Sampling Strategies for Every Industry

When it comes to great marketing strategies, some things never change. Sure – the media options are vast and powerful now, and people are reading “newspapers” from their mobile phones. And yes, consumers are more demanding and fickle than ever. But basic human psychology hasn’t changed. People want to buy products and services they can trust, and no one wants to commit to anything that’s new and unproven.

Enter the “sampling strategy.” If you have ever eaten a free BagelBite on a tiny napkin in the aisle of a grocery store, you have “sampled” a product. And if you then bought a box of BagelBites, you made the marketers very happy. Today, sampling is alive and well, but is taking on new and innovative forms.

“But I’m a B2B marketer,” you might say. Or “My product or service isn’t something that can be sampled.” Think again.

Here are just a few examples to spur your thinking about how you can turn customer awareness into EXPERIENCE and interest, and thus into preference and purchase intent.


Offer the best test-drive experience in the market. Incentivize the tire-kickers among us to come out on a Saturday for a drive by hosting a Customer Appreciation Event. Balloon animals and treats for the kids, and special financing offers for mom and dad. The “test drive” is the true definition of customer sampling.

Houses and Condos

Spend a little money on an interior designer and some great furnishings for a model home that allows prospective homeowners to sit down for a minute, look around, and actually imagine cooking pancakes in that kitchen and tucking their children into bed in the baseball-themed little boy’s room.

Higher Education

The savvy undergraduate universities offer activity-packed “prospective student weekends” where future coeds can get the chance to really “live” the college experience. And, yes, don’t forget to take those kids to the bookstore to buy a sweatshirt with the university logo on it. But can “sampling” work for professional schools like medical school, business school or law school? Absolutely. I’ve had the honor of working on developing some wonderful, industry-best sampling opportunities for Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. Rosalind Franklin offers a community Mini Medical School (no cost!) for four weeks so prospective students, area business professionals and retirees can come learn about DNA, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cadaver labs and more. The University also has a collaboration with LeadAmerica for a summer conference for high school students who are interested in healthcare careers. These types of sampling experiences provide goodwill to the community, and ultimately convert into student tuition revenue, philanthropic support and new patients for the University’s health system. As for Lake Forest Graduate School, their marketing and admissions process hinges on an unrivaled open house experience they call the MBA Preview, where busy professionals spend just two hours at a campus and get to meet students, faculty, and alumni, and participate in an actual in-session MBA class. Nearly 50% of prospective students who attend an MBA Preview ultimately enroll.

Retail Products

We’ve established that if you sell food, you can always give away a little taste (at grocery stores, at your restaurant/café, or at community food fairs). But what if you sell expensive, high-involvement products, like specialty outdoor gear? Do what Silver Tree client Northerly Outfitters does to help tentative winter sports enthusiasts to try out new activities – offer snowshoe rentals! I, for one, will be renting two pair this winter for me and my husband, to see what the experience is all about.

Home Improvement

The Lowes Build and Grow program for kids is a great way to teach your children new skills, and for Lowes to get you into the building spirit yourself. I have no doubt that parents who bring their kids in for the workshops end up buying products during their visit. And another, more “pure” sampling concept is the series of workshops offered at Home Depot, in which do-it-yourselfers can learn how to hang window treatments, install a closet organizer or toilet, or plant flower beds that the neighbors will envy.

Professional Services

Even consultants can get into the sampling game. My friend Doug LaBelle at LaBelle Training offers no-cost "sample" seminars on topics like diversity and service excellence, to would-be corporate clients. And at Silver Tree Communications, your pre-contract consultations are a great way to "test out" our mettle -- to find out if we have smart insights about your business and how to help you achieve profitable growth.

So whether a "sample" in your industry is a bite of cheesecake, a free webinar, or a ride around the block on a scooter, I encourage you to think about how to create these customer experiences as part of your marketing and sales cycle. While not every product or service that you are tasked with marketing might lend itself easily to a sampling strategy, I’m convinced that there’s always a way to give the customer what they need – an enjoyable experience that’s low commitment and leaves them wanting more.

By the way, I wrote this blog post from my Microsoft Surface at an Argo Tea Café in downtown Chicago, where, when I arrived, an employee was handing out tiny cups of Carolina Honey iced tea to passersby on the busy street corner. Case in point.



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