Digital food sampling: how does it work?

There's still value in handing out tasty product samples in stores, but many brands have turned to the burgeoning space of digital sampling and are opting for multi-faceted approaches.
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Getting people to try the product you're selling remains pivotal for any food and drink business. It boosts brand awareness, gives you insightful feedback and increases sales; and brands are finding increasingly inventive ways to go about it. They range from tapping up micro influencers on social media and partnering with delivery services to add samples to orders to working with sampling vending machines.

Digital sampling, in particular, has exploded. That's largely through specialist platforms that help brands send samples to digitally targeted customers (who have opted in) based on demographics, interests and preferences. The platforms then gather the relevant data and insight for the brand to tap into. The brand gets its samples to higher-value, higher-intent customers; and the customer is able to direct the experience and get the kind of samples they're interested in. While bigger, more established companies might use it to surprise and delight existing customers, for emerging brands, it's largely about increasing awareness and improving their products. 

How to leverage digital sampling 

Sampler, based in Toronto, is one such digital sampling platform. It works with businesses that range from fledgling two-person operations, all the way to major players like L'Oréal. Kelly Stewart, vice president of marketing, gives her take on how brands can get the most out of it. 

• ‘Brands don't dig into this in the same way that they might with an email marketing campaign. Sampling is notoriously seen as top of [the sales] funnel, but there are so many other use cases for it – it has so much malleability. For example, it can be a win-back campaign for customers who you want to bring back. Brands can get all the things they want out of sampling that they expect out of other marketing channels.’ 

• ‘All you need is product and ideally a place to drive customers to purchase. There's no need for a social media presence if you don't want one. Digital sampling platforms have CRM tools that let you build that newsletter list of high-intent consumers who are actually interested in your products.’ 

• ‘Instead of creating samples all around one product, some brands have created a bunch of different products. They've tested them to see which ones the consumers like – rather than the brand deciding which ones they should like. We've also been used for product testing: so a brand samples three flavors, looking to get insight into which should form the full-size product. One common mistake is brands making a whole bunch of samples of one type and just seeing sampling as a way of distributing the brand. Use the opportunity to test insights as well as getting your name out there.’

• ‘Really try to understand how this fits in with the rest of your marketing mix. Sampling is often seen as this thing on the side – but it can be woven into every other marketing channel and brands should expect as much. Go into it figuring out what you want. Is it for awareness? To reach a very specific type of audience? To surprise current customers? Then demand that out of your sampling partner – they should be able to give you a solution.’ 

Sampling in action 

Increasingly, brands use sampling programs that combine a variety of different approaches. Here, we take a look at how two growing food businesses have used sampling strategies. 

1. MID-DAY SQUARES: a three-pronged approach

Maker of high-protein organic chocolate bars, the Canadian brand has positioned sampling front and center of its marketing efforts. ‘Even though it can be hard to quantify and it's sometimes not a palatable cost, sampling has created amazing brand awareness,’ says Megan Hughes, the brand's marketing manager. Its strategy revolves around three key pillars. 

• Sending samples directly to customers from their website via a ‘starter pack’, which offers a mixture of flavors at a reduced cost. The brand collects customer info, following up afterwards via newsletters and push notifications. The number of samples Mid-Day Squares put out in 2021 increased by 51% – which resulted in total transactions increasing by 170%.

• Partnerships and collaborations via events. ‘The biggest thing we've been able to do is leverage like-minded causes that speak to us,’ says Megan. From school plays to big fitness events (many of which have been virtual), that's meant seriously upping the operational approach. ‘It's been a big logistical challenge. If it's sending samples one to one, direct to the consumer, I can't facilitate that. But if it's regional, with bulk orders going to certain areas, we can take that on. I've had to transfer increased costs to shipping and logistics.’  

• In-store samples. ‘I'm a strong believer in those,’ adds Megan. ‘They're a little hard to quantify as far as return on investment goes, but if you have any access to any point of sale information, I've always seen no less than a 50% sales jump.

2. FABALISH: Leveraging the right communities

• The plant-based dips and falafel company, operating out of New York, also opts for a multi-faceted approach to get its products in people's hands. A big part of that is working with micro influencers on a regular basis. The brand sends out samples to around five influencers a week. ‘We work with influencers who don't just take a picture, but actually create a recipe – so customers can envision how the product would be used in a meal,’ says Fabalish co-founder Paul Majcherczyk. 

• Fabalish also partners with a bespoke platform, Social Nature, which has a subscriber base of people interested in emerging natural food brands. Fabalish sends out coupons and incentives for people to try products and leave reviews on the platform. ‘We're not really making money on it,’ says Paul. ‘It's a marketing play to get the brand out there.’ 

Paul's key tip is to keep a very watchful eye on your return on investment. ‘It's really hard to pay attention to each effort. Because we were so successful with in-store demos before the pandemic, we brought them back aggressively, but we just didn't see the return. It took us longer than it should have to notice – it's very easy to start spending money and not see a proper return.’ 

Learn more 

The Startup CPG Podcast has an episode all about digital sampling, featuring the CEO of product discovery platform Social Nature, Annalea Krebs.

• The Food Dive newsletter is an excellent daily deep dive into the latest trends in the food and drink industry.  

Sampler, PINCHme and SampleSource are all digital sampling platforms that work in slightly different ways with customers.

This article was first published in Courier issue 46, April/May 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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