This post is from a byline published in Mediapost.

A few months ago I met with a new client who told me that in the past their main tactic to drive awareness was in-store sampling. They are a new product in a well-represented personal care category and face a slew of behemoth brands as competitors. When executing an in-store sampling, they would pay anywhere between one thousand dollars to $2,500 per day for the privilege (depending on the retailer). For that day, and a few days after, the client would notice their coupons being used, and would see a lift in sales – but then sales would go flat or even down again. They were frustrated with the lack of longevity or lasting returns. They had fallen into the exhilarating trap of the quick hit for short-term gain.

Good, Better, Best

While in-store sampling may be good to inspire trial and make introductions at the moment, brands miss the opportunity to build meaningful connections with consumers. In my experience, the typical sampling program does not convert consumers in the long run. It’s a marketing drive by. Does the brand have any idea who these sampling consumers are? Do these passersby qualify as the brand’s target? What brand are they using now? Maybe they already are a user? Who knows? And sure, some of these random shoppers might give the brand a spin – but maybe they are solely value seekers, and the coupon was just that compelling. But most often than not, consumers in these scenarios tend to go back to their habitual brand or the one offering the next promotional temptation. And if competitor loyalists are the target, it’s even harder to win them over because they are more likely to be the most advertising and promotion blind.

For trial and launch, brands might also rely on street events. But hitting the consumer target in these situations can be even more haphazard, and often these events result in a high amount of waste. We have even heard of products being stolen and later sold on the black market. Recently, a popular energy drink with an impressive street value had inventory disappear off sampling trucks and then turn up on the street at half the price. Safe to say, that wasn’t in the marketing plan.

There are better ways to leverage sampling. For example, working with a company that can deliver the product into highly targeted hands and homes is more effective. But the best approach is targeted sampling strategies that drive advocacy and long-term loyalty – especially among competitor stalwarts.

Targeted Sampling  + Advocacy = Long-Term Gains

To convert competitor loyalists, marketers need to chip away with smart tactics that are proven to drive advocacy and long-term loyalty. Marketers should consider a sampling initiative within a platform or environment that enables consumers (particularly those of competitive products) to opt-in, use the brand in a meaningful context, provide feedback, and share their experience with their friends, family, and social network. Time and again, this strategy has proven effective in helping convert and grow loyalty for brands. Best of all, the advocacy portion not only attracts new converts, but it also reinforces the decision to purchase among the initially converted. Research has shown that seventy-six percent of consumers who try a brand and then recommend it to others are more likely to repurchase it themselves.

Advocates Make it Ok to Switch and Spread the Joy

Peer to peer recommendations are the most powerful – especially those based on authentic, non-paid product use. Genuine, uncompensated praise in the targeted sampler’s own words reverberates with family, friends and extended social circles, in real life and online. Think about your own behavior – the people you trust and gravitate to in life have a greater influence on your behavior and choices than advertising. This is particularly the case when it comes to the most brand-loyal consumers.

In this age of the empowered, connected, content-filtering consumer, brand advocates will help marketers get through all that insulation. Providing consumers who have sampled a product with a platform and tools to reach and inspire others to join the brand clan is one of the most productive investments a marketer can make today.

Interested in more?

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