’s a simple way of building a community of loyal, engaged customers.

Digital sampling can also help brands build trusted retailer relationships. By sending customers to stores, brands meet their retailer targets and strengthen their partnerships.

Other types of product sampling

In-store product sampling

Some stores have reinstated in-store sampling programs (or modified versions) as the pandemic has shifted. For example, Costco and Sam’s Club, renowned for their sampling programs, started giving free samples again in June 2021.

Surely customers missed this crucial part of the in-store experience. But for brands, in-store sampling garners very little data: the customer tries a product, walks away, and brands are less likely to gain any direct feedback or know whether a purchase was made.

“Even in the best of times, product demos are difficult because only a small fraction of people tasting the product are likely customers,” said Tyler Mayoras, Co-Founder and CEO at plant-based frozen foods brand, Cool Beans.

Direct-to-home sampling

Direct-to-home sampling platforms send consumers a curated selection of products to try at home. Customers then rate and review the products in order to receive more. It’s a constant cycle that helps brands build awareness and utilize customer feedback. Of course, the retailer is left out of the process.

This method also grew during the pandemic, giving consumers a fresh way of interacting with brands and something to look forward to.

Although most direct-to-home sampling programs leave retailers out of the process, Social Nature’s program can drive retail impact. For example, Ancient Nutrition recruited 7,000 consumers to sample the brand’s Collagen and Bone Broth Protein products. After the survey, participants received a $10 off coupon to use in retail stores or online for full-size products.

Following the trial, the brand saw a 33% repeat purchase rate within three months, and 25% of the consumers joined the brand’s email list. The brand also benefited from the post-trial survey data, which indicated that many customers had replaced their collagen and bone broth go-tos with Ancient Nutrition’s products. Additionally, about half of customers noted they wanted to buy the products at Target stores, and the brand plans to use that data to expand their product line at the retailer, as well as other retailers in the near future.

Field marketing

Field marketing has been largely off the table during the pandemic. Trade shows have recently returned, from the Winter Fancy Food Show in February to Natural Products Expo West in March. It’s too soon to tell how much field marketing will have an impact moving forward, but it’s definitely regaining steam. Many brands are ready to get back into the world, engage, and share their products as much as they can.

Still, field marketing can take more time, money, and effort than many emerging brands can spare. You need to research, prioritize, and book events, plus coordinate logistics like hiring contractors to help run each demo and arranging to ship your products and supplies. Depending on your brand, you may need a wide array of tools and supplies for a dazzling demo. That’s why Haven’s Kitchen shifted to digital product sampling: with field marketing, the brand would conduct cooking demos to properly showcase its sauces. This type of demo quickly becomes time-consuming, labor intensive, and expensive. Then of course there’s travel, accommodations, and other expenses.

Why digital sampling works

Customers are discovering new products online first before buying them in brick-and-mortar retail. It makes sense: why not learn more online first before purchasing something that might not meet your needs? This is especially true for better-for-you food and beverages: savvy consumers want to fully understand everything from ingredients to brand values before making a purchase.

As consumers dive deeper into digital, sampling via online platforms is the best way to attract the right consumers for high-quality feedback. Digital sampling is a great tool for launching new products. Veggie burger brand Dr. Praeger’s utilized digital sampling to launch its Perfect Turk’y Burger and Perfect Sliders. The brand targeted consumers who specifically buy plant-based patties. After the trial, 71% of them repurchased one of the products. Digital product demos have helped the 25 year-old company take a more proactive role in boosting their innovations in the increasingly competitive plant-based category.

“​​This is the most valuable tool for launching new products with consumers who are excited to try new products,” said Austin Allan, Senior Brand Manager at Dr. Praeger’s.

It’s obvious: getting to ‘try before you buy’ means consumers aren’t risking wasting money if products don’t meet their expectations. It also gives them the chance to discover products they might not find on their own: 93% of Social Nature’s natural product shoppers are actively seeking new better-for-you grocery products.

Social Nature community member Chassidy Holland noted that digital sampling helped her family find products they were unaware of in their small town.

“My daughter has always been testing our tastebuds with healthier and good for you products but was limited to what she could find,” Holland said.

Consumers who try free products are also eager to share their better-for-you findings beyond their own kitchens. Social Nature community members reported that their current grocery baskets contain 63% natural or better-for-you products, versus 46% in 2021. Additionally, 75% of them said they like to share product recommendations and offers with family and friends. 

“I have revamped a lot of our snacking habits for the better and shared my personal experiences (with photos) of these products to entice others to join the #trynatural cause with me,” said community member Kristie Belding. “It is simple to join, redeem offers, and share with others.”

Digital product sampling help brands grow faster

Interest in digital product sampling soared as a result of the pandemic. Especially for emerging brands, driving brand awareness and trial is critical. While in-store product sampling likely won’t go away, the digital option is fruitful for many brands who need more targeted market research. Instead of giving free samples to whoever happens to walk by in a store or at an event, brands can be matched with reviewers based on dietary preferences, allergies, and interests.

