In 2017, The New York Times launched its free subscription service for students. Its goal: give away free subscriptions to nytimes.com to 3 million students in the United States.

Mission accomplished. The Times recently reported it reached this goal and that it had plans to eventually extend this offer internationally.

To be clear, free in this case means the students aren’t paying, but the programme does receive financial contributions toward the subscriptions from donors. In a recent article, Axios reported most donations average US$50, with the exception of one large anonymous donation of US$1 million to the programme the year it launched.

The Times also contributes to the programme by providing an additional student subscription for each one granted through contributions to the programme. No doubt the initiative has generous supporters who see the value of young people having access to a credible news source.

It’s no secret most students are often strapped for cash, so providing free access seems like a low-risk move that may pay off in the long term when it comes to brand awareness, engagement, and revenue down the road.

Giving products or services away for free, also known as sampling, is a common marketing strategy used to introduce consumers of all demographics to new products and build brand loyalty.

On the retail side, it’s a way to add an element of fun to the shopping experience. Many consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) companies collaborate with retailers to introduce new food or beverage products through sampling. If you have ever been to Costco, you know there is an abundance of free food samples — so much so that people joke on social media that Costco food samples are a great alternative to spending money on lunch!

But make no mistake, companies sample for one primary reason: to boost sales. According to an article on upserve.com, Perry Abbenante, vice president of marketing for Snack Factory, says the average conversion rate of the company’s free sampling efforts is between 25% and 30%. That means a quarter of people who tried its free samples ended up buying the product.

Giving away a bite-sized snack or a trial-sized body wash might seem like a forgettable gesture, but apparently free sampling can trigger strong psychological responses that may encourage consumer behaviour.

In an article in The Atlantic on the psychology of Costco’s free samples, Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at Duke University, points out “reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct.” Meaning, when you receive something for free, there is a feeling of reciprocating the gesture — i.e. giving something back to the free-gift-giver. Have you ever received an unexpected Christmas gift from someone and felt the need or obligation to give one in return? That’s one example many of us can relate to.

There are several other industries that offer their products or services free to students. Amazon Prime provides college students with a free Prime trial for six months, followed by a discounted rate thereafter. Some professional associations, like the National Society of Professional Engineers, offer free membership for full-time undergraduate or graduate students. Microsoft Office has a free student option available as long as you have a valid student e-mail address ending in .edu.

The Star launched a product-sampling service a few years ago to increase business from CPG advertisers. The Toronto Star Back 2 School Campus Survival Pack distributed bags full of free sample-sized products and coupons to college and university students at the beginning of the school year.

The Star also utilised sampling as a sales and marketing strategy for print subscription sales. The conversion rate for households receiving a sample subscription prior to a sales offer were consistently higher than households that simply received a direct marketing offer without sampling the service first.

There are a lot of statistics online related to the boost in sales as a result of free sampling. However, there’s not much of a deep dive into the long-term effects free sampling has on consumer retention.

It’s obvious investing in students now is a long-term strategy meant to build brand awareness, loyalty, adoption, and, hopefully, a future paid subscriber. However, some would still argue that offering anything for free devalues your brand.

There may be some truth to this argument. But if students don’t have the financial means to pay now, it seems that investing in their future loyalty to the brand makes sense.