Two years ago, Domino's had a serious problem. The product at the very core of its business was universally regarded as tasteless, and the only way to rectify the brand's image problem was to combat the pizza problem first. "Dominos tastes like cardboard. Microwave pizza is far better," wrote one critic on Twitter. "Mass produced, boring, bland pizza," wrote another. So, the company embarked on a self-effacing mission that they now call "The Pizza Turnaround." They spent years developing a new and tasty recipe, which they eventually launched this year.

But it wasn't enough to start serving the new product and hope customers would take notice. According to company spokesman Chris Brandon, "We were trying to get people to talk about the pizza…we wanted to get the pizza in people's hands."

And so they did. Their highly-publicized commercials showed Domino's employees going door-to-door giving free pizzas to "the holdouts," and on Twitter, the company offered a number of Domino's followers a coupon code for a free large pizza. On the Pizza Turnaround website, the company live streams all the Twitter comments about the new pizza, to make sure the quality continues to stay on track. So far, so good.

"I am no longer a last holdout to eat the new Dominos pizza. Yup, its better. Much better," one customer Tweeted, while another wrote, "yum yumm.. dominos new pizza :)"

Brandon's thankful that, after all the hard work, the feedback has been generally positive. But, he says, "Whether it was neutral or negative, we still wanted to have it out there and see what was being said." "Not only does feedback and the way we sought it out get some of the credit for us making a change, it really gets all the credit."

Even if you haven't let your customers down (lucky you), keeping tabs on feedback is crucial to your future success, and what better way to get honest feedback than to get your product into the market? We've broken down the sampling strategies you can take to find out what people really think of your product.

How to Use Sampling and Demos for Customer Feedback: Traditional Sampling

Cindy Johnson spent 17 years managing sampling plans for Procter & Gamble. When she decided to leave the company, she opened her own consulting company, Sampling Effectiveness Advisors. Now, she works with everyone from Coke to Nexxus on their sampling campaigns.

According to Johnson, there are four traditional methods of getting your products to consumers. The first, and perhaps most obvious, type is in-store sampling. "If you sample in store, you should be sampling things that gain immediate trial." For instance, beverage samples or equipment demonstrations give the consumer an instant impression. Not only will shoppers be more accessible for feedback, but they're also more likely to buy the product when they can see it there on the shelf. If your distribution is limited to one or two stores, this tactic is especially helpful.

"I don't recommend that personal care brands, beauty brands or healthcare brands sample in store," Johnson says. "If you get a sample of shampoo and conditioner in the mail, you might need two or three months to get consumers to try it, because they might have a couple bottles of shampoo at home. They might not even try it until they go on vacation."

For these products, Johnson suggests point of use sampling. "For antiperspirants, for instance, sampling at a fitness club is a good idea," she says. "Put the sample in a place where the consumer is most likely to try it." 

When the Austin-based tea company Sweet Leaf Tea first launched, Brand Marketing Manager Charla Adams said the company spent the majority of their marketing budget on sampling. Though they did rely on in-store sampling at Whole Foods, Sweet Leaf also took their product to music festivals and outdoor events like marathons.

"Everybody here at Sweet Leaf really enjoys music, so we thought that'd be a good fit for our brand," Adams says. "You have a captive audience, and they're in the mood to try new things."

Often, though, it's important to reach the consumer before they need your product. For example, Johnson says, "For baby care brands, it's the best idea to get samples to the mom before she has the baby, because once she has the baby, she's overwhelmed and she's home for weeks." In this case, a company should try point of entry sampling. "It's where a consumer's going to be reading up on or looking for those types of products," Johnson says.

A baby care brand, therefore, might try partnering with a store like Motherhood Maternity or offering free samples at the OB-GYN office.

The more targeted sampling strategy is requested sampling. This is best applied if your product is only useful to specific consumers. Johnson has worked with Hyland's Homeopathy, which makes supplements for people suffering from leg cramps. "You don't want to give that product to just anybody," she says. "Lots of brands now set up websites, so if someone's searching what to do about leg cramps, they might find the site on Google that says, 'Receive a free sample of this leg cramp treatment.'"

Johnson admits, though, "It is one of the most expensive marketing tactics out there," adding that even a small test of 50,000 samples can add up to an investment of around $30,000. Luckily, there are also some low-cost methods you can use on a smaller scale.

How to Use Sampling and Demos for Customer Feedback: Low-Cost Sampling

No matter the type of sampling approach you take, focus groups are an essential part of your research. Often, they can be the only research you need. Domino's, Brandon says, conducts focus groups once a month.

When you're organizing a focus group, you need to think about all the people whose opinions matter. Barbara Findlay Schenck, a marketing professional and author of several "For Dummies" books concerning small business, says there are a few questions you should ask yourself: who uses your product? Who makes purchasing decisions? Who makes the purchase?

"Know all the people in your customer chain and be sure you get their advice," Schenck says. "If you have the expertise to spend the time yourself to talk to customers, then you can spend very little money."

One-on-one sampling can also be effective, according to Schenck. Target customers when they're in your store and ask them to try out a new product. Engage them in conversation about the design, ease of use and their interest in the product.

"People shy away from talking directly about anything that might deliver less than favorable input," she says. "Let the customer know this is really valuable input."

Make sure you know what you're looking for. Are you interested in finding out about how engaging your packaging is? Do you need to make your product more user friendly? Or are you more interested in the quality of the product itself?

Don't be afraid to leverage social media for samples, either, like Domino's did. Brandon says, "People are drawn to social media, because it's a place to be honest and go to be heard."

For all of these methods though, you need to guarantee a return, either in the form of feedback or in the form of a purchase. 

How to Use Sampling and Demos for Customer Feedback: Collecting Feedback

For large-scale sampling campaigns, Schenck says, "The only two ways you can [get feedback] is to ask people to go online, like a 'Give us your response and enter to win, type thing,' or to return a card."

If you end up cold-calling, which Johnson says many large companies do, keep it short. "Focus on the main five or six things you have to know," she advises. "It's more important to get good quality than quantity."

It's also a smart idea to tie feedback to the possibility of a purchase. Starbucks, for instance, often gives customers a survey code on their receipt after they make a purchase. If they fill out the survey online, they get their next drink free. It's a loyalty program, a sampling program and a feedback program all rolled into one.

At Sweet Leaf, Adams says focus group members always walk away with a goodie or two, whether it be a lip balm or a pin. "It allows consumers to think about the brand long after the event," she says.

For online giveaways, Schenck suggests offering a free trial, sample or download with the promise of membership in a premium club or the promise of a discount on the user's next purchase. "Freemium is a very good strategy if you have a process for converting a small number of people to paying customers," she says. "Don't give away a sample without some sort of action request."