Gini Dietrich

eCommerce Marketing: Do Free Trials Work?

By: Gini Dietrich | March 30, 2011 | 

I was talking to Erik Hare yesterday about how we both have blog posts in some sort of process for days, sometimes even weeks. I’ve already written shells of the blog posts for Friday, Sunday, and Monday. And I have a half-written guest post for Troy Claus.

Typically, I walk Jack Bauer and I think about that day’s intro (and also curse Marcus Sheridan because I know he’s still asleep…long after I finish my the walk AND my writing).

But today? Today I have nothing. I mean, literally nothing.

So what do I do for inspiration? I head over to the Harvard Business Review blogs. I’m sure to find something there.

Let’s see if I’m right.

There is a lot on the “problem” of entrepreneurship in America and quite a bit on failure.

Been there, done that.

There are a couple of pieces on the New York Times paywall and one of them is from Alexandra Samuel (who I love). That could be interesting.

Even the 10 most popular aren’t really striking my fancy.

No. I know the reason I’m not creative this morning and maybe you can help.

Yesterday we spent more than half our day discussing ecommerce pricing. We’re really stabbing in the dark here because no one on the team is an ecommerce marketer. And do you know, NO ONE writes about it (I’ll soon change that)?!

No. I found leaked information on how AOL makes their money. How to market to people who abandon the cart. Lots on the legalities of doing business online (who knew you have to learn an entirely different language?). Even information on using an outside email marketing company to deliver your information (vs. keeping it inside your content management system). BTW, TJ McCue wrote that article and doesn’t make a recommendation in there, but I saw him comment on a blog that he was most impressed with StreamSend.

But I can’t find anything on whether or not to give free trials. How long to give free trials. What to offer in the free trial. Whether or not to get credit card information before giving a free trial. The stats on who leaves a site if they’re asked for their credit card number before gaining access to a free trial. The conversion rates on free trials to subscriptions. Not even stats on who even comes back to the site after registering for a free trial.

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

In our focus group of two, Lisa Gerber says, if a site asks for her credit card information before giving her a free trial, she leaves the site. And I say, if they ask, I give it, test the crap out of the free trial, and then decide whether or not I’m going to cancel.

So, you see, we can’t come to a consensus.

What do I do when I can’t find information that is eventually going to be valuable to you? I ask YOU!

You tell us. What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • KenMueller

    I’m with Lisa. Just happened to me this morning. An organization that I love emailed me and offered a report. I wasn’t sure what it was, so I clicked through, mostly because it seemed relevant and, like i said, I love the company. Nowhere in the email was there any mention of money. Nor on the landing page. I filled in my info, and then saw that the submit button was a paypal button. I thought, what the heck, I’ll click and see what they were charging. Ding! $1400!!! With no warning. I abandoned my cart fast.

    In general, I need to see a free trial. As a small business, i don’t have the income to throw around testing various enterprise solutions. Give me a 30-day free trial (with FULL features) and THEN I’ll decide. That’s how I came upon Clicky Stats, which I love. One of the best analytics tools out there, and even the paid version is cheap. But the free-trial hooked me. It was full featured and there was no small print.

    I don’t want to be bothered with entering credit card info and then having the onus on me to cancel. Prove yourself. If you’re that good, I’ll pay.

  • KenMueller

    and yes, I agreed with Lisa and not you, Gini. Man I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt me. At least we still have the toilet paper!

  • ginidietrich

    @KenMueller I think your example of the report is completely different – that sounds like they were trying to pull one over on you. I don’t like that one bit! But I hear you on your second paragraph. I’m totally cool with you not agreeing with me. As long as we still have the toilet paper!

  • KenMueller

    @ginidietrich yes, a report is different, but the way it was presented, it seemed like something a bit different. It surprised me for this company.

  • ginidietrich

    @KenMueller Yeah – that would be totally surprising to me. Don’t act like there’s not a charge only to whop people with a fee. I’d be curious to know what their shopping card abandon rate is.

  • Depends on what you’re selling Gini.

    I think the whole Premium model really depends on what you are selling. It works brilliantly for apps. we all use free apps and choose to upgrade if we want. Some give us 30 days free trials, other unlimited and we can always upgrade.

