Free products samples give consumers the opportunity to try before they buy. This tried and tested marketing model works well for products as diverse as shampoo and washing powder, instant coffee and bubble gum. A sample, often given away free with a magazine or in a mail shot, is often enough to entice a consumer who enjoys the product to buy a full packet next time they are in the supermarket.
In the digital age, however, the idea of a try-before-you-buy sample is different. In the world of computing, time-limited or functionally crippled software is often provided on websites, the movie industry has a whole sub-industry of video clip production, and musical artists and record labels commonly provide online samples of the music.
But, these free offerings have one thing in common - they usually aren't provided at full quality for consumer assessment. A music file will most likely be compressed or massively foreshortened, a software download may have the crucial "Save" function disabled, and video clips, of course, fall well short of the full movie theater experience.
In contrast, there is no free bubble gum sample that only produces half-size bubbles or shampoo sachet that will not wash your hair completely. But, a small sample of a physical product is not a complete usable supply, whereas an unrestricted download or full-quality music file would be no different from the full purchase. Therein lies the twenty-first century marketing problem
Yanbin Tu in the Department of Marketing at Robert Morris University, Moon Township, Pennsylvania and Min Lu in the Department of Finance and Economics, have carried out a study into digital music samples. They explored the determinants of the five effectiveness dimensions, i.e., evaluation, Willingness-to-Pay (WTP), perceived sample usefulness, sample cost and the likelihood of a consumer being a "free rider", of online digital music samples.
Their survey analysis suggests the seemingly obvious conclusion that for music samples, the most effective sample is high quality and is a longer rather than a shorter sample. "Digital music samples with a higher quality and longer segments were found to increase the sampler's music evaluation and make the evaluation process more useful," the researchers say.
More importantly though from the commercial point of view is that a higher music evaluation led to fewer consumers taking the music sample as a substitute for the original music. The lesson for the industry is that the current practice of offering only short, low quality samples is not ideal.
Artists such as Coldplay, Radiohead, Rik Emmett, and Paul Simon, who have experimented with high-quality samples and free formats for their fans have had huge success as well as achieving viral marketing spread that would otherwise be impossible through conventional advertising campaigns.
An effective digital music free sample strategy should involve high-quality, long samples of the music being marketed, the researchers conclude. This makes it more likely that the consumer listening to a sample will buy the full product, whether that's a CD or a track download, rather than being a free-rider.
"Understanding the effectiveness of online digital music sampling: an exploratory study" in Int. J. Internet Marketing and Advertising, 2009, 5, 166-193