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We could all use a new pair of socks: Preparing for the return of XM sampling

I might be the wrong person to say that everyone will feel comfortable taking free samples when we are allowed to return to arenas, stadiums, events and festivals because I am sucker for free stuff! I used to brag that my best skill was that I could walk into a crowd at the front of a stage, grab the free t-shirt being thrown out and walk back to my friends in record time. I’ve collected everything from key chains, sunglasses, bandannas, pop-sockets, hats, water bottles and LEGO figurines with brand logos on them. My favorite piece of SWAG (stuff we all get — how old were you when you found that out?) was a pair of Stance socks at the Samsung activation during the 2016 NBA All-Star fan experience in Toronto. I stood in line for 40 minutes with my four year old daughter to customize my socks using the newest Samsung device, waited for the logo to be heat pressed on and walked away with a pair of socks I still wear today and one annoyed child.

That activation was only a short time ago, and what we realized quickly in March, was that although these samplings and giveaways will be different in the post-COVID era they likely won’t just disappear because of what they mean to brands and people like me.

Being confined to our homes and kept away from family and friends with the exception of some driveway visits has led to a pent up demand for festivals, events and sporting events. Just over of a quarter of surveyed consumers indicated they would increase the amount of time at outdoor events when COVID-19 is no longer a concern. These social distancing crowds will once again give brands to ability to connect with consumers who are venturing out into the public. As we know, one staple of these outings are the free samples and SWAG we have all come to expect that accompany walking through a festival tent, conference, trade show or -con. However, the mechanics behind these sampling programs will need to be re-examined and updated to align with the next normal. This could include rethinking where the sampling campaign activates, what constitutes an experience and even what is distributed to consumers.

The majority of brands try to cast as wide of a net as possible in order to raise awareness and trial. Cross country tours are not uncommon. Hitting the small towns as well as the big cities give the brand the most bang for their buck. Moving forward, brands may have to consider hyper-local events, targeting one community or a specific region. This would ensure they are following the recommended health and safety protocols and preventing the spread of the virus from community to community. Although I may now not have a chance to get that pair of sunglasses or sample the new granola bar in person, amplifying the message of the event and sampling via digital (example live stream and social channels) or an in-store program to support would be necessary.

Attending local or community events has a stigma of being smaller and not as flashy. A 10’ x 10’ tent would often work in these situations. In the social distancing world what a brand was previously able to accomplish in that space may no longer be possible. A photo station, sampling booth and a display of the latest and greatest product will be too much for 100 sq ft.. Identifying the primary objective for the event or sampling and designing the footprint to meet those needs will be important. A brand could consider marking the ground so that consumers follow a path (like we are now used to at grocery stores) and making the experience as “touchless” as possible. Including elements like RFID contactless registration and taking advantage of new-er gesture or voice activated technologies rather than touch screens. Including some elements like these will not only help to convey the importance that the brand places on health and safety, it also increases the likelihood that I will participate in the sampling.

No matter how much time I am willing to spend in line for free socks, if the event is thousands of miles away, I’m not going to be able to convince my daughter to join on that car ride. If we can’t be there in person to get our sample, brands need to explore bringing that message and product directly to me. A kit or box has become a staple of the direct to consumer model. However this method can often fall flat with communicating the image and experiences that brands have in mind for consumers that would convert you into fan for life. A more thought out ‘Experience to Consumer’ model that can package not only the sample, but the DNA of the brand will not only encourage trial, but also future purchase. Experience to Consumer works well since it puts the brand in the right occasion or mindset to use the product, like a BBQ or virtual workout rather than it landing on your doorstep without context for use.

Not every product sample can be packaged and shipped efficiently (looking at you soft drinks), which is why new methods of distribution of samples and SWAG will have to be implemented when we all begin to make our way out in public again. Social distance sampling probably won’t be as simple as bringing along a t-shirt cannon, but it could feature interactions such as social media activated vending machines, text to win options, or QR codes that open a microsite that allows consumers an opt-in to future brand communications and, of course a free trial sample. More experience-minded activations that are either walk-thru or drive-thru would allow brands as much interactivity as possible.

Since no one can be certain when large social gatherings will be allowed and what they will look like when they are, our previous understanding of experiential sampling needs to be updated immediately.

We cannot “wait and see”, because if we do, there likely will not be anything to return to, and I really could use a new pair of socks.

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