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The Science of Sampling: How Free Samples Attract Paying Customers

Posted on the 28 May 2015 by Marketingtango @marketingtango
  • May 28, 2015
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The Science of Sampling: How Free Samples Attract Paying Customers

We’ve all made impulse purchases based on trying a free sample of something new. But only Costco has developed a reputation for its sampling, to the point that some customers have been known to make the bite-sized offerings of free food into a kind of mobile buffet.

Free samples and promotional products may sound simple and even old-fashioned, but they work for good reason. There is a certain science behind the practice that any business can apply.

The principle is called reciprocity, and the idea is that when someone gives us something, we feel obliged to return the favor. It happens whenever we try a free taste of the snack du jour at Costco or Trader Joe’s and end up buying some.

Even if you can’t go door to door to offer a sample face to face with every one of your customers, the principle of reciprocity still applies with other techniques, such as the free gift with purchase.

Writing in The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker took a look at the psychological reasons why sampling makes good business sense. Here’s a handy summary of his main points, as condensed by The Consumerist.

  1. Free Samples Create Obligation
    When you try that mini pizza bite, it’s no coincidence that you’ll feel like you should make a purchase. Whether you prefer to call it reciprocity, obligation, guilt, or karma, it works. Quoted in The Atlantic, Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely says, “Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct. If somebody does something for you… you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them.”
  1. Free Samples Serve As Reminders
    Even if that mini pizza wasn’t so great, it may have reminded you about the last really good pizza you had (despite not being on your shopping list). According to Ariely, samples can create a particular desire for something. “If I gave you a tiny bit of chocolate, all of a sudden it would remind you about the exact taste of chocolate and would increase your craving.”
  1. Sampling Is Social
    People are watching you take that free bite! A 2011 UK study concluded: “Samplers with a heightened awareness of the presence of others at the sampling station may feel a level of social ‘pressure’ to make a post-sample purchase.” Imagine if there was no one behind the table to greet you and hand out samples. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people would not feel as obligated to make a purchase.
  1. Free Samples Create Atmosphere
    There are plenty of stores that give out samples. Few are as connected to sampling as Costco. Sampling creates excitement and gives people something to look forward to and talk about. To create buzz with your customer base, get with your integrated marketing team this week and brainstorm ways to use promo products and samples to create a sense of fun and anticipation.

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