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    Plum Retail Essentials: How Do I Drive Product Trial?

    Jul 15, 2022 10:32:47 AM | Chris Medenwald, PhD Product Trial

    We know it, you know it. New products always start behind. For many reasons...

    • Shoppers are often comfortable with their established purchasing patterns (including incumbent products and brands)
    • New products are unknown and, seemingly more risky for shoppers to purchase
    • New products have little opportunity to build up critical social proof, including word-of-mouth, online reviews, and user-generated content, prior to their launch
    • Retailers favor known winners (think big, legacy brands) and often distribute floor space, planograms, etc. accordingly
    • Shoppers can’t buy products if they don’t know they exist

    For these cues and others, many new products—even the most promising—often don't make it. 

    The ugly truth is: the best products don’t always become the best-selling products.

    Sometimes new products can't overcome early barriers like those above.

    "But...," you might hear your optimistic brand manager say, "IF we can just get consumers to try our product, they'll love it. And IF they love it, they'll buy it. And IF they buy it once, they'll become loyal customers."

    If, if, if.

    And while these are big "ifs," they're not wrong. But notice it all starts with trial

    If a brand can get consumers to simply try that new product, to actually experience its merits IRL, then that product has a fighting chance. So instead of asking “How do I get consumers to buy my product,” a more fundamental question might be:

    How do I get consumers to try my product?

    And that's product trial.

    Let's talk it out. 


    How to Drive Product Trial: The Essentials


    What is Product Trial?

    Why is Product Trial Important?

    How Do I Drive Product Trial?

    What are Product Demos?

    What is Product Sampling?

    What are Common Challenges of Product Demos & Sampling?

    What are Digital Product Demos?

    How Does a Digital Product Demo Actually Work?


    What is Product Trial?

    No, not the noun. We've all experienced a 30-day "product trial" of a Hulu-adjacent streaming service or Hello Fresh subscription.

    Here we're talking about the verb, product trial.

    Writing in the Journal of Marketing Research, Deanna Kempf and Robert Smith defined product trial as "a consumer’s first usage experience with a brand...a critical factor in determining brand beliefs, attitudes, and purchase intentions."

    Notice that a purchase doesn't necessarily have to precede product trial. A consumer's first experience with a product might follow a purchase, but other times it happens on a visit to mom and dad's house or at the generosity of a neighbor ("Can I borrow a stick of butter, please?") or from a grocery pickup service handing out complimentary bags of trial-size products.

    Taken together, then, a simple definition of product trial might be: The initial usage of a product by a consumer, which may or may not entail an actual purchase.   


    Consequently, trial is to products what first impressions are to people.

    And you know what they say about first impressions—something about them being everything, and about never getting a second chance to make one. 

    It's no different for products.

    Trial is a product's all-important audition for a would-be customer. 

    But, if you get an audition, at least you have a chance. The real danger is not getting an audition. Not getting tried by consumers.

    Which is the major reason, but not the only reason, why product trial is so important.


    Why is Product Trial Important?

    Here's another hard-to-swallow truth: For new products in particular, there's usually a gap between a product's real value and its retail performance. Like the rookie, would-be all-star outfielder warming the bench during the big game—sometimes potential is overlooked. 

    Especially for new products. 

    Trial is critical because it bridges gaps between real value, consumer perceptions, and retail performance.   

    Theories alone don't move products off shelves.

    A theoretically delicious chocolate chip cookie has no taste for shoppers in the market for cookies. But give them a chance to taste that cookie, to experience its rich, buttery, ooey-gooeyness for themselves, and goodbye theories and performance gaps. 

    Product trial gives a product a chance to market and sell itself. No theories, no performance gaps—just a one-on-one experience with potential customers.  

    As Kempf and Smith pointed out, product trial also has major implications for...

    • Brand beliefs
    • Brand attitudes
    • Purchase intentions


    Consequently, product success starts with the confidence you're selling a quality product, and that any attempts to get your products in consumers' hands will leave them impressed (and wanting more). 

    Product trial is also important for reasons alluded to already:

    • Trial can disrupt established purchasing patterns and unseat incumbent brands
    • Trial makes a product known and thus reduces the risk of buying it
    • Trial gives new products a chance to build up social proof
    • Trial can generate demand that forces retailers to allot more in-store and online real estate to a new product

    While we could continue singing the praises of product trial, you get the point. 

