4 Steps to Launching a Successful Free Trial

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Want customers to fall in love with your product during the free trial? SaaS marketing strategist Peter Cohen encourages you to consider the full picture and follow these four steps.

Just a taste. That’s the theory when it comes to offering a product free trial for your prospective customers. You figure that once they’ve had a little bite of what you have to offer, they will be ready to make a commitment to your product.

But not only does that taste have to be irresistible, you also need to make sure you present it in the appropriate manner and make sure that what follows it is just as satisfying. In other words, as SaaS marketing expert Peter Cohen recently told OpenView, the whole experience, beginning to end, is important — not just the free trial itself.

“Lots of companies offer free trials as part of their overall customer acquisition and retention process,” says Cohen, the managing partner of SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors. “But I’m here to warn you that while free trials can work as part of that process, they can’t be the entire process. There are things that have to happen before, during, and after the free trial for it to really have an impact.”

So, what are those things?

Cohen says there are four steps to building a complete product free trial experience that can boost your customer acquisition efforts:

1. Be Prepared Well in Advance

Before you can even think about getting a potential client lined up for a product free trial, Cohen says you need to make sure people can find your trial. You need to build some visibility for your product. “You can do that through a wide number of tactics — SEO, paid search, public relations, events, etc. — but the end goal is to draw people to your site and make them aware of your trial offering,” Cohen explains.

Once that happens, however, your work isn’t done. After prospects arrive at your site, you have to provide a compelling story that quickly explains why your product will solve a prospect’s problem.

“Take time to show how other people have had success by working with you,” Cohen suggests. “That’s a great way to begin to establish a level of comfort between you and the user.”

2. Encourage Prospects to Actually Use the Product

This might sound obvious, but Cohen says that getting a free trial user to actually engage with your product can be more difficult than it seems. In fact, signing up for a product free trial is by no means a guarantee that prospective customers will take advantage of it.

As a result, Cohen suggests making your free trial as easy as to use as possible, while also proactively engaging prospects throughout the trial experience.

“Be sure to give the user the latitude to use their own data, but don’t make them start from scratch,” Cohen says. “And don’t overwhelm them. Allow your free trial users to perform two or three core actions. Put them on the shortest path to the ‘aha’ moment.”

Finally, be sure to offer help if it looks like a user is stalled. Whether it’s signposts built into the product, a quick step-by-step guide, or some one-on-one coaching, any assistance you can provide will go a long way towards improving engagement.

3. Determine the Right Trial Duration

When it comes to product free trial duration, there is no magic number, as it’s going to depend largely on the complexity and economics of your product. For example, users can typically gauge the value of web conferencing software within a few uses, while an email marketing program might take considerably longer to figure out.

Along with those factors, Cohen says it’s critical to consider how much it costs you to support your free trial. Some products might be simple and practically run themselves. But more complicated software might require intensive support, which drives up your customer acquisition cost.

Lastly, Cohen recommends building some flexibility into your free trial to account for unusual issues, extenuating circumstances, or special accommodations.

“You ought to have a policy in place where you can have an escape hatch that says to the prospect, ‘I see you got distracted, so let’s add another two weeks on to the trial,’” Cohen says. “Ultimately, if the goal is to get the user to actually engage with the trial, you need to be aware of issues that might keep them from doing that.”

4. Don’t Stop Working When the Trial is Done

If all goes well during your product free trial you should find yourself with a new customer. But that doesn’t mean your job is done.

Cohen points out that your new customer probably still won’t know the ins and outs of your product, so you will need to continue to offer coaching, guidance and handholding for a period of time once the trial comes to an end.

“You’ll need to work to create an onboarding process that is as seamless as possible,” Cohen says. “After all, the whole experience will be remembered when it comes time for subscription renewal.”

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  • Nitin

    Hello Peter, thanks for the excellent article.

    I have few queries wrt free trials – mainly from vendor’s perspectives. Would deeply appreciate your response.

    1) what level of support generally vendors provide in the trial period – is it equal, less or better than they would give after-sale?

    2) in general what % of product cost do the vendor incur to facilitate and support a trial?

    3) are vendors willing to pay some lead generation fee or sell commission to discovery platforms that help users find vendors’ free trial offerings.

    Please feel free to take examples/specific verticals while replying…

    Thanks in advance,

  • Matthew

    Free trials work see http://offertrials.com as proof. We have built a business just around the niche of new offers that are presented on the internet and trial offers that take risk on both the company’s and consumers side.

  • petercohen

    Sorry about the much-too-long delay in responding. I just today became aware of your questions.

    1. Instead of thinking of whether support for free trialers is more or less than that provided to paying customers, it’s more helpful to think of the kind of support provided as “different.”

    The level of support provided to free trialers is generally very focused on walking them through a handful of very specific tasks. For an email marketing solution, for example, the tasks might include “build a contact list,” “set up a campaign,” or “create a newsletter template.” The goal is to help the trialer to quickly see the value of the solution.

    Paying customers, by contrast, might need help with a much broader range of issues. And those issues will change over time. The support required during their first few weeks while they learn the basics will be different than the expert advice they might require as they gain more experience.

    2. The cost of providing a free trial will vary by the kind of solution and the amount of support required. Many companies account for these costs as “sales and marketing” costs. I’d be careful with any benchmarks on this metric. (See “Nothing simple about SaaS benchmarks.” http://saasmarketingstrategy.blogspot.com/2016/07/nothing-simple-about-saas-benchmark.html)

    3. Yes, vendors do pay for a whole range of services that help prospective customers’ find their free trial. Those could include SEO, pay-per-click, PR, services like Capterra or Software Advice, or other activities that build visibility and attract leads.

    I hope this is helpful and again I apologize for the delay in getting back to you.

    Peter Cohen
    SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors