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Pique Interests With a Sample Sampling isn't just for ice cream shops--put the technique to work for your business.

Last December, a group of noted New York City architects, designers and contractors made news, friends and client contacts when they gave away half-hour design consultations to anyone who wandered into their one-of-a-kind Pop Up Design Clinic in the SoHo neighborhood.

"We put competition aside, divvied up the outlay of time and money, and for 10 days we provided design as a public service," clinic co-host Edward Gavagan of PraxisNYC explains. "Because it was free, anyone could sample it."

Poonam Khanna, an architect who collaborated to host the clinic, adds, "We wanted to bring high-end design to a wider audience in a fun, accessible environment. Our clients varied greatly. There was a wonderful cross section of ages, gender, ethnicity and economic backgrounds."

Sampling overcomes fear of the unknown
The Pop Up Design Clinic booked more than 170 appointments. "Some clients needed spur-of-the-moment help following floods or fires," Gavagan says. "Others saw the clinic and had an 'aha' moment, realizing they could get help improving a situation they otherwise may have left unaddressed. The clinic let them see that architectural and design service isn't intimidating or wasteful."

With that statement, Gavagan sums up the value of product sampling.

When people are uncertain about what something will cost, what the customer-business relationship will be like, or what they'll get in return for their time and money, they do nothing, or they revert to a familiar solution even if it's less than ideal.

Samples lead people past their hesitation. It's why department stores have dressing rooms, auto dealers offer test drives, software companies give limited-service free access, media outlets offer complementary subscriptions, and museums host free-admission days. Try it, they're basically saying, you'll like it.

The Pop Up Design Clinic is proof you can shrink even the most intangible and customizable offerings down to sample size.

Know when to sell and when to sample
A key to sampling success is to know when to give away your product in order to inspire new business and when to stick to the profitable activity of selling what you have to offer.

"We hosted the clinic during an otherwise slow time in our industry," Gavagan says. "Plus, people don't usually start major design projects right before the holidays." In other words, the clinic generated buzz without bumping paid business. That's good timing advice to follow.

Know the difference between a client and a contacta
"Many of the Pop Up Design Clinic clients weren't prospects for our businesses because their projects don't fit the scale of what we do," Gavagan says. For that reason, not all contacts were future business prospects. "It was still productive, because we could provide a public service while gaining attention for our industry and businesses," he adds.

That doesn't mean, though, that sampling doesn't lead to new business. For one, hundreds of business cards and good impressions were carried away from the clinic, and in a world where word of mouth rules, that alone made the effort productive. Articles in The New York Times and Interior Design Magazine were another bonus.

Further, the clinic offered a menu of follow-up design services available for fees ranging from a site visit for $250 to $10,000 for a preconstruction package that includes a schematic design, preliminary budget and schedule, and measured drawings and specs. The menu, Gavagan says, was a "huge hit."

More good advice to marketers: If you're going to sample, build publicity around the effort and prompt follow-up business by promoting easy-to-understand introductory package offers.

Make a great impression
Gavagan gives the following advice to those who decide to sample their offerings:

  • Find a great space
  • Time it so it matches market interest and your business cycle
  • Make it affordable and accessible
  • Make it useful and intriguing
  • Attract a wide range of people, including some who match the scale of your established clientele so you're developing prospective new business
  • Promote follow-up offers

He adds a final piece of advice, which I second: Have fun. After all, you're giving away your offering, so make it enjoyable for yourself and those you're introducing to your business.

Barbara Findlay Schenck is a small-business strategist, the author of Small Business Marketing for Dummies and the co-author of Branding for Dummies, Selling Your Business for Dummies and Business Plans Kit for Dummies.

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