Brian Taylor was seeking the perfect venue for his unique popcorn flavorings. He had spent his last year in college working on the idea he hoped would turn into a booming business, but his test market had barely reached beyond the confines of his college campus. He needed proof his idea was going to succeed on a larger scale, and the summer after graduation, he found it. All it took was a dash of free samples and a pinch of persuasion for the manager of a local theater, and Taylor's business was popping. "We weren't sure if people would like the idea of sprinkling nacho cheddar or white cheddar on popcorn," says Taylor, 28, whose business, Kernel Season's, projects sales between $7 million and $11 million for 2007. "Sampling it in theaters was a test not only for the theaters, but also for us to make sure it was a product people would purchase for home use."
Cindy Johnson, founder of marketing firm Sampling Effectiveness Advisors, says sampling can be valuable for entrepreneurs looking to test-market their products--and it's often the most effective way to grab consumers before they've settled on a single brand. Often more important than the sample itself is the venue. By choosing a venue where the consumer can try a sample immediately, "your trial rates are going to be higher," says Johnson. Securing funding and creating additional production lines are also essential to any sampling initiative, but first, entrepreneurs should make sure they give away enough of a sample for consumers to see the benefit of the product.
For Taylor, who still gives out sample packets--not only in theaters, but also tucked inside grocery store-brand popcorns--testing the market is mostly about guaranteeing his customers' satisfaction. "If you can give a product away and show its success," says Taylor, "it really helps you make the sale, especially with a new concept."