The ultimate goal of a free trial program is to convert those temporary users into paying customers. But beyond landing new subscriptions, the technique offers additional benefits that often make it a central piece of a site’s overall marketing strategy.
Trial programs give marketers the chance to pitch members additional products or services if they decide a paid subscription isn’t for them. They’re also a way to add tons of names to your email database for newsletters or promotional marketing.
“The key is to build that database of contacts so you have people to work with. In many cases, you’ve got to have a free trial to do that,” says D.J. Thayer, President, infoUSA Group, which operates the subscription-based sales lead database Salesgenie.com
Making the most of that strategy starts with attracting visitors to a free trial offer and convincing them to register for temporary access -- often supplying their credit card information in the process. Perhaps more important, though, is what you do during that period to encourage trial members to use the site and how you attempt to convert them to paid users before the trial ends.
With so many ways to achieve those goals, we set out to see how online publishers and other paid content sites were marketing their free trials and attempting to convert visitors. To that end, we signed up for free trials at 50 paid subscription services, split evenly between consumer and B-to-B sites, and tracked how those sites marketed their trials, what kind of marketing and conversion efforts they employed and what retention efforts they used when we canceled our memberships.
The resulting data provided insights into how the online subscription industry is currently handling the free trial process: Chart: Where Are Free Trials Promoted? Note: Totals exceed 100% because some sites displaying trial offers in multiple locations.Source: MarketingSherpa, ContentBiz 50 Audit, May 2007Methodology: MarketingSherpa analysts interacted with the marketing, merchandising and content of 50 content-based Web sites between May 15, 2007, and May 30, 2007. Sites were selected from small- to medium-size organizations distributed across a diversified group of sectors.
The process of turning visitors into trial members starts by letting visitors know they can sample premium content. As the chart above shows, marketers have reached different conclusions about the best place to make a free trial offer.
The two most common approaches:
-> Approach #1. A prominent offer on the home page
77% of the sites surveyed featured their free trial offers on the home page, in forms such as a banner or button ad. The appeal, obviously, is to pitch the free trial to all users who land on your site’s home page.
Of the sites with a prominent free trial display on their home page, eMusic’s approach stood out as the most in-your-face. The promotion starts with an intercept screen before users even get to the home page, with a bold, red and white image touting an offer for 25 free song downloads (see creative samples below).
For visitors who click past that screen to begin browsing eMusic’s database, the offer is consistently repeated with banner ads across the tops of pages, echoing the same “25 Free Downloads” creative and providing a button to register.
The offer and creative has been consistent for several years, says eMusic CMO Chris Hoerenz, and is the result of many years of testing and focus groups. “We find in focus groups that the free trial is always the number one or two reason people join.”
Thanks to that trial period to help build familiarity with the service, eMusic is able to convert roughly 50% of free members into paid subscribers, says Hoerenz.
-> Approach #2. Offer made after users click on premium content
Another approach, used by 33% of the sites surveyed, is to offer a trial after users click on content that’s available only to paid subscribers. Exactly how that’s done varies from site to site:
- 52% of sites that offer a free trial after clicking on a premium section throw up a complete barrier -- not showing any of the content and, instead, requesting that members sign in or non-members join the site.
- 28% offer a partial look at the selection, such as a few sentences or paragraphs of a premium article above a barrier that asks users to sign in or register.
Placing a free trial offer alongside barriered premium content makes sense, because if you’ve optimized your site for search engines, it’s likely that many visitors coming to your site aren’t landing on the home page.
Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, gets 80% of its Web traffic to the free portion of individual articles within its online encyclopedia. So including a link on those pages for free trial signup, at the barrier that restricts the remainder of the article to paid subscribers, is essential, says Greg Drewganis, Marketing Manager, Premium Content. “It’s an important landing page for us to funnel people into the subscription process.”
But Drewganis’ team also uses a graphic in the right column of those article pages with a simple, colorful bar chart showing users how much additional content is behind the membership barrier. It’s a visual way to answer that typical question among potential subscribers, “What will I really get for my money?”
In fact, Drewganis says they recently tested new creative pieces for that space that highlighted Britannica.com’s articles by expert contributors, such as Jimmy Carter and Sigmund Freud. But those pieces didn’t perform as well as the standard bar chart graphic, resulting in his teams’ decision to keep the existing creative in place. “I think people saw those more as an advertisement, whereas what they see now is reaffirming what you get as a subscriber.”
The upshot: The decision to sign up for a free trial or subscribe to an online service can be a subjective one -- and rather than trying to anticipate which feature is most compelling to the largest number of potential subscribers, Brittanica.com has found it more effective to provide another overview of the premium content available to subscribers. Chart: Number of Pages in Registration ProcessSource: MarketingSherpa, ContentBiz 50 Audit, May 2007Methodology: MarketingSherpa analysts interacted with the marketing, merchandising and content of 50 content-based Web sites between May 15, 2007, and May 30, 2007. Sites were selected from small- to medium-size organizations distributed across a diversified group of sectors.
Asking users for information in exchange for their free trial is essential to making the most of your marketing opportunities, but how much information is too much? Marketers have to ensure that registration processes aren’t so long and complicated that they lose potential subscribers.
In our survey, 51% had either a one- or two-page registration process. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, 12% required users to fill out five pages, and 7% used six or more pages. While there’s no benchmark showing exactly how many registrants you lose with a long form, it’s certain that you’ll lose some percentage with each additional page.
So, if you’re a site that currently uses five or more pages in your registration process, we recommend you test that process to minimize drop-offs. Chart: Cross-Promotion and Free Gifts During Trial Registration PagesSource: MarketingSherpa, ContentBiz 50 Audit, May 2007Methodology: MarketingSherpa analysts interacted with the marketing, merchandising and content of 50 content-based Web sites between May 15, 2007, and May 30, 2007. Sites were selected from small- to medium-size organizations distributed across a diversified group of sectors.
The registration process -- particularly on a final, “thank you” page -- offers an opportunity to pitch additional products or services, whether from your company or from your partners. The idea is that visitors who sign up for a free trial may be in the mood to accept other offers. In fact, MarketingSherpa’s analysis of its own newsletter registration pages found that 39% of visitors accepted another offer when presented with several options on a thank you page.
In our survey, 40% of the sites we visited employed some kind of cross-marketing during the registration process. Some of the most common offers:
o Free trials for additional subscription-based products from the same company. This was the most common offer we received, used by 42% of the sites that had cross-promotion in their registration process.
o Related offline products from the same company. For example, ChangeOne.com, the online dieting site from Reader’s Digest, offers new members the chance to buy their weight loss book.
o Products and services from partners. Typical offers included subscriptions to related magazines, such as an offer to subscribe to Investors Business Daily during our registration for TheStreet.com; and consumer products on B-to-C Web sites, such as offers for credit cards and identity theft protection services during the registration at AmericanGreetings.com.
o Discounts for immediate upgrades. eMusic offers trial registrants a 20% discount if they immediately upgrade to a paid annual subscription, rather than the basic monthly subscription offer.
If your focus is instead on making sure you convert visitors to free trial members, you can offer premiums or free gifts that encourage users to complete the registration process.
It’s a technique used by 14% of the sites we surveyed, including:
o CooksIllustrated.com, which offers trial registrants a free copy of its book, “2007 Buying Guide for Supermarket Ingredients.”
o ConsumerDirect.com, which offers a free book about maintaining good credit. Chart: Length of Free TrialsSource: MarketingSherpa, ContentBiz 50 Audit, May 2007Methodology: MarketingSherpa analysts interacted with the marketing, merchandising and content of 50 content-based Web sites between May 15, 2007, and May 30, 2007. Sites were selected from small- to medium-size organizations distributed across a diversified group of sectors.
How long to extend free access to a premium Web site is another question marketers have to answer individually, based on factors that include the nature of their sites, the type of content they offer, their audiences and competition in the marketplace.
But as the chart above shows, 14 days and 30 days were the most common trial periods offered by the sites surveyed. Alas, no patterns stood out that indicate one length tends to be more appropriate for B-to-C sites vs B-to-B sites or other particular types of content -- which means trial length is another area ripe for testing. You need to find the sweet spot that gives users enough time get comfortable with the site, and gives you enough time to market to them, without giving away so much content that you lose the potential for a sale.
Testing also should be an ongoing process. Britannica.com, for example, has changed its free trial subscription length over the years, testing both a three-day and 14-day trial in 2002 before moving to a seven-day trial currently.
