Free Samples! New Service Sends Products in Exchange for Opinions

PHOTO: PinchMe.com relies on the old-fashioned free samples

A steady stream of free stuff shipped to your mailbox? What's the catch?

PinchMe.com relies on the old-fashioned free sample, with some modern e-commerce elements thrown in. The recently launched service offers users free samples of consumer products in exchange for feedback and opinions.

"Free samples" is the operative phrase here, and PinchMe hopes it will incentivize users to sign up for an assortment of food, household and personal care products. The service incorporates aspects of online retail trends like the monthly subscription box - users receive a PinchMe box every few weeks containing the free samples they've selected. As with certain subscription services, the element of discovery is an inherent part of the process, with participating companies hoping that you'll try and like a new product enough to eventually pay for a full-size version of it.

The perception of limited inventory, played up by flash sale sites like Gilt Groupe, further spurs members to log in sooner rather than later. Every other Tuesday at noon (EST), PinchMe's product inventory is updated and users can choose one to three items to fill their next box. Log in too late, and you may discover no samples are left.

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Over time, members earn points and badges for answering brief surveys and taking actions like tweeting about their experience or visiting a brand's Facebook page, all of which qualify them to enter PinchMe's monthly gift card drawings. To continue receiving free samples, PinchMe users must complete surveys for the samples they've received.

Unlike tedious online questionnaires though, the experience here is short and sweet: all surveys consist of only five questions, are multiple-choice and users have 30 days to complete them. PinchMe's overall experience is user-friendly and feels almost like shopping. The best part? Not having to pay at checkout.

Of course, what you're not paying in dollars, you're paying with your time and information. Companies like Vosges Haut-Chocolat are counting on it. The chocolate company partnered with PinchMe to gauge consumer sentiment for one of their newer offerings, the "Wild Ophelia" line of locally-sourced chocolates.

Owner Katrina Markoff said PinchMe was an opportunity to connect with potential customers and offered, "a platform to hear the brand story and to get the chocolate into the mouths of consumers." Markoff says the method is more compelling than traditional advertising: "People get to try and eat the chocolate, as opposed to just [seeing a] media placement."

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Market Research Analyst Kendrick Sadler of New York City-based Applied Research & Consulting agrees it's a useful tool for product marketing, but not a panacea for companies hoping to convince the public to purchase their product, "While in-home product testing services like PinchMe can be an effective way to gauge potential satisfaction among interested consumers, brands may miss out on the nuanced reasons why people like or dislike a product, or why they may or may not intend to purchase a product. These nuances can be very important in the development of brand messaging and advertising campaigns which ultimately help to drive people into stores to purchase a product."

"You can get a large number of people to try the product, but you won't really understand why they like the product," Sadler added.

Founder Jeremy Reid believes PinchMe's limited-choice approach delivers more engaged consumers and reliable feedback to companies testing new products. Members can only choose 1 of every 3 product samples presented each week. If for example, six samples are presented, only two can be requested.

Said Reid, "We're making you consciously decide . . . whatever you take, you actually want the most. You appreciate it a bit more and that then leads to a much better engagement with the product, and higher rates of trial receives a higher rate of conversion."

Makes sense. But currently, the limited number of participating brands means users will inevitably be forced to select products they wouldn't otherwise choose. One week for example, I had space left in my PinchMe box for an extra sample. Problem was, the only one left to choose was diaper cream, which I had no need for, but had to select in order to have that week's box sent off. Still, it was fun to sample products I wouldn't otherwise know of, like Gevalia's Caramel Macchiato K-cup coffee or Lady Gaga's "Fame" perfume.

While users' demographic data does provide insight to participating companies about who is sampling their product, PinchMe is still in early stages and it remains to be seen how effective it will be in converting all those free samples into purchases. Still, for the curious consumer, it's a simple way to try new products gratis.

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