    When it comes to expertise and people’s time, I dont believe free trials offer any value, quite the opposite. A report, ebook, should all be paid for, upfront. Saying that I just made the move to pay for HBR online after years of reading it for free.

    This brings us back to paying for content and why I think people should pay for ideas and learning how to implement them.

    Now @KenMueller is right, trapping and ambushing people should only work if you are a mob hit man, not if you are trying to sell a product to a customer.

  • HowieSPM

    I agree with Lisa. But here is my viewpoint. It is similar to White Papers. Make the user give you enough information to ensure future contact. Then do what Norton Anti Virus does. Have a pop up or reminder the trial is ending and to keep going they need to pay and here is what they will lose.

    If they do not sign up ask for a short RELEVANT survey of why. I capitalized relevant because often they aren’t and I wonder who wrote the survey questions. They should be from the user viewpoint not what the sellers thinks it should be. As we all know Surveys often turn out garbage from poor wording or bias of wanting a result.

    Lastly track the usage on the site. No one cares about a company recording what we do with clicks on their own site. Its across sites we get freaked out.

    Now you have a big data set. You have 1] Contact info. 2] Why they left (price? utility? bad user interface? Not offering something they expected?) and the data for what they did on your site.

    You can easily find modules that frustrate because many users act the same, as well as what people love the most and expand on that,.

    My Buck Two Fitty Invoice is in the mail.

  • HowieSPM

    @johnfalchetto @KenMueller I agree John for certain products/services should be paid for up front. With the kicker of if you know the user will find true value and benefit once they do a free trial…then you will have a lot o conversions. It also is not as much about product as the user. There needs to be a match. How do you reduce the number of free trials from people who aren’t a fit for your product and sometimes a fee up front will do that.

  • KenMueller

    @HowieSPM @johnfalchetto like a lot of online things it comes down to properly communicating and managing expectations. I can’t tell you how often I get emails from big name companies that are respected in the industry, and they tell me about some new software or enterprise solution, and I can’t figure out what the heck it does! Give me a short video or tutorial that shows me how it works, what it will do for me, and what the interface looks like. That would help me decide whether it’s a fit for me. Don’t leave me guessing.

  • ginidietrich

    @johnfalchetto I just did the same with HBR! And don’t think you weren’t in my head during our meeting yesterday. I guess what we’re really trying to decide is what do we offer the people who’ve never heard of us? Is the blog enough (it won’t change and will always be free) to engage them and give them what they need to make a purchase decision? Perhaps it is.

  • ginidietrich

    @HowieSPM Please send your invoice, and yourself, to my office ASAP.

  • For me, I tend to lean on Lisa’s side of the fence as well. If I’m asked for my credit card beforehand it gives me the sense that they don’t think their product is good enough for me to want it after I use it and they’re banking on me forgetting to jump through the cancel hoops. That might just be me jaded from free issues of Entertainment Weekly, but the point usually holds.

    If what you’re putting out there is of the highest quality, useful and what I need, you bet your ass you’ll get my card info after the trial, but don’t lean on it up front.

    On the other side of the coin, I agree with everything @HowieSPM said about tracking and he actually stole all my thunder as those were the points I was going to bring up. There are a plethora of ways to track the use and usefulness of sending out a trial without getting credit card numbers up front.

  • @HowieSPM Amen

  • @ginidietrich I agree with dannybrown on this, the blog is the shop front and should remain free.

    If you start giving away more where do you draw the line? Again I think we need to make a big difference between apps. and content, or products vs. expertise.

  • I’m with Lisa, I think it’s one more barrier. More so than that I have done this before and they make you call to cancel and you typically have to jump through a million hoops to actually cancel and not get charged. Personally, this has made me nervous and apprehensive about sharing my credit card for a “free trial” because if it is free…then why should I share my credit card? The payment part should come if I like the product which if I do, I will want to give you my credit card information and continue using the service/product.

    This is just me though, I am interested to see what others say. (And for the record…I DISAGREE with you on this one…haha something besides blue cheese that we disagree on!)

  • HowieSPM

    @joey_strawn don’t worry Joey. You still have the Thunder. I am from NY. We steal Thunda!