That number is about to be tested again, Drewganis says, given the impact of other free trials in the marketplace: Britannica.com’s customer service team often hears from customer who weren’t paying close attention to their offer and assumed that the trial lasted for 14 or 30 days. “People just get used to a certain trial length based on other sites.”Chart: Cancellation ProceduresSource: MarketingSherpa, ContentBiz 50 Audit, May 2007Methodology: MarketingSherpa analysts interacted with the marketing, merchandising and content of 50 content-based Web sites between May 15, 2007, and May 30, 2007. Sites were selected from small- to medium-size organizations distributed across a diversified group of sectors.
Like any visitor testing a new site, we were curious to see how we could cancel a free trial before the designated period expired (and our credit card was charged). The results were mostly encouraging, from a usability/customer service standpoint, with a few exceptions.
The majority of sites (66%) allowed us to cancel by logging in to the Web site and typically involved accessing a members or subscribers tab and changing our preferences. Other sites had a customer service account to receive cancellation requests. But a few sites made it difficult for us to even figure out how to cancel our subscriptions, requiring us to make calls to customer service departments.
While some marketers said calls to a customer service representatives gave them a chance to try retaining those members, requiring a call can create confusion and frustration that could reflect badly on your brand: the ability to only call and cancel during certain hours, waiting on hold or learning there may be a delay of one to three days to process your cancellation request, for example. That experience isn’t compatible with a registration process that’s completely online, instantaneous and available whenever the user wants it.
Similarly, few sites took advantage of the cancellation process to learn exactly *why* trial members were canceling. Only 13% used a formal exit survey or otherwise asked questions about why we were canceling a trial -- which is a big mistake, say marketers who use exit surveys.
Hoerenz at eMusic uses an exit survey to ask users questions, such as why they are canceling and what other online music services they use or are considering. Typically, at least 50% of the canceling members fill out the survey, although at times his team has seen response rates as high as 75%.
The tactic offers a couple advantages, says Hoerenz:
#1. The ability to gather data on ways to improve your service. If a large percentage is citing technical problems as their reason for canceling, for example, you can focus on improving the site’s functionality.
#2. The chance to target engaged customers for future marketing. People who take the time to fill out a survey often are very invested in the service, even if they’re leaving because of some unhappiness with the system. “The fact they raise their hand to respond, they’re engaged with you, for better or for worse,” says Hoerenz.
Exit surveys are a good way to hear those active users’ complaints, and find people who may be willing to return if circumstances change or the right offer is made. As a result, customers who’ve canceled memberships and filled out the survey are twice as likely to renew their subscriptions. Type of Retention MethodsSource: MarketingSherpa, ContentBiz 50 Audit, May 2007
Methodology: MarketingSherpa analysts interacted with the marketing, merchandising and content of 50 content-based websites between May 15, 2007, and May 30, 2007. Sites were selected from small- to medium-size organizations distributed across a diversified group of sectors.
The reality of any free trial subscription marketing effort is that the majority of those users are going to cancel before becoming paid subscribers. But with all the effort spent on attracting visitors, why let those potential customers simply walk away after they’ve invested the time and effort to register for a trial?
That's what 44% of the sites surveyed appear to be doing by not making any kind of retention effort. Among the sites that *do* try to retain trial members, 43% took a soft-sell approach, asking users if they were sure they wanted to cancel their free trial or reminding users of all the benefits of a subscription before they click a final “cancel now” button.
13% tried to boost conversions with a free trial offer, such as a discount subscription rate, additional days of free membership, or other benefits. Yet the sites using such promotions say they’re a good way to gain incremental revenue from your free trial promotions.
Online research site Questia has a two-tiered approach to its free-trial retention efforts that are embedded into the online membership cancellation process. The first stage offers users the chance to suspend their membership for up to 90 days -- a reflection of the site’s student user base, which may not need research tools over the summer or after turning in a particularly big term paper during the semester.
About 5% of would-be cancellations are choosing the suspension option instead, says Adam Hanin, VP Consumer Sales and Marketing. And of that group, he estimates that 80% will be billed for at least one month once their suspension ends. In the meantime, the suspension option gives Questia the chance to continue marketing to those trial members via email.
For users who choose not to suspend a membership and still want to cancel, Questia offers a special rate of $19.95 for 90 days -- a discount from both the monthly rate of $19.95 and the quarterly subscription rate of $49.95.
Roughly 0.5% of Questia’s cancellers take the special offer, which might not have a huge impact right away, but allows them to maintain a relationship with those customers. “I’d rather collect a dollar from you than collect nothing. And we’re hoping that by keeping you around longer, we’ll convince you to stick with us.” Useful links related to this article
Creative samples from subscription sites: