Annalea Krebs, the founder and chief executive officer of Social Nature, calls it "sampling 2.0."
Gone are the days where businesses handed out samples on street corners and having no follow-up or a hint of what the consumer thought of the product, Ms. Krebs said. Many brands across the country are now turning to companies that have digitized the art of giving out free samples.
Social Nature is a Vancouver-based startup that raised $1-million in seed funding in June. It's taking an influencer marketing approach to sampling. The company boasts a community of 100,000 consumers, mostly young mothers whom Ms. Krebs often refers to as "millennial moms" who are on the hunt for natural, organic products.
Consumers looking for free samples fill out a detailed survey and get matched with a specific natural product, allowing brands to reach the precise demographic they want. Part of the deal requires consumers to review the product after they receive it, and it will be published to the Social Nature website. The deal also asks users to connect one of their social media accounts to Social Nature. The hope is that the consumers will share their review on their social media feeds with their followers.
"With the rise of ad blockers, and the fact that most online shoppers rely on reviews when making their purchases, I think peer-to-peer marketing is the direction marketing is going in," Ms. Krebs said. "A lot of brands that do product sampling want product reviews. Not just because you might refer the product to a friend, but because most online shoppers look at reviews before buying products."
Sampling is not something new, even to the Internet age. Software companies have long been giving out free demos of computer programs in the hopes that consumers will eventually register and pay for the product.
But a major difference, according to Marie Chevrier, the founder of Sampler, is that companies can specifically target an audience that has either already purchased the product before or is likely to be interested in it.
Sampler is a software service that allows brands to reach a specific audience through online remarketing channels – such as their Facebook site – or partnerships with online communities that tailor to a brand's audience.
"I really do believe that product sampling is the last part of the marketing that hasn't been digitized," Ms. Chevrier said. "Sampling was one of those things that marketers have been letting be for a long time and now they are starting to realize that it's a really impactful way to get people to learn more about their products."
Jeffrey Henning, president of Researchscape International, said people are increasingly relying on people around them for information about products.
"A lot of studies have shown that people trust their friends and family more than traditional ads," Mr. Henning said. "For brands, this is a way to bypass traditional channels and gather some social clout that would otherwise not be available. And it's certainly cheaper than a major marketing TV campaign."
Ms. Krebs sees three disadvantages with what she calls "offline" sampling: an inability to target a specific consumer audience, limited metrics – if any – after a person receives a sample and a costly method that prevents scaling out beyond a specific location.
David Soberman, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto, is skeptical of whether this new method of sampling will replace the traditional examples of sampling, such as serving bites of free food within grocery stores.
"The problem marketers have is that there are so many tools out there to choose from," Prof. Soberman said. "You may find less people doing traditional sampling, but there are still going to be some companies that see traditional sampling as exactly what they want to do."
Ms. Krebs said it has been the more progressive brands that have shifted to online sampling and influencer marketing, but she sees this as the marketing method of the future.
"We believe that the Web and social media play a big role in sampling. When you can get a consumer to not only try your product, but share that experience with as many people as possible through social media, you're amplifying that product experience that much more."