Free Trials Aren’t What They Used to Be

An important aspect of Demand Generation are the offers: what will your prospects register for? A popular offer for software vendors is the free trial. I read an interesting article on the decreasing effectiveness of free trials as a lead generation tool in the DemandGen Report. In the article Howard Sewell says that free trials “eliminate a huge subset of potential customers at the outset—people who (…) simply don’t want to expend the time or hassle downloading, installing and evaluating the actual product.” Very true.

Over 100,000 Downloads!

In my previous job I managed to get over 100,000 trial downloads. The frustrating thing was: very few prospects managed to use it successfully, so the conversion rate to paying customers was almost too low to measure, maybe 0.02% or so. And as a marketing manager I did not have control over the product experience. Very frustrating.

Developers or End-Users?

The product I promoted was used by developers. They tend to insist on trying out a product, so we had no option but to keep the free trial. Trials that are started by end-users are a different story though. Especially software-as-a-service (SaaS) products seem so simple! Even end-users get the impression that they can use the product in just 5 minutes. And that’s where free trials can really backfire.

Alternatives for Free Trials

The article mentions alternatives, like trials with limited functionality, single-user trials or shared online demo systems that are wiped every night. I think the issue with all these options is that prospects still have to learn the product, which takes time and effort. The other three solutions were interesting though: ROI tools, free consulting offers and paid pilots.

ROI Tools

ROI tools are probably more for decision makers than for product users. But if you don’t have an ROI tool yet, it may be a good idea to develop one. It doesn’t have to be a fancy web application: it could be as simple as a spreadsheet. It is useful to convince the decision makers, but I’m not sure if people who are interested in a trial will be totally satisfied with it.

Free Consulting offers

I see this as a version of the “free initial consultation” offer at most law firms. If a lawyer expects to get 10 billable hours after a 30-minute free consultation, a consulting or software firm may expect 20 billable days after 1 day of free consulting (as an example). The challenge is to qualify prospects well, to avoid providing free services to unqualified prospects.

Paid Trial

This is the alternative I like best, thinking from the vendor’s perspective. The customer pays money for the service, but can opt-out at any time in the 2-3 months of the trial. Even if they abort the trial they get useful deliverables, so it’s not waisted money. However, it serves a different function from a free trial: at the free trial stage, prospects are typically still comparing multiple vendors. With a paid trial the customer has already chosen a solution. So from the customer’s perspective a paid trial is not a good alternative to a free trial.

Other Ideas: Demos & Training

Other possible trial replacements that are not mentioned in the DemandGen article are recorded product demos and live product demonstrations. It may not be as “real-life” as working with the system yourself, but it still gives a good idea of the features of the product.

One strategy that has worked well for me is offering affordable online product training. Prospects pay a fairly low fee to learn the product. I believe we charged $400 for 10 hours of training. The fee covers the cost of the trainer. We simply used the revenue to pay our consulting department to deliver the training. And for highly qualified prospects we sometimes waived the training fee.

And If You Still Do a Free Trial…

In addition to making the product as user-friendly as possible, you could consider to provide sample projects, so prospect don’t have to set up the system. They can start playing right away.

Another suggestion is to do a manual qualification before granting someone access to a free trial. Prospects with the right skills and knowledge are more likely to be successful with a demo.

I also like Norm Bellisario’s suggestion to measure how far prospects get with the trial. If there are signs they got stuck (e.g. they didn’t login for a couple of days) you could kick off a lead nurturing program or send a notification to the sales and support teams.


Reduced attractiveness of free trial offers is a big issue for SaaS companies. There are many alternatives, but not all proposed solutions are a full replacement for trials, both from the vendor’s and the prospect’s perspective. But I hope that some of the suggestions in this article are useful for you. Let me know what you think!

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11 thoughts on “Free Trials Aren’t What They Used to Be

  1. David Raab

    Great ideas. In my experience, the most important factor in free trial success is a good tutorial that leads the user through a specific project. This should be accompanied by sample data, either preloaded or not. That way users get to see exactly what the system can do without the frustrating trial-and-error of trying to work without any training. We all know they won’t read a manual even if you give it to them!

  2. Steven Woods

    great points – it’s interesting how many prospects want a free trial, but aren’t clear on exactly what they hope to get out of it. Ensuring that the experience is a good one is crucial, but you hit on some great points as to why an unguided free trial is not always the best.

