At Gordon Grade Coffee Company's office in Midtown Manhattan, 2,000 individual servings of Dr. Drip's eco-friendly premium drip coffee are ready to be shared with the masses. The start-up plans to distribute its self-brewed coffee—its first product—to stressed students during finals week at New York University.

Dr. Drip's guerrilla exercise precedes the product's official May 23 release, and is Gordon Grade's first foray into sampling.

"There's always a reticence to give anything away for free," says co-founder Jesse Gordon. "You don't know whether or not the end result will justify the cost of putting the team together and getting the product into people's hands."

Sampling is hardly a new concept, but the process still strains many companies that attempt it. Food products and cosmetics have long been icons of sampling; samples fill our stomachs at our local groceries and our noses in the cosmetic section of department stores. Other industries, from toys to technology, traditionally less familiar with the procedure, can also show their stuff through samples. 

The act of sampling is changing as well. While more traditional in-store customer and indirect distributor sampling still occurs, creativity has entered the mix, allowing companies to fresh outlets for their sampling. Companies are directly targeting bloggers, trend-setters, and celebrities. But even as the process evolves, the goals remain largely the same.

"I want to be as effective as possible," says Gordon about his own sampling concerns. "I want to know how to turn a sample into a business."

Dig Deeper: Try Giving It Away

How to Use Samples to Promote Your Product: Decide Why You're Sampling

For a toy, it's the feel. For a drink, it's the taste. For a fragrance, it's the smell. Whatever your product, you need to develop a clear idea of why sampling is a necessary part of your marketing or sales plan. Before you plot your sampling strategy, return to your mission and company's core values to remind yourself why your product is worth trying.

Five years ago, Hosung NY started miYim, a line of plush stuffed animals and accessories for infants and toddlers made from certified non-toxic, recycled cotton. At miYim, in-store samples of velvety toys are all about the "aww" value that comes from displaying examples, and letting customers touch and squeeze them.

"When people think of our product, they're thinking cotton canvas or jersey, but our toys are as soft that they are almost always surprised," says Serah Chae, president of Hosung NY. "Because of that surprise factor and the obvious cuddle factor, our business model requires very diligent sampling."

For newer companies, sampling gives customers a sense of understanding and experience with an unknown product before they commit to buy. Fitango, a start-up that develops "action plans" to motivate behavior for individuals and businesses. Its online marketplace, similar to Apple's App store, offers a variety of samples frameworks for free.

"We're young," says Parinda Muley, Fitango's vice president of business development. "It's in our best interest for customers to be as comfortable with us as we are with them. We're willing to take the hit if it means one more business is using our platform."

But even more frequently sampled products, notably cosmetics, strive for consumer comfort. 

"Skin care products and makeup can be really expensive so you want to make sure you're making a well informed decision," says Stacey Webb, director of marketing at OleHenriksen, a natural skin care company based in Los Angeles. "Consumers are so savvy these days, they don't want to spend their money on anything they aren't sure about."

Dig Deeper: How To Keep Your Message Clear

How to Use Samples to Promote Your Product: Pick Your Product 

Once you know the why, you next need to decide the what. For new companies with a single product, like Dr. Drip Coffee, this decision is simple. For more developed product lines, a few more choices arise. 

One option is to vary your samples. OleHenriksen rotates between offering bestselling products, new products, and hidden gems—products the company believes could become best-sellers after they are discovered. With each category, the skin care line still strives for mass appeal.

"You can't always control who gets the sample," Webb says. "Make sure it's going to be something that generally a lot of people will try, like, and see results."

For companies such as Fitango, which has with a potentially large and diverse market, providing differing samples allows the company to reach more of its target audience with separate marketing for segments like education, business, and leisure. For others, like miYim, limiting the samples to the newest products proves more effective. 

"For the new customers, it's absolutely critical," says Chae. "But even with people who already know us, they still want to see what we can do differently."

Whichever direction seems right for you, make sure it's right for your consumer as well.

How to Use Samples to Promote Your Product: Find a Target Audience

Like any other sales tactic, targeting the right audience is critical for your sampling success.

POM Wonderful, the company behind pomegranate juices, teas, and bars, appeals to a wide spectrum of consumers. So, the company divides its market into several pillars to make its extensive sampling efforts more effective.

"We focus around entertainment, philanthropy, health and beauty, fashion, the arts, and epicurean," says Rob Six, POM's vice president of communications. "That's where we see the bulk of our consumer and we try to target our sampling strategy around events that cater to those pillars."