  • write4unj

    I agree with Lisa — if it’s free, it’s free. I refuse to give out my credit card number unless I’m actually buying something. Too many companies make it too hard to cancel and hope you’ll just give up. Or they don’t notify you that it’s the end of the trial period and just start billing you. As far as whether to offer a free trial, it depends what is being offered. For a book or report it wouldn’t make sense. But for a system or process, it would. If a free trial will help “enchant” people (as Guy Kawasaki suggests), then do it.

  • BobReed

    I’m a fan of the test drive. I downloaded Apple’s photo software, Aperture on Monday. Apple is giving me 30 days gratis, and as previous posts have stated, Apple reminds me of how many days I have left until all the potential goodness I’m playing with goes away. The opposite is a site like Third Tribe — $97 bucks up front and $47 every month after. It tells me what I’m getting, but I’d rather know what I’ll really get based on a month of actual experience. Show me first, ask me later.

  • sydcon_mktg

    I have to say, I am with Lisa on this too!

    We discourage our e-commerce clients from taking info they dont actually NEED! If it’s a free trial, you dont *need* the card info. Many of our clients ask about not being responsible for stored credit card numbers, which is something to consider. How is your database structured? If you collect numbers, are they encrypted, we are amazed when potential new customers say other developers have access to the numbers or we take over a site that has card numbers not encrypted. With privacy and safety concerns all around, not requiring someone to put the number out there until they are ready to purchase is a safety net consumers appreciate.

    While I don’t always leave sites that ask for it for free trials (it depends on the product and if it’s something we are seriously considering, what other options are out there, etc) it certianly makes me think twice about participating in the trial. I cant stand having to set reminders on my calender to make sure I cancel so I dont get charged later if I don’t like it.

    I like Howie’s ideas on using pop-up reminders as well as a survey if someone decides to not continue (especially on a new launch). If we have a new e-commerce customer, the most important thing we recommend is building your database with useful information, as Howie suggested!

  • rustyspeidel

    Content is a tricky sell these days. Most folks can get 90% of what they THINK they need for free, so they are loathe to pay up front for anything. In my experience, successful long-term monetization comes from selling a whole content experience (almost like SaaS), not just one-off papers, books, webinars, etc. tied to a single topic. Sure those sell, but if you really want to get recurring revenue you have to provide a comprehensive solution to a problem, or better yet a passion. Tools and products to help people really take actionable steps in their businesses are worth paying for, I can tell you for sure.

    I’d have three levels: free, $XX/month for limited content and resources, and $2XX or $3XX for total access. Customers can upgrade or downgrade whenever they want, depending on their needs, and the paths and value derived should be totally transparent. You could also set monthly limits (# accesses a month, # downloads, # logins, ability to save/print/forward, etc.) per tier. This puts a lot of pressure on the tools to be truly great, though. That way, strangers can try the base services without risk, and you can earn their loyalty through quality content and tools. Examples include accounting software, fitness tracking tools, project management suites, photo sharing tools, etc.

    I also totally agree with the stuff Howie thinks you should be collecting–right on.

  • Sorry to jump in so late here Gini but I just woke up 😉

    Sounds like I could fit well on your team though. If there’s one place where I’m a complete dufus, it’s with ecommerce.

    Notwithstanding, free trials should be the model, IMO, if it’s an option.


  • Frist, thank you! I always point to the scene in “Amadeus” when Mozart is asked to produce the piece that is due shortly. “It’s done!” he proclaims. “Where is it?” is the natural response. “Right here,” Mozart concludes with a tap on his temple, “In my noodle.”

    This anecdote is very useful, not only because it does explain my process for writing. It’s also a great excuse for procrastination and, when pressed, a claim to genius. 🙂

    But on the topic of the day – do free giveaways really encourage return customers? There isn’t a business that doesn’t sweat this topic. I can tell you that the smaller the business the more likely they are to say, “No, coupons are nothing but trouble and they don’t get you anything other than the people who go from one coupon to the next and never come back.” Because I work with small businesses I tend to think they are the wisest on these things, but the truth is that they usually have a more personal connection with customers that a bigger biz only dreams of having.

