How often have you walked down a street, into a store or past a booth at an event, and someone offered you a free sample? Whether it was food, a beverage, a chance to win a prize or a water bottle, you probably stopped. If you liked what you sampled or won something, you probably felt more inclined to buy the brand’s product or service. We’ve talked about the benefits of product sampling before, so now we will explore the psychology behind offering consumers free products — and how it impacts buying behavior. It turns out the word “free” is often a marketer’s best secret tactic!
The Irresistible Temptation of Free
It’s hard to turn down free offers because they trigger a positive emotional response in our minds. We also tend to unconsciously assign a higher value to a free item because we don’t incur any risks. In contrast, when we buy something new, we risk losing money if the product or service doesn’t meet our expectations. The demand for a product or service becomes greater when it costs zero than when it costs even a tiny amount, a phenomenon known as the zero price effect.
An often-cited study by author and behavioral economist Dan Ariely perfectly demonstrates the zero price effect. College students were offered opportunities to buy Hershey’s Kisses and Lindt chocolate truffles. Kisses are an inexpensive, common treat, whereas the Lindt truffles are a more luxurious, higher quality chocolate. In the first experiment, Kisses cost 1 cent, and the Lindt truffles cost 15 cents. Nearly 75% of participants bought the truffles. In the second experiment, the cost for each was lowered by 1 cent, making the Kisses free and the truffles 14 cents. This time, nearly two-thirds chose the free Kisses over the truffles, despite the better-tasting truffle being a bargain price.
The Takeaway: By offering free samples of your product or service, you provide an opportunity for consumers to engage with your brand with no risk to them.
How Free Samples Influence Buying Behavior
Think about a time when you sampled something at a store. Even if you didn’t receive a coupon for the product, you might have felt obligated to buy it (assuming you liked it). Many consumers feel a subtle need to give something back in exchange for receiving a free sample, a reaction known as the reciprocity instinct. In lieu of making a purchase, the reciprocity instinct can also mean writing a positive review or providing insightful feedback.
Often, product sampling can alter a consumer’s buying behavior by causing them to switch to your brand at the last moment, called “changing directions.” For example, say a consumer walks into a store planning to buy Gatorade. You offer them an opportunity to try your sports rehydration beverage. Now, instead of buying Gatorade, the consumer buys your beverage. The next time they need a sports drink, they’ll remember the positive emotion they felt when receiving your free sample.
Product sampling aims to create a bond with consumers, so the most successful sampling experiences are authentic and memorable. In our Gatorade example above, you could just hand out free drink samples, but a better option is to create a more memorable experience beyond the free sample. For instance, you could bring in a massage chair or a fun virtual reality headset, so the consumer spends a few minutes experiencing your brand more engagingly. Best of all — make it something surprisingly delightful so they’ll want to take selfies and share with others. As a result, this consumer is more likely to remember your brand the next time they are ready to buy, a concept called brand loyalty.
The Takeaway: Consumers may switch to your brand due to reciprocity, but you’ll have more success converting them to brand-loyal customers if your product sampling is surprisingly engaging and memorable.
Avoid the “Spray & Pray” Approach to Product Sampling
One product sampling mistake brands often make is handing out samples to as many people as possible, many of whom are not likely to buy your product or service — known as “spray & pray.” You won’t achieve nearly as high of a return on your product sampling investment using this approach. Instead, set up your product sampling campaign where your target audience spends time.
Using our same Gatorade example, instead of handing out samples of your sports beverage at a supermarket where most shoppers aren’t there to buy sports drinks, launch your campaign at a sporting event. A 10K run, bike race or college soccer tournament is teaming with athletic consumers who are far more likely to buy sports drinks regularly.
The Takeaway: Always consider the demographics of your target audience — know who and where your target audience is for the optimum ROI on your product sampling campaign.
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