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The Psychology of Free Samples: Should We Use Them?

I am not the kind of person who eagerly forks over $10 for a teensy tin of organic lotion.  But you wouldn’t have thought so today when I asked my husband to turn the car around.

It started innocently enough – while wandering around my favorite shop in Jamesport, Missouri, a basket of spiced candles on my arm, I saw a display of shea butter.  Tiny cute jars with tiny cute labels and a tiny cute spoon where you could dish yourself a tiny cute sample.  But oh, ladies – as I spread that whipped butter on my dry hands, it was the Ritz Carlton of skincare experiences.  So airy and fluffy you wanted to eat it.  Then it sunk into my hands like melted butter into homemade bread.  But it was $10.  I left the shop with just my candles.

As we drove down the road, I kept rubbing my hands together.  Thinking about the dry winter ahead.  How my hands always chap in the cold.  Marveling at how smooth my hands felt still, thinking wait – this stuff isn’t going to just wash off like regular lotion.  How awesome will that be all winter long….and that’s about when I asked hubby to turn the car around.  I am now the owner of a tin of Cranberry Spice Shea Butter.

Why do samples work?  Four simple words, baby:  Samples take away risk.

People hate risk.  Risk aversion powerfully drives how we spend our money.

We would rather live with lousy things that we are familiar with than take a risk to spend money and try something new.  It’s why clients buy 8x10s when they should be getting 20x30s.

We THINK samples just give us a chance to see if we like something – which sure, they do.  But even more powerfully, samples show us that we’re not going to throw our money away People are far more concerned about the possibility of wasting time and money than they are about missing out on something they’ll like.

I walked away from the shea butter the first time even though I liked it.  I WENT BACK because I saw that it had staying power, it wasn’t going to just wash off like regular lotion – it was going to do what it promised, and this would make my life more comfortable.  In short, it wasn’t going to be a waste of $10.

You’d do your business a HUGE favor by examining every possible way to remove the risk of a client trying your services.  One way is to offer samples.  I know what you’re thinking:  “Aren’t my blog photos samples of my work?”  Well, sure.  But if you’re only in the business of selling photos, it’s going to be tough to stay in business.

Get your products physically into their hands.  Show them what their photos would look like on their walls or in an album.  Show them what other clients have bought, and what those products look like in their homes.  When someone places a big order, give them a small gift of a product they didn’t buy (ornamental metallic prints, your custom photo cards, whatever) so that they’ll be already thinking about those products in the future.  Not all samples have to be free.  You might market your next mini-sessions as “a great chance to try you out for folks who like your work but haven’t yet booked a full session.”

The more familiar they are with what you offer, the less risky you seem to their checkbooks.  Give ’em baby steps.

Risk bad.  Samples good.

Do it.


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  1. rhian on February 16, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Love your posts, i just stumbled across them and cannot stop reading and now have all these new fantastic ideas. I just posted photo of my product NOT a sample of my work and recieved 2 bookings within 5 minutes. Genius!
    Anyway regarding mini session to encourage customers to trust my work i had one problem with this. Alot of people have no need for plenty of images just from different angles perspectives ect. the amount of people i have asking me just for ONE photo but want it at a fraction of the price of my normal session fee drives me mad. So if i was to offer this mini session im worried this woud attract those people who want just one peice to hang on their wall. Is there a way your could reccomend around this?

    • Jenika on February 16, 2012 at 9:52 pm

      Hey Rhian, with mini sessions you just clearly set the parameters – here’s what we’re doing, here’s what you’ll get. Make it a time-limited and content-specific offer. When people coming to me wanting one portrait I explain that it’s not possible to walk in, take one shot, and we’re done. To get a natural, good photograph like the ones they see on my site, it takes time to relax into the session and to work together to create something. For that reason I only book full sessions (and at this point you could say “But I do have mini sessions coming up….). There are people who need one photo only, sure, but if you wow them with a great mini experience and great additional images, they may change their mind – sometimes people say they only want one because they’re afraid they won’t like it and won’t want to spend more, but once they’re having fun and falling in love with your work, they forget it.

      Business is a lot of trial and error. If you do a mini thing and get a bunch of people who aren’t good fits, then you learned something and don’t need to do it again. It’ll be different for everyone. Do what feels best, but just don’t let “what ifs” stand in your way as long as what you’re doing is consistent with your brand. Good luck!

  2. Lilly on April 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Hello there. I found this post while searching for psychology of food sampling. This is a great tidbit to add to the post I’m also writing about free samples, as it relates to my business of selling Italian Ice. Another writer brought up that free samples induce feelings of guilt, reciprocity or even gratitude when getting something free, which then drives a purchase. Interestingly, research I’ve read (study done at Stanford) has revealed that there’s a dopamine release with a sample, causing to us to feel good about said sample, but not satisfied. The promise of reward is what drives the purchase and satiates the customer. In your case, the sample created a desire when you realized how good that shea butter would be for your hands. And you couldn’t stop thinking about the promise of reward. In both our businesses, that’s what we may look to create. I think it’s all very interesting. Wonderful post! Thanks for the takeaway.

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