A shared mission

Product sampling is one of the best ways for natural CPG brands to drive product trials. However, the ideal product sampling strategy varies depending on your business’ stage, product category, target sales channels, and more.

In a recent webinar hosted by Startup CPG, Jessica Malach, Social Nature’s VP of marketing and insights, provided an overview of sampling strategies for natural CPG brands, along with guidance on when and why to use them.

Why does product sampling matter?

CPG experts know the motto  “try it and buy it” is key.

It’s often the fastest way to get a new consumer because it de-risks their purchase decision. The product sample helps them explore a product type, category,  or ingredient they’ve never tried before.

That’s why it should be a core part of any natural CPG brand’s marketing strategy, Malach said.

The most common product sampling strategies

1. In-store demos

Classic in-store demos are great for face-to-face feedback and close proximity to the point of purchase.

However, there are a variety of challenges. These demos often aren’t targeted, relying instead on unpredictable in-store traffic. Additionally, it can be hard to aggregate consumer feedback this way, as many shoppers will just grab and go.

Another potential issue is training demo staff to maintain consistent messaging. These demos can also be hard to scale efficiently. All of this can amount to a costly, labor-intensive strategy.“The educational experience is really important in the sales process,” Malach noted.

Best for:
Early stage natural brands with small founding teams who can execute the demos. Telling the brand’s story and connecting with customers is crucial.

2. Digital Demos

Social Nature pioneered Digital Demos six years ago, and the idea accelerated during the pandemic.

Its future looks bright as well. This method allows for better targeting, boosts online engagement, and delivers direct product feedback, helping CPG brands seamlessly grow their audience and offerings.

Consumers love knowing the story and ingredients behind brands before they spend money on them. Digital sampling is a great way to do that: brands can encourage sales by providing in-store (or direct-to-home) coupons for full-size products along with their samples.

Additionally, customers are encouraged to share user-generated content and feedback, further amplifying the brand online. This can deliver engagement rates up to 60-80%, Malach said.

Digital product sampling can generate extremely high engagement rates because you’re getting people to opt in in the first place, and they get educated about the products before they try them and get to hear the right key messaging,” she explained. “It’s an effective way to do shopper marketing — and get a lot more data while you do it.”

Though offering a free full-size product at retail can be expensive for brands, the data gained in return is invaluable, Malach noted. It also helps build retailer relationships.

Knowing how to use a digital sampling strategy will continue to be important for emerging brands.

“It’s super effective and a really necessary strategy for early stage companies to make sure they start to get the sales lift they need to stay on the shelf,” Malach said.

Best for:
Emerging brands seeking awareness and in-store traction, especially those with hard to sample items like perishables and frozen foods. It can be harder for larger brands ($100M+) to scale free product digital sampling, so offering BOGOs and other special offers can be a fruitful strategy for driving trial at retail for these brands.

3. Field marketing

Though it may have dwindled during the pandemic, field marketing is back on the upswing. This strategy can help build community in key geographic regions, Malach said, helping brands reach their target audiences and garner personal feedback. Brands should consider basing these efforts near retailers that sell their products, she added.

This method can require a lot of coordination and be difficult and expensive to scale. It also can be challenging to translate into useful data.

To promote engagement, brands can leverage QR codes with a call-to-action encouraging customers to write a review or follow the brand on social media.

Best for:
Brands with established distribution and traction at retailers, especially experiential, easy-to-prepare items like beverages and powdered drink mixes.

4. Sampling boxes

Sampling boxes can be ideal for mass campaigns. This method can also be more affordable, with shipping costs split between multiple brands.

Additionally, brands may find paid opportunities for submitting their products to sampling boxes, such as subscription beauty boxes.

Still, a brand may find that consumers are more interested in the variety of products rather than focusing on one product alone. How will your brand stand out? Brands may want to include a promo code or coupon to encourage purchases.

Best for:
Works best in subscriber programs, especially for beauty and skin care products. This method is less effective for grocery products.

5. Direct mail

Though it might seem “old-school,” direct mail is still a channel that can be effective, Malach said. In part, that’s because brands generally do it less, which means less competition.

