Launching a free trial is risky business.
It will cannibalize your demo requests. It might never convert free users into paying customers. It might not even be a good fit for your business in the first place.
After talking with hundreds of SaaS leaders, I realized that most people have a lot of assumptions about launching a free trial.
They look at their competitor who has a free trial and assume they should do the same. It must be working, right?
That’s usually when people call me to launch a free trial.
But, what I have to explain over and over is this:
Your product, customers, and team are different. So maybe you shouldn’t follow exactly what your competitors are doing!
In this article, I’m going to challenge you to answer three difficult questions—the answers to which will help you launch a free trial more successfully and effectively.
(If you’re not 100% confident whether a free trial or freemium model is right for your business, here is a decision framework that will help you decide between a free trial or freemium model.)
Why launch a free trial?
Most companies want to launch a free trial for two reasons: to keep up with market trends and to create a competitive advantage for their business. These two reasons represent a reactive and proactive approach, respectively.
Reactive: Market trends
What a lot of SaaS companies don’t realize is that the way we sell software is about to change dramatically.
Don’t believe me?
Just take a look at the data:
According to ProfitWell, customer acquisition costs (CAC) have increased by over 55% in the last 5 years.
At the same time, customer willingness to pay for features has dropped by 30% during that same period.
So, on one hand, we have rising costs; on the other, we have a lower willingness to pay. You don’t have to be a financial whiz to understand that this means your expenses go up while your profitability goes down.
High churn in your SaaS business can be lethal.
(Also, that's just ONE trend. In my latest article I wrote for ConversionXL, I dive much deeper into two other potentially lethal market trends and how to avoid their potentially disastrous consequences.)
Proactive: Competitive advantage
Outside of market trends, there are other solid business reasons why you may want to consider launching a free trial. Here are the three most common ways a free trial can give your business a competitive advantage:
Wider top-of–funnel: By having a free trial or freemium model, you are opening your funnel up to people earlier in their customer journey. This is powerful because instead of having potential prospects filling out your competitor’s demo request, they are spending time evaluating your product for themselves.
Rapid global scale: While your competitors are busy hiring sales reps for each new country, you can focus on improving your onboarding so that you can service more customers easily across the world in a fraction of the time.
Andrew Bieda of Landingi, for example, is a master at rapid global scale with just a free trial and paid acquisition channels like Facebook and Google in his toolbox. Andrew’s team looks for markets with optimal CPC, signup acquisition costs and trial-to-paid conversion rates. What this allows Andrew’s team to do is strategically pursue new markets where he can profitably acquire new customers and avoid the markets that are oversaturated with competition.
Fast sales cycles: By having your users onboard themselves within your product, you can significantly reduce your prospect’s time to value and sales cycle. Once people experience the value of your product, the next logical thing to do is upgrade, according to customer success expert Lincoln Murphy.
Stop and ask yourself: Why do I want to launch a free trial?
Is it because of market trends or because you want to create a competitive advantage for your business? Or both?
Once you nail down your reasons, it’s going to be so much easier to convince others on your team why you need to launch a free trial for increased success.
Who do you need to convince to launch a free trial?
Believe me, there is nothing more disappointing than putting countless hours into creating a compelling business case to launch or optimize a free trial only to have your product or sales team shut you down.
One of my students from my Product-Led Growth course ran into this issue recently. He wanted to optimize his company’s free trial signup page by reducing the number of form fields required, but the sales team insisted they needed all 10 fields. It ended up taking him three months to convince the sales director to let him reduce the number of form fields.
This scenario isn’t uncommon.
In my experience, it’s typically your Chief Technology Officer or Vice President of Sales who will shut you down. And this makes sense, in a way. Your CTO needs to ensure that their team is keeping pace with the product roadmap, while the VP of Sales needs to make sure that revenue targets are being met.
If your free trial experiment gets in the way of these two agendas, these individuals can easily shut you down. This tends to happen due to conflicting goals— the product team is focusing on pushing new features out, while the sales team is focusing on generating revenue.
Your free trial will require a ton of dev time and cannibalize demo requests.
In order to de-risk your free trial launch, you need to help your product and sales teams understand how a free trial will help them grow.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. In my experience, I’ve found that it’s critical to get the CEO onboard with your vision.
If you can do that, it’s going to be much easier to convince other leaders within the organization to give a free trial launch your best shot.
But, convincing management doesn’t mean anything unless you have a team to launch a free trial in the first place...
Who do you need to run a successful free trial?
This might sound obvious, but you need the right people & processes in place to launch a successful free trial.
The fact is, most subscription businesses just don’t have the right people or processes in place. So they face three options when launching a free trial:
1) Trial & error – this option can work if you’re self-funded, but it’ll take a long time to get your free trial off the ground, and the likelihood of you switching back to the “old way of doing things” is high. I’ve gone down this route at Vidyard and believe me when I say it feels like a magnet is constantly drawing you back toward the old way of doing things.
2) Hire the dream team – this option can work if resources and time aren’t an issue. However, it does have its downsides. You will, no doubt, spend lots of time hiring, training your new team, and getting everyone up to speed on the product. This alone can easily take most companies 60 to 90 days—not to mention that finding people with the relevant experience is hard! Let’s face it, these people are in high demand.
3) Train your team – this option is the fastest way to get your free trial up and running. Think about it: Your current employees are already familiar with your product, know your customers, and (hopefully) want to see your customers succeed. I’ve seen teams that know very little about free trials take my free trial launch workshop and start applying the lessons to their business immediately.
Now, I don’t suggest that you try to train everyone on your team right away. Instead, I recommend putting together a small tiger team.
On this team, you should have these 5 skill sets:
- User Experience Designer
- Product Manager
- Customer Success Rep
- Digital Marketer (who is responsible for driving free trial signups)
That’s just 5 people. (If you’re a small startup, you can merge some of these positions together.)
You want to pick influential people from each team who have the power to win over others. This tiger team will eventually be responsible for building out their own mini-team within your company, so choose carefully.
Once you’ve put your tiger team together, you want to give them ownership to do whatever it takes to help people become successful in the product. This could include welcoming new free trial users via snail mail, calling every signup, or even creating short personalized videos to show each user around.
At this point, it doesn’t matter if it scales. All that matters is that you have a team in place that has your free trial user’s interests in mind and genuinely wants to see them succeed.
I can tell you from experience that if you’re on the management team and are building a tiger team for your self-service operation, you’re going need to play offense for them.
Your new team is going “against the grain” within your business and will get some serious kickback from the sales team. Be prepared to help them with that internal resistance.
Tying it all together
Launching a free trial offer may seem rather straightforward. You just need to let people sign up for your product, give them access to it for a limited amount of time, and you’re done, right?
I hope by this point you’re able to see that it’s not always so simple.
The biggest bottlenecks that you’ll encounter when launching a free trial have nothing to do with your product. In the end, it all comes down to having the right team and process in place.
Once you’ve identified why you want to launch a free trial, convinced the right people and trained your team, you’ve eliminated the majority of the risk that comes from launching a free trial.
Congratulations—and good luck!
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