Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Convert your skeptics
with free samples

By Caroline Buck, co-founder of Petaluma

Petaluma is a sustainable dog food company based in Oakland, CA that sells its products directly to consumers and in select retailers like Erewhon. We create nutritious, environmentally-friendly products that challenge traditional pet food – for example, using organic sweet potatoes instead of factory-farmed chicken – and use eco-friendly packaging.

There is a common misconception that dogs will not enjoy the taste of Petaluma because it lacks meat-based flavoring. Additionally, the pet food industry has been slow to adopt sustainable practices and mission-driven branding compared to other consumer goods categories; you don’t hear much talk about lifecycle assessments or CO2 emissions from pet brands, despite the $30B industry consuming tons (literally tonnes) of resources. While being unique can be a selling point, it also means that customers may need more time to understand and become familiar with our products before making a purchase.

As an early-stage company, every marketing dollar is spent deliberately, and with an eye to efficiency. We often hear from potential buyers that, while our values deeply resonate with them, they have never introduced a meat-free product to their dog and are unsure about their dog’s reaction. This led us to two choices:

1. Deeply discounting the first bag to reduce first purchase friction
2. Figuring out a way to offer free samples

Discounting is as easy as setting up a promo code structure in Shopify and has pretty much zero overhead costs. We conducted a few deep discount experiments and found that while it did drive an uptick in sales, it wasn’t enough of a boost to justify long-term. So, we were left with the operationally-intensive option of standing up a free sample program. As a team of two, we needed to create a sampling program that could be managed in-house (and I mean that literally, we work out of our basement), remain cost-effective, demonstrate our values, and provide an opportunity to learn more about our audience.

Petaluma’s sample bag contains 1 cup of food and includes a macronutrient profile and QR code to purchase on the back of the bag.

Convinced to start sampling? Here are a few steps to get going:

Determine what a “reasonable” sample is for your business

What is a meaningful size for a customer to get a sense of your product? There’s a Goldilocks size between what can be given away for free (or very low cost) and not-so-generous that you’re flooded with spam.

Work backward from your CAC

Acquiring a customer with paid digital campaigns can be costly and often is not as scalable as it was even just a few years ago. The lifetime value of a subscription dog food customer can be quite high, which provides us with some additional room to spend acquiring customers. We worked backward from our average CAC to put some guardrails around the cost for this program, and have consistently found that the free sample program converts customers more cost-effectively than first-bag discounts.

Samples are a brand and marketing opportunity

Every customer interaction is a chance to communicate brand values, and sampling is no different. Consider including a handwritten note, personalizing your emails, and using branded images in your packaging. We opted to use compostable mailers and a logo stamp to minimize waste and stay aligned with our message of reducing resource use in pet care.

Samples are an educational opportunity

In addition to driving purchases, a major reason to start a sampling program is to learn more about who is considering purchasing your products. We’ve found that prospective customers are more willing to share additional information about their preferences when you are offering them a valuable service like a free sample, and actually route our sample requests through a survey form. We include optional questions about dietary preferences, purchasing criteria, dog’s age, and always include an open-ended option at the end for any other detail they would like to share. It’s been very insightful to see patterns and better understand different motivations for finding a product like ours. For example, we see lots of vegetarians and folks that are reducing their own meat consumption seek out Petaluma as a healthy way to further reduce their household footprint.

Automate and operationalize what you can

Admittedly, this is still something we’re working on as our sampling program continues to grow and consumes more time each week. Streamline your sample workflow by automating email flows for signups and nudging post-sample follow-up purchases, and working with your co-man to package samples. We still package and mail our own samples, but are always looking for ways to cut down on time spent validating addresses, form typos, and answering customer questions.

We use a simple Typeform to collect information about the sampler and their dog.

Sampling has been an effective way for us to increase our conversion rate on our website and encourage potential skeptics to give their dog a chance to provide feedback on taste. We have started to integrate sampling into how we think about our business more broadly. Here’s how we leverage:

Generate buzz before a product launch

Give your most loyal customers get a sneak peek and provide feedback (or even better, product reviews) ahead of your official launch. Share samples with journalists and influencers and cut down on costs by sending smaller sizes.

Increase brand awareness

Bring sample-sized products with you in the real world to gain extra visibility and quickly get your product out there – gift bags at events, conferences, community events, prospective retailers, and more.

Curious to get sampling – or ready to give your dog a taste of Petaluma? Request a scoop of our baked peanut butter-flavored dog food here.

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