    New products must be tried by consumers...

    ...and they must rock the audition. 


    How Do I Drive Product Trial?

    In other words, what are common methods for driving trial? 

    There are direct and indirect forms. Let's chat indirect first. They can show up in the form of:

    • Advertising
    • In-store displays and signage
    • Ratings and reviews
    • Product page content (ecommerce)
    • Packaging
    • Sales promotions
    • Trial sizes
    • Heck, even recipes

    All of these attempt to induce trial by making the product known, regaling consumers with superlatives about the product and, in some cases, providing incentive to try it. 

    But notice, in practically each case, that trying the product probably (but not necessarily) means buying the product. And as we've seen, consumers may be hesitant to invest their money in a mystery product—no matter what lavish claims its package or product page makes.

    For this reason and others, brands often generate trial though direct means, specifically...

    • Demos
    • Free samples

    By putting products directly into the hands of consumers and saying "just give it a whirl," brands let the product do the talking.

    Which counts so much more than advertising or packaging claims.

    Demos and samples, in particular, help companies overcome early barriers to marketing and selling a new product.

    Let's look deeper at both.  


    What are Product Demos?

    A product demo is an opportunity to demonstrate your product for a would-be buyer. Demos get beyond claims and theories, and show off the capabilities of a product in concrete, experiential terms.

    As Inc. and CNN contributor Jeffrey James wrote, "When done correctly, a demo allows the customer to see and feel how things will be better if they buy (and worse if they don't)."

    Demos take place over many channels:

    • In-store
    • At-home
    • Video
    • Trade shows
    • Various digital channels

    And demos may or may not involve product sampling. 


    What is Product Sampling?

    Product sampling is as old as the packaged-goods industry itself, and, as the name suggests, entails handing out free samples—sometimes trial sizes—of a new or established product.

    There are many ways brands go about distributing free samples:

    • In-store demos (...tip of the hat to Costco and Sam's Club)
    • Mail ( that free Gillette shaving kit I got by mail when I turned 15. Ah, memories.) 
    • Digital kiosks
    • Gift bags at grocery pickup sites or from delivery services

    In the digital age, when shoppers can avoid stores altogether, brands are being forced to innovate and find new ways to distribute samples and drive trial.  


    What are Common Challenges of Product Demos & Sampling?

    Traditional product demoing and sampling aren't without their drawbacks. Dun, dun, dun.

    Consider just a few challenges...

    1. The logistics. Both product demoing and sampling only work when personnel, materials, and products are in the right place at the right time under the right conditions.

    Over the years, Plum solution provider Field Agent has conducted potentially thousands of in-store demo audits for companies. This much is certain: demoing and sampling often don't go according to plan. Sometimes, the demo or kiosk simply isn't in-store. Other times there's no stock on store shelves, so shoppers can't buy the product even if they like the sample.

    We've even witnessed situations where the demo personnel and materials are in place, but no free samples are available for distribution. Awkward.

    In a nutshell, so many things can break with a demoing/sampling campaign, and it can require a level of micro-management some brands find too taxing.   

    2. Random shoppers. Traditional demoing and sampling can be terribly inefficient at targeting a product's core customer. In fact, what targeting? 

    Many demo and sampling programs rely on a firehose approach to generating product trial, when a more surgical approach—putting the product directly in the hands of the target market—would be a better use of the brand's time, money, and effort. 

    3. Did it actually work? What makes a demo/sampling campaign a success, and how do you know if you achieved it? Conventional demoing and sampling struggle to answer such questions.

    Data about purchase/repurchase intentions—the ultimate KPI for demo/sampling campaigns—are hard to come by via traditional methods.

    4. In-store, not at-home. I don't know about you, but I don't eat my breakfast, clean my windows, or feed my dog from a store aisle. I do these things at home.

    While one strength of conventional demo/sampling programs is their proximity to the point of purchase, one weakness is, well, their proximity to the point of purchase. In-store demos/samples don't exactly create a "native" trial experience.

    For this reason especially, many categories—cleaning supplies, pet food, baby supplies—find in-store demoing and sampling altogether impractical.

    And, traditionally, very little sampling is done under realistic conditions. 

    5. Ecommerce. Let's not forget to mention that more and more shopping and buying is transpiring online, even for groceries and household consumables. Meaning shoppers often skip the stores, and that the point of purchase isn't always brick-and-mortar.