For this method, brands will need strong creative assets and a clear call-to-action for customers to buy online and help build the brand community.

Offering a sample that’s a sufficient size (e.g. more than a tablespoon of ketchup) is important, Malach noted. Make sure the products fit FDA requirements as well.

This can be a great method for geotargeting by zip code and reaching older demographics, she added. However, conversion rates may be lower, and this method can be expensive to execute. Additionally, some people barely check their physical mail, so there may be lags in activity.

Best for:
Brands that want to geotarget a specific area and/or reach older demographics

6. Grocery delivery sampling

Sampling along with retailer deliveries can be a great way to get customers’ attention. Since the customer immediately knows where your product is sold, it’s easy for them to jump online and buy it or add it to their next cart. You can partner with retailers to offer a promotion or include a QR code to promote engagement and feedback.

Still, there can be setbacks. For example, many people have auto-reorders set up for grocery deliveries. Also, this method can see lower conversion rates since customer’s didn’t opt in for receiving samples. It can be expensive, and you may not receive product feedback.

Make sure the brand mission is clear through your messaging, and again, provide a sufficiently-sized sample.

“It’s important that they can use the product in a full serving or cook with it and experience it so it becomes a habit, and be sure to prompt them to add the product to their order list online!” Malach noted.

Best for:
Brands that want to strengthen 3rd party online retailer partnerships.

7. PR & influencer marketing

PR and influencer marketing is often ideal for direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands, helping them align with creators who have access to their target audience. This is useful for getting user-generated content and driving traffic. With a solid campaign as part of a larger marketing strategy, brands can create strong brand awareness.

However, not every brand has dedicated support for ongoing influencer initiatives. Also, you may not get direct feedback from influencers, and you should be strategic in choosing them.

An influencer’s follower count alone doesn’t tell the full story. Microinfluencers can often have a bigger, longer-lasting impact.

Make sure it feels like a good fit first (their brand and audience is aligned with yours) and look at their engagement rates: how many people are liking or commenting divided by total followers. Engagement rates for microinfluencers hover around 10%.

Influencer rates can range from $500/post – $15,000/post. Be mindful of your larger marketing budget when implementing this method.

Best for:

  • Supporting DTC e-commerce through affiliate links
  • Creating social buzz if multiple creators promote in a short time frame
  • Longer term partnerships where the influencer is integrated into your brand strategy

How should brands plan a sampling budget & strategy?

It’s important to consider your broader goals before creating a product sampling strategy. Key drivers might include brand awareness, in-store discovery, sales velocity, consumer feedback, and product reviews.

“When seeing consumer feedback, it’s always good to provide guidance around what kind of feedback you want, how you use it to make business decisions, and what you hope to accomplish with the feedback to decide on an appropriate strategy,” Malach said.

Sampling considerations by category

With multiple sampling options, the best type of product sampling depends on your product itself.

Certain categories simply work better at home. For example, if you’re sampling high SRP supplements, doing sample packs at a lower cost direct-to-home can be an effective route. Also, for supplements that don’t have an experiential component (like a powdered mix or gummy), or immediate effect like a sleep aid, it can be hard for consumers to provide immediate feedback in store or at a field marketing event. Education (and time) are needed to drive the sale.

Additionally, if your product needs a lot of preparation or is frozen, in-store demos can be challenging to ensure the products are prepared properly at a low cost and with consistent quality.  Digital product sampling are a good alternative for these types of products.

“Be really mindful about what type of products would work best with what type of sampling,” Malach noted.

Case study: Aura Bora

Botanical sparkling water brand Aura Bora sits in a competitive category and needed to drive trial to sustain their presence on shelf. To do that, they turned to digital sampling.

The program included a coupon for a free beverage to drive in-store trial at Walmart, Fresh Thyme, Sprouts, and Harris Teeter.

The results? After three months, the brand captured 37% repeat customers, 80% of whom buy the company’s products at least once a month. Additionally, 43% of these customers buy other sparkling beverage brands (meaning incremental sales for retailers!), and 44% completely switched to Aura Bora.