For example, POM utilized guerilla-sampling tactics similar to Dr. Drip's on campuses nationwide for the debut of the company's POMx coffee. For its original juices, POM samples at marathons and epicurean events, such as SF Chefs, transforming the product into both a refresher for runners and an ingredient for foodies.

Because it's hard to target a baby audience directly, miYim takes a different approach, sending regular samples to up to 100 mommy bloggers with huge followings. 

"They want to physically give it to their two-year-old and let them chew on it and see how they feel about it," says Chae about the bloggers. "They review the product online, and that's been a very powerful PR tactic for us."
Not just for toys, using reviewer samples are helpful for hard-to-reach audience. Once you have an audience, you need a plan.  

How to Use Samples to Promote Your Product: Have a Plan

When Ole Henriksen started his self-named product line in 1984, he batched out and labeled his own samples in the back room of his spa in Los Angeles.

"Sampling has aways been a big part of our culture," Webb says. "Ole as a man is so generous, I don't think he even thought of it as sampling, more of a gift for your skin."

Today, OleHenriksen still samples generously, but with more practicality.

"Sampling is expensive," Webb continues. "It's a balancing game based on the size of your market and what you're trying to do. You can't just say, 'I want a million.'"

You can, however, plan for a little extra. For each major product line or holiday special, miYim pads its sampling orders by 20 percent to account for unexpected events or requests. The company also saves money by planning its samples six-to-eight months in advance to avoid impulse spending. It also limits its audience to lower shipping costs.

"It's not like lipstick," Chae says of her product. "Our toys range from 11 to 35 inches. We don't want them to be shipped and disregarded. That's wasteful."

Additional packaging costs sometimes are the more strategic option, however. After starting with poured samples, POM soon realized it could better build its brand by giving away eight-ounce bottles.

"People can take the experience with them," says Six. "It's more expensive, but it's been more successful for us."

How to Use Samples to Promote Your Product: Strut Your Stuff

Sampling requires you think outside the box, both literally and figuratively. What you package your sample in matters for consumer appeal. POM uses an iconic curvy bottle to reinforce the brand image, miYim uses eco-friendly packaging to extend its mission, and OleHenriksen uses bright-colored packaging to distinguish its various product lines.

"We're very bright, we're very vibrant, and we make sure our packets resemble our actual products so our customers remember us," Webb says. "Be creative with your packaging. Make it stand out in a way that someone really wants to open and try it."

Creativity matters in the way you package your samples as well. POM outside-the-box sampling efforts have helped bolster the company's notability. Two years after introducing its product, the company created the POMtini for the 2004 Oscars, generating serious PR buzz.

"If you're going to do sampling, you can either do it very generically, or you can create an experience for your consumer," says Six. "We think the latter works better."

How to Use Samples to Promote Your Product: Turn Samples Into Business

Are your sampling efforts working at all? In order to determine if your samples are actually effective, you need to track its success. Various metrics are useful. For example, in its sampling efforts, Gordon Grade hoped its college samplers would try the product and then join their social network. POM used a similar approach after their POMx coffee campaign.

"We saw a lot of feedback on Twitter," says Six. "We could read what people were saying about us."

Promotion codes are another way to boost sales and track effectiveness. This June, OleHenriksen will participate in the Skin Cancer Foundation's Sun Safety Expo in New York's Grand Central Station, handing out samples to any New Yorker, traveler, or tourist walking by. It is the first time the company is participating in such a large-scale event, and to track sales, representatives will give away codes for free shipping on with each sample. 

"When your sampling dollars are really important to you, you really want to make sure you're tracking what's working and what's not," Webb says. "If we find that something like that doesn't work for us because we didn't have anybody come to our site and redeem the promo code, maybe we wouldn't do it next year."

In order for sampling to be successful, samples must become sales. Generous sampling is a waste of marketing dollars if no revenue comes from it. As a new company, Fitango is willing to give away as many samples as possible and work closely with their customers as they learn the product. But, the honeymoon will end soon.

"Our goal is to work with them, help them build these platforms, and then work with them to determine the price their services," says Muley. "Once we've convinced a small business to use our service, we will charge them what makes sense."

Sampling can be tricky, it can be tedious, and it can be taxing on your company. But, if in the end, your customer base grows, the effort will be well worth it.

"It's such an important part of the marketing mix," says Six. "If you want someone to try your product twice, they have to try it once."