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Offering free trials: Everything you need to know

What is a free trial, what are the benefits, how to set it up, and who has succeeded thanks to this pricing model

Before the explosion of the freemium model, free trials were the standard way of allowing users to try a software product before deciding to make a purchase. Most people are reluctant to part with money unless they are sure a product will suit their needs. Both, free trials and freemium products are a way to allow for that. So, are free trials still worth it in the age of freemium?

What is a free trial?

A free trial is a version of your product that is limited in some important way, but provided for free to customers. Most often, the limitation is that the trial expires after a certain time period. Some free trials choose to prevent the user from saving files, or otherwise making the software unusable beyond the purposes of evaluation. This differs from freemium products, which are fully useable, but not as feature rich as the premium versions they serve as a user acquisition tool for.

What are the benefits of offering a free trial?

Freemium is the new kid on the block and, as such, tends to be favored by many over the more traditional free trial. But is this the correct decision? Is freemium just the latest trend, removing the benefits of free trials and providing nothing in return? No. But that doesn't mean there aren't trade-offs or that freemium is automatically the best choice. There's an ongoing debate in the industry about the relative merits of freemium vs free trials. But free trials still offer the same benefits they always have:

Improves conversion rate

Showing a potential customer that your product fits their needs will reduce their reluctance to make a purchase and increase your conversion rate in the process. 

Increases customer satisfaction

If your product isn't a fit for the customer's needs, the best time for them to find out is before they give you money.  A free trial guarantees you a baseline level of customer satisfaction right from the start.

Lets customers "try before they buy"

There are often a lot of choices for potential customers. Giving them a chance to try your product as part of their decision-making process makes that choice easier for them.

Shows off your confidence in the product

If you know you have the best solution to your target audience's pain points, there's no reason not to show them, rather than telling them. Free trials communicate this confidence to users and increase the likelihood they'll trust you.

4 things to keep in mind before offering a free trial to your customers

Like anything in business, a free trial will lose its effectiveness if it's implemented without any forethought. When designing your free trial, there are several factors to consider:

1. Payment information

Some free trials simply expire when their time limit is up and require the user to pay before they can use the software again. Others automatically bill the customer after the trial is up unless they cancel first. The latter can be a good way to increase conversions, but be sure to be upfront about when they will be billed and make cancellation easy.

2. Limitations

The most important thing to consider is what limitations you'll place on the trial. As stated previously, most are time limited. Some are crippled to the point that users can see how the software functions, but not make productive use of those functions until they pay. In most cases, time-limiting works best because it gives users the full experience.

3. Trial period

Most free trials last two to four weeks before they expire and the customer is expected to pay. If you give them too little time, they may not realize the full potential of the product. Too much time, and you're not only delaying payment, but run the risk that they'll be able to use the product until they no longer need it and you get nothing.

4. Onboarding time

How long does it take a customer to learn your product? This is an important question when determining how long to make the free trial last. A shorter trial will work for products that can be productively used right away. Those with a higher learning curve should allow the customer more time. 

Top free trial examples

Some of today's biggest brands used free trials to build themselves into the giants they are today. 

Netflix free trial

When Netflix first started, they were a DVD rental service that delivered the discs via mail. As this was a new paradigm in DVD rental, free trials allowed customers to see how the service worked before spending any money.

Hulu free trial

YouTube had been around for a while, but Hulu was one of the first to offer streaming services for content produced by major studios. Again, this new paradigm shift benefited from letting users try it for themselves for free.

Amazon Prime free trial

Free trials were especially important early in Amazon Prime's life. At the time, the service required payment on a yearly basis. The comparatively larger initial expense proved its worth by allowing customers to try it free for a period of time.

Audible free trial

Audible is many people's first exposure to audio books. Are they as enjoyable and engaging as their text-based counterparts? Audible's free trial allows potential customers to answer that question for themselves.

NordVPN free trial  

As privacy concerns become more prevalent, interest in VPNs has risen. By offering a free trial, NordVPN allows customers to see just how easy it is to setup and use these services.

Stay on top of your trial metrics for free with ProfitWell Metrics

ProfitWell Metrics, by Paddle, is a free analytics tool that was specially designed with SaaS companies in mind. One of the metrics it can track is the usage of free trials. This allows businesses to get hard data on what the conversion rate for their free trial is. 


What can you do with your abandonment metrics?

By tracking as much of your user's interactions as possible and comparing that with customers who allow their trial to lapse, you can glean keen insights that will help you improve your conversion rate.

  • Evaluate - Using the data provided by ProfitWell Metrics, you can compare users who choose to upgrade with those who don't. Is your free trial failing to reach a certain demographic? Are users who don't upgrade not utilizing certain features? Answers to these questions can change your approach to marketing and alert you to missed opportunities to highlight certain features.
  • Introduce smart incentives - Typical incentives for free trials include extra time for referring to friends, a cheaper price for those who cancel, a discount on a higher-priced tier of the product, and more. Analytics about who is not converting and why will help you tailor these incentives to the people who most need that extra push. 
  • Consider changes to product features - With analytics, you can examine how users are engaging with your software. This can help you to identify pain points in the user's experience. While this information is always helpful in determining how to add or make changes to features, focusing on problems with those failing to convert provides a good starting point for what to prioritize to make the most impact on conversion rates. 

Free trial FAQs

What is the difference between a free trial and a freemium?

While freemium may lack features that are present in the premium version of a product, it still provides the user with a complete experience. They can make full use of the features it does have for an unlimited amount of time, for free. Free trials prevent this. They either expire or otherwise limit the software so users can get a feel for what it can do without having unlimited access to any of its features. 

How long should a free trial last?

The length of a free trial should be as short as possible to show the customer what your product can do. Common time frames are 7, 14, and 30 days. The time you choose for your software should depend on how quickly they can get up to speed. A trial should not end before the customer has had a chance to learn about and explore the key features of the software.

Are free trials worth it?

Yes. When properly designed, free trials can increase both conversions and customer satisfaction. 

Related reading

The pricing strategy guide: Choosing pricing strategies that grow (not sink) your business
Everything you need to know about freemium in 2023
Pricing methods: How to choose the right product pricing method for your business