Paul Voge, the brand’s co-founder, noted that digital sampling greatly impacted Aura Bora’s buyer relationships.

“[You] capture the buyer’s attention when you send 1000s of their customers to buy your product,” Voge said.

Aside from boosting your own product, category growth is key in building retailer partnerships, Malach said.

“Taking market share is not really that compelling — they want to see category growth. This was an opportunity to show this innovative product is actually helping to drive the category growth, which is very hard to do.”

Helpful tips & FAQs

How to start sampling

To start with Social Nature’s drive-to-store sampling program, brands need presence in a few regions of Whole Foods or Sprouts, or distribution in approximately 200-500 stores that accept manufacturer’s coupons. For emerging brands with less distribution, doing direct to home sampling with a minimum of 1,500 product samples is a great way to validate products and get data to pitch for new brick and mortar listings.  To set up a consult, email marketing@socialnature.com

How D2C brands can sample:

These brands should consider creating their own trial sizes that customers can buy online.

“Put digital ad spend behind getting them to try. Then they’re in your funnel because they have to set up an account,” Malach said. “Focus on your own channel so you can own the customer data.”

You can ask for more info on where the customers shop, what products they want, and more. Later, you can leverage that data for innovation.

How direct mail sampling works

Who knows how mail works these days?! Actually, it’s simpler than you might think: USPS has specialized account managers who can help manage sampling campaigns, with all of a brand’s unique specifications in mind.

How pre-launch brands can sample:

If the product is non-perishable, send it direct-to-home to get feedback and data. That way you can prove your concept and pitch retailers properly.

Pre-launch brands may also want to consider farmers markets for direct feedback.

“Face-to-face is valuable, especially if you’re starting in just one region,” Malach said.

How to partner with retailers:

Setting up shop in a retailer’s parking lot with no permission isn’t recommended. Talk to the retailer first, and ask them to help promote your brand.

How to use QR codes:

Delivr.com has a lot of examples of how brands are leveraging QR codes.

For more sampling tips and tricks, watch the full webinar here.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are some of the most effective product sampling strategies?

Product sampling is a great way to drive sales and spread awareness of your CPG brand. The most common product sampling strategies include providing free samples in-store, online, or at events; creating influencer collaborations that involve product giveaways and reviews; or taking part in subscription box programs. Each strategy has its own set of advantages and considerations, so it’s important to evaluate which one fits best with your budget and goals.

2. How can I ensure that my product sampling campaign will be successful?

The key to success when running a product sampling campaign is ensuring that you target the right audience for your product. Identifying which channels and potential customers are more likely to engage with your brand can help you create an effective campaign that drives more sales. Additionally, you should also consider measuring ROI metrics such as customer acquisition rate, average order value (AOV), repeat purchases, etc., to get a sense of how effective the strategy is.

3. What factors should I take into account when planning a product sampling budget?

When setting up a budget for product sampling campaigns, consider the following: cost per sample including shipping; cost per branding materials; total number of samples needed based on estimated number of target customers; estimated cost per conversion (CPC); cost of influencer collaboration (if applicable); and other associated costs such as promotions or advertising fees.

4. What are some tips for creating an engaging experience for potential customers?

Creating an engaging experience for potential customers through product sampling campaigns involves understanding their needs and expectations from the start—from choosing the right products to showcasing them in a way that speaks directly to them.

It’s important to focus on customer service since this will help build trust with prospects who may not be familiar with your brand yet—for instance by making sure all customer questions are answered promptly or providing helpful advice related to usage or storage options for the sample products if needed.

Don’t forget about incentivizing customers with discounts or freebies after they’ve sampled your products—this will encourage them to come back for more!

5. What type of data should I collect when running a product sampling campaign?

Data collected during a product sampling campaign can provide valuable insight into consumer behaviour and preferences, allowing brands to better tailor future campaigns accordingly. Gathering data on things such as engagement levels across different channels; conversion rate by channel/region/demographic; average order values (AOV) by channel/region/demographic; customer feedback & reviews; repeat purchase rates among sampled customers; new vs existing customer purchases rates among sampled customers—all these types of information can help brands further optimize their campaigns moving forward.