Sample Packs Reach Moving Targets

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A marketing startup is testing a unique distribution scheme for cooperative sample packs as a cost-efficient alternative to reach upscale consumers.

Head-On Marketing will distribute 150,000 sample packs today to upscale commuters in the San Francisco financial district as a test run for a planned six-city, 1.05 million-piece distribution campaign next summer. Five product samples and 13 offers are packed into a white poly-bag with a Wall Street Journal logo that will be handed to commuters at mass-transit stations and other high-traffic areas of downtown San Francisco.

The Commuter Sampling Network co-op program costs advertisers $60 per thousand for a half-ounce marketing piece up to 8 1/2 inches by 11 inches in size, which organizers say is much lower than the cost of list rental and postage for a comparable direct mail campaign. American Express, Dial, U.S. News & World Report and Kraft are among the 13 advertisers participating in the test.

Targeting is based on the assumption that distribution in areas trafficked by upscale commuters will reach the desired audience. Distribution will take place throughout the business day and be spread over a large enough area to limit overlap. The success of this approach will be tracked through business reply survey cards that are inserted randomly into 10,000 sample packs.

Jaclyn Bovarnick, who is constantly investigating nontraditional marketing media as subscription director for co-op participants at U.S. News & World Report and Fast Company, rates sample packs as more targeted than card decks yet less targeted than package inserts.

"With more and more people flooding mailboxes, you want to try other things," Bovarnick said. "Alternative programs are going to be the way people make up for the downfall in direct mail."

The San Francisco test is the first major project for Head-On Marketing, San Rafael, CA, which was founded to broaden the universe of a segment that is traditionally difficult to sample. Its experience with smaller sampling events in downtown San Francisco convinced the company that hand distribution in high-traffic areas was the way to go.

"A lot of clients are looking for new avenues besides direct mail," said Head-On partner Kimber Sterling. "We wanted to bring sampling to upscale consumers. It's traditionally been a medium used to reach a broader shopper target."

The quality of the samples is expected to generate interest for the offers. The test pack contains Crystal Geyser juice, Tylenol PM and hand-sanitizer samples as well as coffee and creamer.

"This is not like a coupons system that you have to sort through," said Head-On account executive Erik Rose. "We're going to have a bag that has value that is going to make it home."

The Commuter Sampling Network is expected to roll out in New York, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, DC, next summer. For further information, contact Head-On at 415/485-5353.

American Collegiate Marketing, Okemos, MI, has reached college students through co-op bag sampling since the early 1980s. The CSC/ACM Bag Program now distributes 37 million sample bags each year to more than 8 million college students who make purchases at campus bookstores.

Elaine Burn, vice president of market development at American Collegiate Marketing, which is accepting orders for its spring semester distribution, said sample bags have delivered very consistent responses over the last 10 years and have better reach than all media except for college newspapers. She warns, however, that co-op advertisers must be prepared to wait a minimum of 12 months to see results.

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