Today I had lunch with a woman whom I have admired for more than 20 years: Caroline Cotten. Caroline founded Mass Connections, a shopper marketing firm she built from an idea she had in college and turned into a $100 million business.
Her business provides people to do in-store demonstrations for vendors in the grocery business at grocery stores. You know who I mean: those stereotypical, mostly older ladies in black pants and white shirts who hand you samples while you walk around the grocery store.
Back when I started in the produce business, the “demo person” would bring a card table and maybe a tablecloth and “set up shop” at the end of an aisle. Then she would hand out samples—and maybe coupons—in hopes of selling more of the products being sampled.
Caroline told me she originally started the business while she was in college in Arizona as a way to make money to support herself as she is one of six children. When she moved back to California, she parlayed this idea and grew it into what I would call an all-American success story.
In the past 30 years, she not only continued to grow and run her company, but she had four children too. And like many of us, Caroline also has had her share of mid-life crises—divorce, and key employees getting ill and buying partners out.
Meanwhile, the business world around her was changing. The cost to provide her personnel and services was getting expensive from the manufacturer point of view. More and more manufacturers were evaluating the ROI (return on investment) on in-store demonstrations. If these demo people could not generate enough incremental sales, then they would stop doing the sampling in stores.
By this time, Caroline’s eldest daughter Taylor was managing event personnel for Mass Connections and ended up being the top regional manager in the company. Caroline laughed when she told me that Taylor was 20 years old when she handled the entire East Coast territory! She said, “Do you know how hard it is to rent a car when you’re not yet 25?” (Thank goodness for Enterprise Rent-a-Car!)
Caroline watches Taylor engaging with her friends via social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. And a new business idea was born.
Enter Social Sampling Inc., Taylor’s new company (with mom, Caroline as an official advisor).
And here is where the brilliance got my attention.
When Social Sampling interviews candidates to do in-store sampling, guess what they bring along with their resume? They bring their smart phones, and they must have a minimum number of social media followers. The more people they can reach, engage with, and sell product to, the more money they can make per project.
So when these candidates are hired to do in-store events, part of their job is to post to social media before the event to let people know where they will be and what they will be sampling, during the event to entice people to show up, and afterward to lead into the next event.
I mean, really, who do you listen to: a newspaper or radio advertisement, or a recommendation from a friend? You guessed it—a friend!
From what Caroline shared with me, with this new approach, the actual number of people who come into the stores to try samples has only grown about 10 percent. But guess what? Product sales have increased 1,000 percent. Yes, that is 10 times!
Talk about an effective vehicle to get people to try new things.
So, hats off to Caroline and Taylor with this new business!
If you have any millennials working for you, maybe you should ask them what would make your baby boomer-designed business appeal to them and their friends.
Or maybe you will just post this question on your Facebook page.