The genius and pitfalls of Amazon’s product sampling experiment

Amazon recently revealed it has been piloting a product sampling scheme with partners such as Maybelline and Folgers. SoPost founder Jonathan Grubin unpicks the thinking behind the move – and assesses where it might come unstuck.

There’s a scene in Netflix’s new show, Sex Education, where the main characters decide that product sampling is the best way to market their counseling service. It’s a wise move, as a couple of free sessions lead to rave reviews and a slew of bookings.

Those teenagers were capitalizing on one of the simplest, and perhaps oldest, forms of marketing. Product sampling exists in so many different forms and it’s proven to be effective: conversion is high when the right sample is placed in the right hands.

Given the importance of finding that right consumer, the internet has brought with it new – and better – ways to sample. Instead of taking a ‘spray and pray’ approach (one that exists quite literally when it comes to fragrance) through handing out samples on the street, or inside a magazine, brands can now leverage data to run much more effective campaigns online.

Aside from the obvious benefits of better targeting, there are a whole host of other advantages when it comes to ongoing marketing and gaining better insight into what happened once the sample is given away.

Last week, Amazon’s foray into the world of sampling became public. Given their troves of data and the ease at which consumers can purchase with them, the thing I’m most surprised about is that they haven’t made any major moves in this space before now.

Sampling's move to digital

When I launched SoPost in 2012, product sampling online was very much seen as a gimmick. We were pushing a model that prioritized one well-targeted sample over a badly-targeted (or un-targeted) mass approach. Brands simply weren’t used to sampling this way, and the cost per sample was so much higher than the conventional channels. It was hard to get those first few campaigns over the line.

But times have changed, and we’re now seeing online sampling form a key pillar of brands’ marketing strategies. This has partly been driven by the declines in magazine circulation and retail footfall: it simply isn’t possible to spray and pray at the scale you could even 10 years ago.

Essentially, sampling began to move online out of necessity as much as anything else.

While it may have shifted platform out of necessity, sampling has stayed in the digital realm because it’s better. There’s less wastage, brands can get rich customer data, and the insights, analytics and tracking to purchase are unrivaled.

Looking at sampling from a retail perspective, reallocating samples from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce makes total sense. Not only is the audience there, but Amazon can provide much better targeting, and a qualified consumer, in a way that a physical store never could.

The right partner?

My question is whether sampling with Amazon will allow brands to maximize their results when measured against other online options.

The Amazon approach is to send samples to customers without first gauging their interest. Because of this, there’s a lower chance that the consumer will actually use the sample, leading to higher wastage compared with a channel such as Instagram, where the consumer explicitly opts-in to receiving it (and passes through a number of other approval steps) before anything is shipped.

As Axios pointed out, this also raises privacy concerns, and we know that consumers don’t always appreciate receiving promotional items through the post that they haven’t consented to. Any backlash will likely be targeted at the brand, rather than Amazon, which is bound to frustrate client-side marketers.

Secondly, running a sampling campaign on other platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Pinterest gives brands the opportunity to capture names and email addresses. We see more than half of recipients choose to opt-in to further marketing, something that is of massive value to a brand wanting to build their CRM database. I can’t see Amazon sharing any such data with its brands, and they’d probably argue that’s OK, because it’s their customer.

While Amazon’s data may well be its greatest strength, it could well end up causing the most concern. Without transparency, Amazon’s approach may lead to brands having to sample excessively, just to maintain their current position.

How does a cat food manufacturer know that Amazon isn’t going to sample a competitor’s product to a desirable customer three months after its wrapped its own sampling campaign to that same individual? What’s stopping Amazon sending multiple products from different brands to a consumer? Amazon wins twice – through the brand advertising spend and the consumer’s purchase – even though the impact of each sample is diminished.

It may be better for a brand to build a media campaign with sampling integrated – targeting a lookalike audience of their own, or a consumer who has visited a product page on a site other than Amazon. This way, the brand gets to own the experience and gain much more by way of marketing opt-ins and consumer feedback. It also unlocks more options when it comes to post-trial remarketing.

There’s no doubt that Amazon’s move into online sampling is a smart move. Wastage will be lower than sampling with an offline retailer, and purchases can be tracked more closely.

But is Amazon the best option for a savvy marketer? When you consider the lack of shared data, possible limited insights, and a strengthening grip on brands’ online sales, I’m not so sure.

Jonathan Grubin is the founder and chief executive of SoPost.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.