If you don’t do it right, free trials can feel scammy and weird. To build trust, here’s our suggestions for how to offer a free trial.
There has never not been a time when free stuff wasn’t enticing. “Getting something for nothing” is a well-known saying because the sentiment has existed for so long. Businesses of all sizes are aware of this and can leverage this knowledge to entice potential customers to show interest. But getting them to consciously bite after nibbling? Well, that’s where true enterprising skill comes in. Read on to delve deeper into “The Art of the Free Trial.”
Free Trials 101
It’s likely that we’ve all fallen prey to the “fourteen-day free trial”—you give your payment credentials upfront, swear you’ll cancel on day 13, and then… six months later… you’re still getting billed monthly. While this may work for online services and gym memberships, is it actually a free trial? And is it even ethical?
Technically, this marketing ploy is not a free trial because the customer is presented with a clear way to opt out at any time, and they are made aware that, if they don’t, they will be charged in the future for the services they are receiving. Thus there is inferred future transaction which nullifies the free aspect of the free trial. However, this kind of free trial is also totally legit and, if you play by the rules, not immoral.
In the case that the customer is not made aware that they will be charged or if there is not a clear way to opt out of the free trial, this isn’t actually a free trial either—it’s an unethical scam that consumers and card companies are growing wise to. In fact, last year, Mastercard announced a new policy that—in the case of free trials for physical products such as healthcare and skincare items—requires merchants to wait until the free trial has completed before prompting customers to authorize the charge.
All of that being said, the purest form of a free trial requires as little upfront information as possible, minimizes consumer risk, mitigates commitment, spurs curiosity, and eventually satisfies the customer to the point of purchase.
For online businesses that offer a free trial of their service, it’s nearly impossible to do so without procuring the potential customer’s payment information. Even reputable companies like Lynda, HBO, and Amazon ask for it upfront. However, some companies go against the trend and wait until the trail has lapsed before they prompt customers to commit. Adobe, for example, offers a free trial of their Creative Cloud suite for 7 days without upfront payment information.
While it may not technically be classified as a free trial, asking for payment information upfront is still the most common technique in the industry. The key to this method is transparency and a willingness to work with customers if they forget to cancel. Otherwise, potential customers will be very upset and your reputation as a trustworthy company may be tarnished.
If you choose to wait until the end of the free trial to ask for the money, selecting the right trial time is critical. If you wait too long, the novelty of the product may have worn off. If you don’t offer enough time, the customer may not experience the full breadth of the service.
If you offer a free trial of an expensive physical product (like a vacuum or a lawn mower), it’s understandably impossible to not ask for some form of collateral from potential customers. Otherwise, they could just keep the product and never pay for it out of forgetfulness or, in the worst case, malintent. If you are offering a free trial of a subscription physical product (like face cream or a teeth whitening system), opt for smaller “trial size” servings. The element to analyze when it comes to physical product free trials is the size and amount of the actual product, rather than the trial time window.
Since the free trial has gone through many iterations over the years, consumers are weary to agree to ones that feel risky. If your offer sounds too good to be true, it’s likely that shoppers will feel the same way. To ease apprehensive customers, make sure you use transparent language when pitching your free trial, otherwise your company may end up being named in a FTC legal complaint like the seven defendants that were sued in 2019 for misuse of the word “free.”
In the complaint filed with the US District Court, the defendants were advertising for a multitude of “risk free” trials and for using a false sense of urgency by telling customers that there was a limited supply of the product available. According to the complaint, “Once consumers enter this billing information, they are asked to place their order by clicking a brightly colored button labeled either ‘GET MY RISK FREE TRIAL’ or ‘CONTINUE.’ Unbeknownst to consumers, 15 days after they click… Defendants will charge consumers the full price of the product.”
The case was settled, but the FTC continues to crack down on free trial scams that aren’t forthright in their language and intent. With that in mind, make sure that cancellation options are apparent, and customers know the day that they will be charged.
Mitigate Trial Commitment
A hallmark piece of an effective free trial is minimal commitment paired with an impending point of action. The less commitment the better, however if there is too much time within the trial, the customer may not feel compelled to get the most out of it. Balancing these two elements is critical to the success of your free trial.
As previously mentioned, one way to do this is to pick the trial time and size of the product carefully. Another way to mitigate commitment is to limit the amount of information (personal or payment) that is required to commence the free trial. Simply asking for an email address or physical address should be enough to give customers a sample of what you have to offer.
While these kinds of free trials may create leads of lesser quality, they will help you gauge what level of commitment provides the best results. Split test your free trials to see what methods are more effective for your product and offer.
Free trials are often most effective in reaching people who are actively shopping for a product. Customers are exploring and comparing during this time so they are energetically engaging with products in a curious way. A good free trial should spur curiosity about what life would be like if the customer were to commit to the product they are sampling. That’s why they are trying it out after all—to see if it fixes their problems, makes them worse, or has a neutral effect. Keep this in mind as you design your free trial.
One way to capture the attention of your customers is to limit certain aspects of your product for those who commit. If you are offering a free trial of a service, reserve some features as part of the final product. If you are offering a free trial of a physical product, include any bonus features or complimenting products in the sale offer.
You can also keep customers interested through rich marketing that exemplifies the ease and experience of your product—whether it is digital or physical. Since customers will be in “comparison mode,” they will be looking at every part of the product proficiency through a critical lens.
Real (not fake or paid for) customer testimonials also work to spur curiosity about a product. Use these elements to pair your free trial campaigns with thoughtful marketing campaigns to capitalize on the customer experience.
In order to get your free trials to convert, they must sufficiently satisfy every aspect of the product experience that the customer expects. This means customers must have the right amount of time with a product and enough of it to get to know it enough to enjoy life with it more than their former status quo. A good way to make sure your trials convert is to find out what customers are expecting out of your product and how long they will invest without committing for a taste of those results.
Gone is the era of infomercials and gimmicky slogans (“Try now! Pay later!”). Nowadays, companies that offer a free trial are mindful, transparent, and reach customers on an authentic level—not a level built on a false sense of urgency. When you figure out what that looks like for your products, you’re ready to invite potential customers to come and give it a try.