The Power of Product Samples


It’s a typical Saturday afternoon and you’re wandering the grocery store for your weekly meals. As you round the corner from the dairy, there it is. The free sample cart.
You, of course, take the sample, and that’s it! You’re done for. Obviously you’re checking out with that product, BUT – did you take a minute to look at what else made it into your cart after you checked out?

If you did, you might notice that along with that product, you bought your favorite soda, chocolate…and you couldn’t help but splurge on that magazine!

But so what? You deserve those treats for working so hard, right? Well, according to marketing researchers, there’s a little more science to it than that.

In Wadhwa, Shiv and Nowlis (2008) study on reward appetite, they find that what they call a “sampling consumption cue” (in their case a soda), which is considered, at “high incentive value” (in other words – tastes really good) not only makes people want that product, but also prompts people to seek anything rewarding.

The researchers propose this phenomenon, “occurs as a result of the activation of a general motivational state by cues that are high in incentive value.” (Wadhwa, Shiv and Nowlis, 2008, p.1) In other words, once you are offered one incentive, it is essentially flipping the switch in you to seek out more. While in their study they use food, how can this translate to other products or services?

Using incentives in all forms is a common marketing practice. Providing a “sample” of a product or service to incentivize the customer is very effective, not surprisingly. But what else does it mean once the switch has been flipped “on” to your customer’s high incentive motivation?

According to this research, there is a significant window of opportunity to consider when developing marketing tactics where customers are looking for more reward. So how can we use this research to inform our strategies? Below are a few ideas to consider.

1. For direct mail, know exactly when your customer is receiving their direct mail piece (with a sample or incentive) and follow up that day with an option to purchase the product, reaching out while they are still seeking reward.
2. For trade show settings, position your booth more towards the back of the show floor to ensure customers are seeking reward from other booth’s free samples, before they reach your booth and consider your product.
3. For sales presentations, before you begin, offer your customers an incentive, whether it is product related or simply a treat, to ensure attentiveness in seeking reward.
4. For digital samples, use social media to keep the conversation going after the sample is given. We live in a world where we can speak to our customers constantly and we don’t have to miss the window where they are looking for what you have to offer.

Ultimately, new approaches to traditional tactics can make a world of difference in the effectiveness of campaigns. Not to mention this certainly gives meaning to the expression “striking while the iron’s hot” – or offering your product to customers when they are seeking it.

Source: “A Bite to Whet the Reward Appetite: The Influence of Sampling on Reward-Seeking Behaviors”, Monica Wadhwa, Baba Shiv, and Stephen M. Nowlis, 2008, American Marketing Association


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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