    I think the short answer is that the real return from free trials, coupons, and so on is probably terrible. The lack of good data alone is reason to pause in my humble and rather skeptical opinion.

  • ginidietrich

    @Marcus_Sheridan LOL! Brat! So you could join the team and we’ll all look at each other and wonder about ecommerce. Awesome!

  • ginidietrich

    @joey_strawn @HowieSPM Now my head hurts again.

  • ginidietrich

    @rachaelseda Lisa is LOVING that everyone agrees with her. She said, “I’m kicking your ass!” Ouch.

  • ginidietrich

    @write4unj This is actually really helpful because, the way you describe, it sounds really unethical. And that is something we’re not. Thanks for bringing a different bent!

  • ginidietrich

    @BobReed So you didn’t have to give your credit card number to Apple to test drive?

  • ginidietrich

    @sydcon_mktg I might have to hire you to come in for a couple of days and help us think this through, Jen!

  • @ginidietrich I can’t believe how many points you have. I should start considering a point cap until I catch up 😛

  • ginidietrich

    @jkretch What?! No caps!! You’d better just start commenting on more blogs.

  • @ginidietrich @Marcus_Sheridan I sell lessons for $9.97 per month…

  • BobReed

    Not at all. Just downloaded like any other free app.

  • C_Pappas

    The title of this blog really caught my eye because it contianed the word ‘ecommerce’. Now I understand it can have a few meanings but none of which, to me anyways, would involve a free trial. Ecommerce to me means online shopping, as in clothes, shoes, accessories, books, etc. Not in other instances where you can purchase software online or subscriptions to things like Livefyre, for example, this makes sense (I just have not associated them with ecommerce).

    There are 2 things that I have almost fallen for. First, its the free trial scheme. Usually they ask for a credit card because when your trial expires, the charges kick in and you are now a customer, not a trial’r (I dont think thats a word 🙂 ). I have actually done it once in the past year and kicked myself really hard in th butt when the charge hit my card because I forgot to shut it down. I was then ‘committed’ to a month. UGH.

    The other is these banners that fly around offering $25 to Applebees and other restaurants – for free. Oh, just give us your credit card, home address and your cell phone # so we can blast you with SMS ads. I usually get to step 4, spend all kinds of time filling things in until they ask for something I really dont want to give them.

    We give a free trial on our site so people can experience the software. Its for 14 days and we dont require anything other than name, company, email, etc. I think that free trials are great for companies to use on their site and in nurturing. Its one asset that clearly identifies an intent to strongly consider and possibly purchase a solution. But I dont think there should be a commitment from the consumer. If they are asking for a credit card, they are already calculating the percentage of people that will forget to decline the offer and get charged.

  • Lisa Gerber

    @ginidietrich @sydcon_mktg Love this idea.

  • dino_dogan

    This is an area that I think A LOT about. There are indeed many facets in getting it rght, but two basic principles that you coud follow are these.

    1. Is there someone else doing/offering similar service/product? If yes, use their system, test it and be very cognizant of wha parts of the system create friction in your brain-heart and which parts of the system suck you in further without you even noticing any amount of friction.

    2. If no one is doing something similar, go with your gut and expect to make mistakes, forgive yourself and move on.

    I could fill pages on this topic but I’ll hold back 🙂

  • sydcon_mktg

    @Lisa Gerber @ginidietrich Works for us!! 🙂

  • rustyspeidel

    I like this model, for software that you can control the functionality of.

  • rustyspeidel

    @ginidietrich @rachaelseda Only you guys can make it a competition.

  • Lisa Gerber

    @rustyspeidel @rachaelseda that was EXACTLY my point when i told @ginidietrich that I was kicking her ass. : ) everything is a competition.

  • Gazingforth

    Why not find the perfect middle ground? Have an initial free trial period, and if they want to continue the free trial, they have to give Credit Card information. I have no idea if this is the most effective idea, but it would keep people from being scared, and allow you to have the more solidified handle on your potential customers.

  • 3HatsComm

    Just agreeing with others that 1) I won’t give my CC up front and 2) I need that trial period to see what works, what doesn’t, if it improves my workflows, if I need support, if they have decent support and so on. It does vary per what the item is; is it software, is it content? That will impact how I use it on a regular basis, my ROI. Interesting to see what data you find, FWIW.