“This was a nice opportunity to get in front of an optimized target audience and tell them our story,” said Heather Scott, Senior VP of Marketing at sustainable seafood company Wild Planet Foods.

Even as in-store sampling has re-emerged, brands have still found that digital sampling is crucial for data-gathering. Is the product meeting its value proposition? How is the taste and texture? Connecting directly with targeted consumers, utilizing their honest feedback, and forming an ongoing relationship is invaluable.

“The data is a game-changer for rethinking our strategy for sampling,” said Kelly Meredith, Shopper Marketing Manager at paleo brand Primal Kitchen. “A new benchmark has been set.”

Social Nature as a product sampling solution

Digital product sampling has many benefits for consumers and brands.

Brands can measure the impact by unit velocity lift, tracking coupon clearinghouse redemption rates, and pre- and post-trial surveys. The surveys glean important data such as repurchase rates and category incrementality. Knowing whether users are new or switching to a category is helpful.

To maximize your digital product sampling strategy, a few key things matter:
focusing on a key retailer or region, defining your target audience, and aligning with upcoming category reviews and buyer meetings. You want to meet people in the right place at the right time.

The relationship goes beyond free samples. Brands can follow up their sampling programs with other coupons that encourage shoppers to keep trying products. A regular cadence of deals gives consumers a reason to keep paying attention to the brand and sharing its story. Additionally, brands automatically have an eager audience to sample and review new products as their portfolio expands.

Case study: Digital samples for a fruitful product launch

In early 2021, frozen treat brand Chloe’s Fruit launched a new product, Salted Caramel Oatmilk Pops, in Publix stores. With in-store sampling at Publix still off the table, the brand used digital product sampling to generate awareness. The brand was able to target their demographic (moms and health-conscious consumers) living within six miles of a Publix store.

The results were sweet and satisfying. Of the 18,546 customers who engaged in digital sampling, 90% had never tried Chloe’s before. After the trial, 86% said they would purchase the brand’s products again. Chloe’s provided a coupon for $3 off any two products.

The campaign alone drove 17-20% of the product’s retail sales that summer.

“To be able to attribute almost 1 in 5 sales of an item to a single tactic outside of price promo is very impactful,” said Tina Mehta, Director of Category Development at Chloe’s.

The future of digital product sampling

Consumers’ love of novelty and desire to share their opinions will never go away. Being one of the first to try something always has a strong appeal and builds excitement.

Additionally, many consumers became more health-conscious as a result of the pandemic, related health issues, and their changing daily routines and habits. The result? An excellent opportunity for better-for-you brands to give customers what they want, receive data in return, and build long-lasting relationships. These community and data-driven efforts are crucial to success as an emerging brand.

“The big theme is that the market needs better data — period,“ said Jessica Malach, Social Nature’s VP of marketing and insights.

“CPG has always kind of lagged behind other industries in capturing good data. Because gleaning targeted feedback is much easier via digital sampling, the industry will increasingly use it.”

Malach noted that even as in-person experiential and pop-up events and demos return, digital elements will fuse with them for better, all-encompassing experiences.

“Brands can use digital targeting to get the right people at their events, capture data and feedback, and encourage social sharing and further brand engagement,” Malach explained. “For example, a brand might provide a QR code for video testimonials on-site and, in return, provide attendees with a coupon to redeem at their local store. This all helps build long term relationships with customers who feel invested in the brand’s journey.”

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is digital product sampling?

Digital product sampling is the process of distributing products to consumers for free in order to introduce them to a new product or brand. This can be done through online channels such as social media, email, or a branded website, or through physical channels such as stores or events.

2. What are the benefits of digital product sampling?

There are several benefits of digital product sampling:

  • It’s a great way to introduce a new product or brand to consumers.
  • It helps build trust between brands and consumers.
  • It provides valuable data about consumer preferences and needs.
  • It can help increase sales and grow a brand’s customer base.

3. What are the best ways to distribute digital samples

There are many different ways to distribute digital samples, and the best way will depend on the brand and the target audience. Some of the most common methods include social media, email, and branded websites. Physical channels such as stores and events can also be effective, especially for introducing a new product.

4. How does digital product sampling help brands?

Digital product sampling provides brands with valuable data about consumer preferences and needs. This data can help brands make better decisions about their products and marketing strategies, and it can help them grow their customer base. Additionally, digital sampling helps build trust between brands and consumers, which can lead to increased sales in the future.

5. How should brands use digital product sampling?

There is no one right way to use digital product sampling, but there are some general guidelines that brands should follow:

  • Be sure to target the right audience with the right products.
  • Make sure your samples are high quality and engaging enough to capture people’s attention.
  • Use effective marketing methods to reach as many people as possible.
  • Collect and analyze data from consumer responses so you can learn more about your customers’ needs.