    Consequently, the realities of the digital marketplace are causing many brands to reappraise the value of in-store demos and sampling. 

    6. The cost. It goes without saying: giving away your product for free can get expensive. Really expensive. Now add demo/promotional materials, personnel, and the like, and we're talking about a pretty hefty price tag for traditional demoing and sampling.

    Given these and other disadvantages, many brands have started using digital product demoing/sampling methods. Their use is certainly on the rise. 


    What are Digital Product Demos?

    As seen, there are disadvantages with run-of-the-mill demoing and sampling programs.

    As a result, many brands are turning to digital demoing methods.

    Digital product demos (DPDs) include any demo method that utilizes a digital connection (e.g., a crowdsourcing app) to mobilize target consumers to buy a specific product, try it under certain conditions (often at home), and, finally, provide feedback about their experiences and/or behavioral intentions.  

    DPDs, thus, can drive trial not only in-store, but anywhere across the omnichannel landscape. 

    And there are several benefits of DPDs over traditional demo/sampling methods. 

    Consider the 5 T's: touch-free, targeting, tracking, transactions, and true to life. 


    1. Touch-free. We already described the logistical challenges presented by typical in-store demoing and sampling programs. With DPDs, there's no need for physical materials, personnel, or even free samples.

    In other words, there's less room for error. (And more peace of mind for brands) Phew.

    2. Targeting. Because DPDs are facilitated through digital connections, like a crowdsourcing app, it's possible to get really granular with the types of people a brand enlists to try the product.

    Need to reach women between the ages of 18-35 living in the southeastern U.S.?

    With digital demoing, it's often just a matter of designating that target persona.

    3. Tracking. As seen, traditional demo/sampling programs aren't the greatest at determining the purchase/repurchase intentions of shoppers following initial product trial. Unconstrained by space and time, DPDs, on the other hand, can ask shoppers about their intentions post-trial and even follow-up with them days or weeks later to verify purchase or repurchase. 

    4. Transactions. With sampling, a brand gives away its products. Talk about big dollar signs.

    With DPDs, brands enlist target customers to buy their products from specific stores and/or ecommerce sites, thus driving trial and sales at the same time.

    It's the difference between sales-hopeful and sales-driven marketing. Most traditional trial methods—from advertising to in-store demos—are sales-hopeful. A brand spends money, and can only hope a shopper purchases the product.

    DPDs are sales-driven, however. They actually start with a sale, not a free sample.

    5. True to Life. No eating cereal in store aisles. DPDs can specify under what conditions targeted consumers try a product.

    Often times, DPDs specify the consumer try the product at home, under normal, realistic trial conditions. Not only does home offer a more natural and immersive atmosphere for trying a product, but the "true to life" nature of digital demoing allows products that don't traditionally demo well in-store (e.g., cleaning supplies) to also get in on the action. 

    "Clean up on aisle five," avoided.


    How Does a Digital Product Demo Actually Work?

    Allow us to demo a digital product demo. (You see what I did there.)

    By way of illustration, the Plum Marketplace presently offers three different DPDs from our provider Field Agent: Digital Demo, Buy & Try, and Ratings & Reviews. All three sales-driven demo methods are facilitated through the Field Agent mobile app, which has been downloaded by more than two million U.S. shoppers.

    As you can see below, each DPD requires shoppers to make an actual purchase and to try the product in-home. All three tools also track repurchase intentions and/or behavior following the shopper's initial purchase.    


    But Field Agent's DPDs also deviate from one another in important ways.

    For instance, with Ratings & Reviews, shoppers write an authentic review based on their product experience—which, they're then instructed to post on a specific ecommerce site.

    With a Buy & Try, however, shoppers are asked to provide feedback about the in-store shopping experience as well as the at-home consumption experience.

    Whereas the value-add for Ratings & Reviews is an online review, the value-add for Buy & Try is the rich customer experience data.

    And then there's the Digital Demo. Here, the value-add is user-generated content, professional brand photography, and even social sharing.

    The image below specifically describes how Digital Demos work.      


    Analog or digital, sales-hopeful or sales-driven, product trial is an essential part of new product success. 

    New products, after all, always start from behind.

    A deliberate, strategic, proactive approach to product trial, however, can help brands overcome early barriers to product success. 

    In this way, brands can give their products a head start.

    A head start over other new products.


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