The Costco Effect: Sampling Your Work to Make the Sale

By Stanley Meytin

Anyone who has a Costco membership knows the secret to a free lunch lies between aisles of jumbo-sized mayonnaise and economy bags of frozen egg rolls. The bulk superstore is renowned for free samples. Costco sample tasting tours are increasingly iconic in American food culture. But beyond all the foot traffic, Costco gets from deal seekers, it's onto something smart with its free bites. Food samples, in some cases, have led to a 2,000 percent increase in sales. The human brain is wired to automate behavioral patterns. The more actions and decisions we make habitual, the less time our brains have to spend figuring them out, leaving more capacity for new ideas and challenges. It’s the same reason most of us typically walk out of the grocery store with a shopping cart that looks very similar to our last several trips. Free samples interrupt the typical shopping experience in such a way that many customers break their normal habits and add a novel product to their cart.

The same logic can be applied to making a sale in other industries. That’s how we’ve found our own version of Costco sampling can play a role. At my film production company, if we see an opportunity for a brand to better itself through video content, but have trouble bringing it on board, we put our money where our (free ravioli chewing) mouths are and produce a video for them for free. We’re on a mission to show corporate leaders how video can play a powerful role in their marketing strategies. Though video has been written up in publication after publication as the future of content marketing, it’s still a novel medium for many businesses. Convincing budget holders of video’s ROI can at times be an uphill battle because it requires breaking a previously-defined habit.

Investing your own money into free content for some may sound counterintuitive, but this bold move has served us well. By demonstrating the quality and power of our work, we’ve been able to earn both the trust and business of new partners who otherwise would have overlooked their own necessity for video content. In terms of strategy, it's about showing your potential clients why your product is the best and how it will make their lives easier by providing a sample they're able to utilize immediately and see the benefits firsthand.

Appealing to human behavior doesn't stop at trying to break routines: In the 1960s, the Hare Krishnas were having a hard time raising money for their religion. Their solution was to set up in busy public areas and press small gifts, like a flower, into the hands of passersby. Once the item was in hand, they’d ask for a donation. The strategy played on the reciprocity effect: a hard-wired and socially-reinforced obligation to give to those who’ve given to us.

You can see the reciprocity effect in action in any number of daily ways -- from the receiving and sending of holiday cards to the feeling that you should attend the wedding of a friend who attended yours. While we would never want a client to choose to do business with us out of obligation alone, the reciprocity effect can help in (at least) earning an audience. Once we’ve created free content for a partner, they are more likely to give us their time and attention so we can then work on closing their businesses through demonstration of quality and validity of our services.

It’s important to remember that not every free sample will result in a sale -- and the cost of a toothpick-sized bite of pizza is likely a lot less than the cost of your product. But when you feel strongly about a potential partner, using a sample strategy may just work to win them over. Once you do that, you can take the team out to Costco to celebrate -- no charge.


Stanley Meytin is the CEO & Creative Director for True Film Production.

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