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Online Pests: Free Sample Trolls

Bobbi of Montreal, Canada was known in certain online crafting forums as the ultimate free sample troll. You were a crafting nonentity if you hadn’t received a sample request from Bobbi. In March 2004, I became an honorary member as the notorious Canadian finally paid me a visit. It was a simple missive with a subject heading that read: “samples.” Uh oh, that free sample troll, I thought. Yup, the brief text read: “please send samples and catalogue to: [address].”

As the owner of a handcrafted [meaning I make everything myself!] bath & body products site, I don’t send out free samples. Nor do I have a print catalogue. Obviously Bobbi hadn’t read my site’s policies section on my “About” page as it clearly stated that a free sample accompanied a paid order.

Last year on one of my soapmaking groups I went through the archives and learned that Bobbi of Canada was a legendary free sample troll. She prowled the ‘net in search of free soap, bath & body products, gourmet cookies, and small handmade gift items. Obviously Bobbi searched far and wide for freebies as one soapmaker posted this: “We got the same email…all the way over in Australia! I sent an email back letting Bobbi know that we were willing to provide samples as long as they covered the postage and handling and paid a $20.00 samples fee. No reply!”

However, while Bobbi was the first free sample troll to contact me, I soon became aware of others. I learned that free sample trolls were often proficient in doling out flattery. Here’s an excerpt from a Mavis of Florida: “Your products sound wonderful – would it be possible to request a catalog or brochure? Also, your coconut soap sounds absolutely enticing! May I request a small sample of this soap?” Wonder why ol’ Mavis was writing to me? That last sentence was the clincher – she wanted to ingratiate herself and by doing so get the ol’ something for nothing. It didn’t work though because my policy was a very firm – no free samples. As a soapmaker, I ran a small business not a large charity.

She wrote back requesting a special order product and when I gave her the quote there was no reply. Until a few months later. By now I had a fully working web site with a PayPal shopping cart. She didn’t use the shopping cart, instead sending me a request for some soaps, offering to pay for it via check [uh oh!] and wanting it sent regular mail in order to save $1.92. Naturally she expressed a wish for a free sample, even specifying which soap was to be the freebie. She ended her mock order with: “P.S. I wish I could buy more but at this time, it's so hard. I just had a wedding for my daughter and the bills are piling up. So you know how that is.”

Actually, I don’t have any children, so no. But if the Floridian had just paid for a wedding, what the heck was an additional TEN DOLLARS including her discounted shipping?

Almost two weeks passed before she wrote back, using an excuse about her server going down. She revised her e-mail order [again, bypassing the shopping cart], lowering the amount to $7. A check was promised. It never came.

Free sample trolls devalue a product that often takes hours to craft, not to mention the amount of research and development that goes into creating that product. Time spent answering fantasy requests detracts from an online shop owner’s business earnings. Freebie hunters probably don’t bother to think about such incidental details. All they want is the gratification of knowing that someone gave them a product that they never intended to purchase. While some people genuinely are interested in buying a product and do need to try it firsthand, most of the serial free sample trolls only want something that requires no money or effort from them.

Last August Jennifer from Kansas contacted me: “I am a person with extremely sensitive skin that is in search of products that do not cause my skin to burn and itch. If possible could you please send me a catalog of your products as well as a few small samples for me to try. Any help that you can give me will be greatly appreciated. My address is:”
Upon receiving a pleasant e-mail about my no free sample policy and the fact that for a few dollars she could receive a product, there was no more correspondence from Jennifer!

The best example of a genuine free sample troll hailed from New York. Rather unusual was the fact that this troll was a man. “Hello, my wife is throwing a shower for about 100 people and would like to order a huge assortment of soaps, but since she has never tried yours before she asked me to ask for a few samples to try, so if you could send me a few samples, I would appreciate it. The shower is in 3 weeks so if you could get them to me as soon as possible, I would appreciate it. Joe S.”

The man wanted the soap favors supplied by various soapmakers from around the world for free! He contacted handcrafted soapmakers from Canada, Minnesota, Georgia, Oregon and even Australia! Mr. S. tried to cater to the greed factor by using the term “a huge assortment” and he also wanted not just a sample, but also “a few samples.”

As Mr. S. used his work e-mail address I was able to contact his employers who promptly took action and an apology was sent.

Meanwhile, Bobbi from Canada still trolls the internet in search of free samples as evidenced by this soapmaker back in June 2004: “I have gotten one from her. Wanting free samples and free brochures... Ummm one would think the site she just landed on and went straight to the contact page would have worked as a brochure...guess she was too busy to read…”

And here, by another crafter: “This gal was pretty obvious in trolling for freebies. This one basically just said give me, here's my mailing address.”

The anonymity of the internet allows a ripe field of products to effortlessly harvest for those free sample trolls. But it also can enter the level of conning as evidenced here: “I am an associate editor for [name], a national magazine. I am interested in featuring your soaps in our holiday issue. I am especially interested in the wine soaps. Please let me know if you can send some samples.” Wanting to make certain this was legitimate; I called the magazine’s office to confirm the editor’s address and discovered that she no longer worked there!

One of the most thoughtful free sample requests occurred last autumn with this pleasant missive: “The products on your site look fabulous, we would love to see some samples for editorial consideration. My address is enclosed below. In the meantime, please let me know if you are interested in learning about the various promotional opportunities available on our site including our upcoming holiday gifts section.”

The free sample troll had now escalated into someone not only wanting gratis products, but also wanting money from me in order to further promote them on her site.

Last month I heard from Denise, another free sample troll who was apparently unable to click on links to products that were clearly listed. “I wanted to know if you have [name of product] as I have very dry skin and looking for a good product for this. If you do please let me know the prices for that.” I wrote back and gave her the links. She immediately wrote back: “Let me send in my orders then for the [name of product] and see how it works.”

Obviously that order never went through, as I didn’t get another e-mail from her. Just another free sample troll trolling for a freebie…

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