The two dullest words in the world: "free sample"

This morning on my journey into work, I was given a free little can of pop, a crappy plastic ticket wallet, an international SIM card and a voucher for a free dental checkup (not by the same people who gave me the fizzy drink, obviously). The drink tasted… kinda fruity? Maybe? A bit like bubblegum? Whatever it tasted like, I’m buggered if I can remember the brand. The ticket wallet will go unused; the SIM card went straight in the bin and I’m pretty sure the dental ‘checkup’ would just be an excuse to upsell me expensive treatments once I turned up. So, you know: thanks but no thanks.

Running the free crap gamut at a busy train station these days is a bit like walking through the ‘entertainment district’ of a cheap winter sun resort: “My friend! Come inside my restaurant! Sit! Sit! Very tasty, good price, free drink! Your wife, she very beautiful – I give you three camel!” It’s annoying, it’s a wee bit aggressive and, fundamentally, it’s pointless. If something’s such a good deal or such a great product, it probably doesn’t require some guy grabbing my arm and dragging me towards it, or shoving a free sample in my face to prove his point.

And that’s where we are with sampling in 2013. Everyone wants sampling to generate loyal, repeat purchasers and brand advocates, but f’reals? You’re just devaluing your brand and dialling up the tacky to 11. At best, that sample’s going to be used, thrown away and forgotten about. At worst, your potential customer’s going to wonder why you’re so desperate to move this stuff you’re actually giving it away. It’s human nature: if the brand doesn’t ascribe a value to the sample, the customer won’t ascribe any value to the product.

But what if someone were to reinvent product sampling? The first thing you’d do is ditch the ‘free’ bit. Free doesn’t work. But unique, earned pricing? That works a treat for two reasons: 1) customers will do things for your brand in exchange for exclusive products or a one-off deal – that could include signing up to ongoing marketing, sharing a promotion with their friends or reviewing your products online. That’s right: all the stuff you want a sampling campaign to achieve. And 2) money spent means ‘skin in the game‘. A customer who spends with you has already invested in your product, both financially and emotionally.

So, imagine this. One Friday lunchtime, Acme Cosmetics announce a special deal on their Facebook page, where people will be able to buy an exclusive sample size of their brand new Utterly Unique Moisturiser. It’s a one-off deal, a special reward for their fans, but they only have 1,000 available, and they’ll only be on sale for the next hour. And here’s the best bit: the more people who shop, the more moisturiser everyone gets for their money. So, you start with a 10ml sample for a modest £3 but, once 250 people shop, everyone gets 20ml for the same £3. When 500 people join the deal they’re all rewarded with another 10ml, and yet another at the 750 mark. And finally, should all 1,000 sell out, everyone gets a full-sized 50ml retail bottle – all for just the ‘sample’ price of just £3.

Sure, Acme are giving product away, but they’re doing so in a much more controlled way than if they were just handing it out willy-nilly to disinterested passers-by, or spending a fortune to cover-mount it on a glossy magazine. They’re incentivising their fans to tell their friends and bring new people into Acme Cosmetics’ world. They’re creating a maelstrom of buzz which pays for itself in earned social media. And they’re getting something back – real, acquired customers – for every millilitre of moisturiser they’re giving away.

That’s social commerce.

That’s the future of sampling.

That’s worth thinking about… isn’t it?