    If it’s proving a business case, a pilot may be better. If it’s making sure they system is stable and reliable, customer references can often be better. If it’s ensuring that the user experience is top notch (when actually using the product to run your business), a money back guarantee is often a better technique.

    Thanks for bringing up another important topic for discussion.

  3. Jep Castelein Post author

    Steve, this also reminds me of the awareness, discovery and validation phases in the buying process, which you described in your ‘Digital Body Language’ book. Each stage has offers that are suitable for that particular stage.

  4. Sam Boonin

    I agree with David that a well-crafted tutorial with demo data can be effective. Often in SaaS comapanies, the burden is on the marketing team to deliver this – engineering will push back. “Demos aren’t a part of the product” is a typical refrain.

    I try to explain to engineers that this is a perfect opportunity to script first customer experience – a killer tutorial or set of demos will set customers off in the right direction.

    Good consumer software companies have always done this well (check out Apple iWork and Aperture for examples). SaaS companies are catching up as well.


  5. Dale Underwood

    This is a good post Jep. Here’s my 2 cents….

    In B2B selling situations that require sales/customer interaction to move through the sales process, I think many companies make the mistake of trying to sell the product on the website instead of selling the conversation with sales. Screen shots, recorded “how it works” videos and the like may actually reduce conversions. Leave some meat on the bone for sales.

    I like the idea of a Paid Trial. One way we do this is by establishing a “Setup Fee” that is deferred until the trial is over. It is only charged if the customer wants to proceed. The goal is to put value on the trial without actually making a company pay upfront and also to weed out casual prospects.

    Also, it bugs me when a company is obviously pushing a “Free Demo” but they don’t have any way for me to understand what it will cost in the future if I decide to use it. I simply abandon those sites.

    I wrote a post “Why Free Trials Aren’t” ( and you touched on it when you mentioned that time and effort are not free, they cost money. If you can help a customer generate real results at the same time you do a trial then you have a win-win.

    Dale – EchoQuote

  6. Adam Needles

    This is a great thread. Appreciate everyone’s comments and point-of-view on this.

    The major issue I see around free trials is context — or, at least, the frequent lack of it. Just giving someone carte blanche on your product without a guided tour that takes into account the prospect’s needs and how this maps to capabilities can be perilous. This speaks to the point David raises, above. That’s why I’m a big fan of this guided tour approach. The trial needs to be packaged with high-touch pre-sales support that places the product trial in context and that focuses testing/trial on the capabilities that directly map to buyer needs.

    I think it is also interesting to think about diagnostics as a precursor to a trial — which you touch on a bit, above, Jep. Maybe the issue in the buyer education proces you need to focus on is not well addressed by the trial, per se. So you need additional tools in your belt. This touches on Steve’s comments, as well. The free trial is not a panacea.

    Great dialogue, Jep. Thanks for launching this thread. For anyone in B2B software marketing, this is a key topic we need to be addressing right now.

  7. Adam Blitzer

    I agree with Steven’s comment above. A pilot is great because it ensures that the client and the vendor have equal skin in the game. The client is presumably paying for the service and has a vested interest in getting things up and running quickly. The vendor has the responsbility of keeping the client engaged beyond the pilot period and will not no doubt put its best foot forward in terms of services and support. This would seem to be the best possible arrangement for both sides, with limited risk for each.

  8. Pingback: Are Paid Pilots or Free Trials Better for B2B? « B2B Marketing ROI

  9. Vaibhav Domkundwar -

    This is a pressing issue in B2B and the discussion above really covers some valuable points.

    What we have seen is that free trials or reduced fee pilots are most effective when the need/pain point etc. is clearly discussed and the expectations from the pilot/trial are very clear. This ensures that the prospect is positioned to evaluate the product or service based on specific criterion and at the end of it a decision can be made.

    Another aspect is that self-service trials rarely work well in B2B because (1) context and expectation setting is critical (2) setup and trial of the product or solution in a way that the prospect sees the true value is tough to achieve in a self-service fashion.

    Having said that free trial/pilot is the best sales tool and we have seen a much stronger conversion with them rather than having to push hard on making prospects commit to buying before trying. Making them try is much easier and if the trial is done right and you exceed their expectations, the prospects will definitely come back to you sooner or later.

  10. Jep Castelein Post author

    Thank you all for pitching in. It seems that there is a clear need to improve free trial offers, but that you can make free trials work if you set it up properly (e.g. by pre-qualifying). And there are some interesting alternatives, with Dale at EchoQuote suggesting one of the most creative ones: an online pricing tool.

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