StartSampling's mission is to become the Web middleman between packaged good companies such as Hershey Foods and the highly qualified consumers they'd like to send product samples to. During its first year in business the site acquired 125,000 members with almost literally no marketing at all. Burns says, "Those were just folks who happened to find us."
These members acted as a live focus group, helping the site learn a lot about design that pleases women (keep it as clean and simple as possible.) By April 2000 it was time to "turn the marketing engines on" and ramp up membership exponentially.
To succeed StartSampling needed to get more than half a million 25-44 year old stay-at-home moms to register as members for a budgeted acquisition cost of just $2.50 per member.
Instead of blowing the entire budget on one acquisition model, Burns decided to test a wide variety of media to see which would be worth investing in over the long haul.
Print ads for StartSampling ran in a wide variety of magazines, including: Parade, Entertainment Weekly, Self, First for Women, People and Good Housekeeping. The site also tested two different types of creative for spot radio. Burns says, "The first campaign attempted to be over-the-top and breakthrough. For example, one was about a rattlesnake roundup in Oklahoma. The second campaign was much more slice- of-life."
The site also tested more than 30 different banner creatives and sizes on "all various and sundry kinds of sites" from Yahoo's home page to iVillage. However, StartSampling carefully avoided typical "freebie" sites. Burns explains, "Our packaged goods customers really avoid those like the plague. Our tagline is 'Try Something' vs. 'Free Product Samples.' We're creating uncluttered branded moments for customers, not just giving away something free."
Instead of doing blast emails to rented opt-in lists, StartSampling's site ran contests to encourage member referrals. Burns says, "I'd much rather have someone receive an email about the site from a friend than from us."
"All that stuff we drew on the white board last fall -- it's playing out!" Burns exclaims. Without blowing its budget, StartSampling now has almost a million registered users, 70% of whom visit the site at least once a month.
Although the print campaign was only a qualified success, with weeklies working better than monthlies, Burns says he'll do it again, "It's important for branding to have that print running, even though it's harder to justify the spend." Interestingly Parade magazine didn't seem to work well, while People was a winner. Burns also said print ads in Good Housekeeping weren't winners, but he definitely feels their Seal of Approval is valuable on the home page of his site.
The first crazier radio campaign also didn't work well, "It would be very appropriate later in our corporate life, but it wasn't a good initial branding device." However the second slice-of-life campaign worked so well in test markets, that Burns is eagerly looking forward to rolling it out nationwide first quarter 2001.
Banners were definitely winners, especially on sites like iWon "where people are engaged and doing things." Creative tests didn't reveal any consistent winners not even buttons vs. banners, but Burns says, "results seemed to suggest that less copy is better and having it rotate within the banner 2-3 times so there's some action happening seemed to work better." Burns was very happy with results, but says, "Let's talk honestly here. I had double the industry click through rate, but that still means it was just around 1%."
The most successful campaigns were the site contests encouraging member referrals. Burns says, "If I put up a new one, I'll have 50,000 entries in the first 24 hours." Almost 30% of the site's total membership came from referrals.
NEXT: Burns is interested in testing ads in highly targeted email newsletters next year, "A newsletter provides a context, it generates value. Those things are pulling!"
NOTES: Are you interested in distributing your samples or sharing "uncluttered branded moments" with female consumers through StartSampling? The cost ranges between $700-$800/m which is higher than most programs -- but you get a lot more bang for your buck. You get valuable feedback because more than 60% of recipients on average return to the site to input product reviews. You also make more sales because an average of 30% of recipients are likely to purchase your product later. In contrast, only about 10% of recipients from offline sampling programs purchase in the end.
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