If the flavor, feel, smell, or performance of your product is its best selling point, exploit it. "I can tell people all day how good this stuff tastes," says Joanne Biltekoff about Elan frozen-yogurt products, "or I can get them to taste it."

Biltekoff, who cofounded Elan with her husband, James, developed the dessert product from scratch in 1986. Although they lacked the capital for advertising blitzes and direct mail, they built Elan to be the leading premium brand in some regions, primarily by using in-store demonstrations to get people to try it.

Product sampling -- whether in a retail store, at a trade show, or at some other gathering of potential buyers -- is low-tech, cheap, and cost-effective. It's especially useful for small companies that don't have the dollars big companies use to introduce new products. How cheap?

You'll pay a demonstration company about $100 a day to supply the demonstrator and card table, and in a six-hour shift -- most supermarket demos take place between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. -- your product will get into the hands or mouths of about 500 people. That's about 20¢ per person. Add the cost of the product consumed, the redemption cost of the distributed coupons, and the cost of training the demonstrators, to bring the total average cost up to about 30¢ per sample. Even mailing samples, which lacks the personal touch, costs more. If some easily demonstrated characteristic is the best argument for buying your product, then sampling, done right, is a great way to make your case.

Doing it right means --

* Sampling to the right prospects. For a grocery product, not every store, even in the same chain, may be right. Elan frozen yogurt costs more than $2 a pint. "We're not going to sell a whole lot to the mac-and-cheese crowd," says Biltekoff, who talks to chain-store buyers about the demographics of different stores' markets before deciding which stores in the chain to use for demos.

* Using personable, well-trained demonstrators. A badly trained or poorly attired demonstrator can do more harm than good. The demo firm you hire will do some training of the part-timers they employ. Or, as Elan does, you can train demonstrators yourself. Elan also supplies uniforms, and it has replaced the customary card table with a stand that looks like an Elan yogurt carton.

* Positioning your demo well. Some people want demonstrators close to the store entrance. Biltekoff prefers hers near the frozen yogurt. If you have to be at one end of the shelf or case that holds your product, she says, make sure it's the upstream end. If shoppers have to fight cart traffic to get back to the spot where they can find the stuff, some just won't bother.

Elan, in Buffalo, is now selling in 20 states and has graduated to a more balanced marketing strategy. Even so, Elan uses TV and print ads primarily to support its demonstration program, which remains its flagship marketing medium.

-- Tom Richman

To find a quality demonstration firm, keep an eye on the local supermarkets. When you spot demonstrators who are good at their jobs, ask whom they work for. Or call National Association of Dem-onstrating Companies at 800-338-6232 and ask for a roster of demo firms operating in different market areas. n