The Psychology of Free Samples and Why They Work

One of the most effective tactics in the history of product marketing is sampling. Sampling is when brands give away smaller versions of their product to try – generally for free. Let’s study Birchbox. This super-star company launched in 2010 and was made famous when they introduced makeup sample boxes for just a $10 monthly subscription fee. They now have over a million members and are worth $485 million. Better yet, 30% of their sample members have converted to full-size product buyers.

Sampling is well known as a powerful strategy when it comes to food; anyone who’s been at the mall approached by a tray of delicious bite-size morsels of Auntie Annie’s pretzels absolutely knows they’re getting in line after just one taste. The incredible impact of sampling as a marketing strategy is best told by the amazing findings in a Costco article featured in The Atlantic. Costco studied the ratio of product sales after in-store samples were consumed, for frozen pizza sample-takers sales went up by 600% and yogurt by 55% as compared to non-samplers where only 15% of shoppers who refused a sample bought the product. In other words, when consumers sample a product, the likelihood they’ll buy it goes up by an incredible margin. Let’s dig in and discover the psychology of sample programs and why they work so well.

The Psychology of Free Samples

According to market research studies, 81% of consumers said they’re more likely to try a new product after receiving a free sample. Are we just being polite or is there something more at play? There are two main psychological principles influencing our response to and decisions surrounding samples.

Risk Aversion: People tend to stick with what they already know they like and are comfortable with.

Trying new things feels like a gamble. “What if I don’t like it?”  and “I don’t want to spend my money if it might turn out bad.” It just feels better to stick with a sure thing. For most, the internal conflict is too uncomfortable to bear. Samples take the risk out of the equation since they are typically free or at a discount. This represents half of why giveaways work.

The Principle of Reciprocity: An intrinsic need to balance relationships with others; if we receive something we’re compelled to give something in return.

Anyone who brings a hostess gift to a party knows what this is all about. Once the hostess accepts my gift, I am indebted to the hostess until the favor is returned. Again here, the unresolved conflict sits heavy in our gut, so we look for the fastest way to ease the guilt. Reciprocity may not always create a strong enough feeling for someone to make an actual purchase, but combine it with risk aversion, it’s a powerful purchase driver for a large segment of the population.

Without a doubt, product sampling works for very specific psychological reasons. By gifting free product tidbits, you not only get your customer’s attention but also provoke a sense of goodwill where they feel compelled to reciprocate at some point. While the initial expense of a sampling program may be higher than other marketing strategies, the results are almost always astounding.

7 Free Sample Program Ideas Worth Trying

  1. In-Person Sample Offerings: Ideal for retail and food-based businesses where staff can engage with customers and close the sale on the spot. Sample SWAG bags are always a hit and ideal for distribution at community/sports events.
  2. Send Free Samples via Direct Mail: Be selective with the list. Include recipients based on specific demographics or previous buying habits. Be sure to include a coupon or online link to track response.
  3. Free Sample Packs to Showcase Skills or Offerings: Give prospects a chance to see what you do. Online photo giant, Shutterfly, offers complimentary wedding invitation packs so nervous brides can touch and feel their product in hopes they buy.
  4. Offer Online Sign-Up to Receive Samples: Create landing pages where customers can request a free sample from you. Blue Buffalo pet food has built their core marketing around this strategy and uber-retailers like Walmart and Target have free sample programs that sell out right away!
  5. Bundle Samples Attached to Purchases: Physically attach a related sample with another product to encourage customers to try it. This is the most passive form of sampling, meaning it doesn’t generate the same reciprocity feeling as if you hand me a sample, but it gets the product in your customer’s hand which is all that matters.
  6. Free Gift with Purchase: Offer free samples with any purchase as an extra. Even better, if you can give customers the chance to pick what they want. Kiehl’s skincare has built their entire high-end business on this strategy because it totally works.
  7. Supply Free Products in Exchange for Specific Actions: You’ve seen the social media evangelists that review products and share with their social channels, picking up thousands of followers who hang off their every word. Offer free samples in exchange for reviews, social shares, surveys, anything that engages your audience and grows your business at the same time.

(Click here to download our “7 Ideas” PDF)

Three Must-Dos Before Launching a Sample Program

Partner with an Experienced Shipping Firm: Your first step is to consult with an experienced parcel marketing firm to control campaign cost and determine delivery guidelines. They can make packaging recommendations like size, weight, thickness, materials, and coating to keep cost low and guarantee your package won’t be rejected by automation equipment. Three Dog manages countless parcel campaigns every month and includes consulting expertise with every project.

Outsource Wherever You Can: Stay focused on your business by avoiding the logistics involved with printing, packaging, and mailing samples – save yourself serious headaches and avoid the complexities by joining forces with outsourcers who handle this stuff every day. For printers out there, who are interested in supplying clients with say the box and stuffing, but not all parcel marketing services, it’s easy to outsource pieces to other vendors and still be the hero. A reputable parcel marketing firm can provide guidance on choosing the right vendors to partner with.

Measure Conversions Carefully: Sampling can be more expensive than other marketing efforts. Devise a plan to carefully measure marketing efforts so you know what’s working and what isn’t. Use promo codes, coupons, email drip campaigns, and web sign-up pages to track sales and your return on investment.

At Three Dog Logistics, our expert parcel consultants can take your free sample ideas from concept to fruition quickly and at the lowest cost possible. Remember, at Three Dog Logistics we take the bite out of postage and freight. Contact us at or call 410-284-5494 ext. 250 to schedule a complimentary consultation today.