  • ginidietrich

    @Lisa Gerber @rustyspeidel @rachaelseda When you work here EVERYTHING is a competition!

  • ginidietrich

    @rustyspeidel But you don’t like it if it’s, say, content?

  • ginidietrich

    @DannyBrown Tell me about the $9.97, Danny. Why did you choose the price point? Why not $9.98 or $9.99?

  • @ginidietrich @DannyBrown Because 7 sounds sexy. I’m pretty sure that’s the scientific reason, although I’m no scientist. I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once in my life though.

  • @ginidietrich Because it’s more than 6, and 5 is just neither here nor there.

  • TJMcCue

    Hi Gini! Have you looked at MarketingSherpa? I thought I saw a report that included just what you’re looking for. I’ll try and check later tonight.


    p.s. Thanks for the shoutout.

  • @ginidietrich @Lisa Gerber @rustyspeidel @rachaelseda Bahaha too funny!! I love it! I’d hate to see a company dodge ball game.

  • ginidietrich

    @TJMcCue I hadn’t gone to MarketingSherpa – I’ll do that now. Thanks!

  • ginidietrich

    @3HatsComm I think I’m going to concede this point and move ahead with the free trial, no credit card.

  • ginidietrich

    @Gazingforth I think that’s exactly what we’re going to do!

  • ginidietrich

    @dino_dogan WTH?! Why would you hold back NOW?!

  • @ginidietrich @3HatsComm The consensus on that point seems overwhelming! I agree with @HowieSPM and his suggestion of a pop-up once your free trial period expires…very nice. I do NOT like to pay for a free trial. That’s not a free trial, that’s a delayed payment.

    And I think this competition thing between you and @Lisa Gerber is a LOT like my love of contests. Just sayin’.

  • ginidietrich

    @C_Pappas I have to tell you, Christina, this is really, really helpful. It’s interesting to hear your perspective on ecommerce and better understand how ZMags charges. I may hit you up offline for some info…in exchange for some books!

  • ginidietrich

    @wabbitoid I’d forgotten that scene in Amadeus. Hilarious! Anyone who works with me knows I’m notorious for pressing my index finger between my eyes when I’m thinking. Now I’m going to say I’m massing the noodle! LOL

  • ginidietrich

    @DannyBrown I don’t know. I think I like @joey_strawn reason better.

  • ginidietrich

    @rustyspeidel You make my head hurt. I’ve been thinking on this all day. I’m not sure this totally works because of the workflow, but I do like the idea of different tiers. Hmmm….

  • ginidietrich

    @EricaAllison @3HatsComm @HowieSPM @Lisa Gerber And the lucky thing for all of you? You know I’ll blog about all of these decisions and what worked (and didn’t). So thank you for your honesty!

  • @ginidietrich @3HatsComm @HowieSPM @Lisa Gerber That’s why we keep coming back for more!

  • dino_dogan

    @ginidietrich lol…always leave them wanting more, right? Thats the old timey show biz saying.

    But seriously, its a very broad topic and it would put a normal person to sleep. There are many moving parts and best way to talk about it is to focus on a specific set of variables which are applicable to the client’s scenario.

  • ginidietrich

    @dino_dogan Are you saying I’m not normal?!

  • @ginidietrich While you’re over there, feel free to check this little piece out 🙂

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  • ginidietrich

    @DannyBrown Grazi

  • I’m late to the game (thanks to my wicked cool vacation week), but since I know you value my opinion above all others, I’m here to give it.

    Seriously, though. I’m with Lisa.

    Not only that, from a usability and abandonment standpoint, ask for as little info as you truly need in order to trigger the free trial (likely just name and e-mail address). You can gather the rest when they actually sign up. Then focus on driving incredible value into the product.

    You’ll also need to identify and develop the personas of your prospective customers, and have buying triggers and messages fully formed for each one, so you can e-mail market to the trial customers with distinct messages (if possible). We recently went through this.

  • This allows you to measure the effectiveness of your total marketing program including getting new visitors, web site design, customer service and after sales marketing.