Designing a killer free trial for your SaaS product


Are you satisfied with your free trial to paid customer conversions? 

Not really? I know it’s frustrating: spending all this time and money to get people on your website and finally signing up for you app! And then… it’s like your free trial is a black hole that draws potential customers in: they never re-appear on the other side! What’s going on?

Should you change your free trial length? Offer 14 days instead of 30 days? Or maybe create a credit card wall upfront, in order to somehow better “qualify” users?

No, no, no. These are tactics that can solve part of your problems, but that’s not the main problem:

the main problem is that you don’t have a free trial strategy

Your free trial strategy should answer that question: How do you consistently move a user from being a new user of your product to being a paid customer?

The most common strategy (or lack thereof) I see in SaaS free trials is: dumping the new user in the product dashboard and hoping he will figure things out and buy your product in the end.

Hope is not a strategy.

And a free trial SHOULD NOT just be your product, offered for free during 30 days.

What free trials can be

When you create a free trial strategy, free trials can finally be what they were always intended to be: a conversion machine.

Instead of having your marketing website or a salesperson TELL what I can get, I can actually EXPERIENCE what I can get. I can see for myself if the product is a right fit, and I can show it to other people in my organization that it’s a great tool – all that before buying!

A free trial won’t do that by itself though. If you just dump the new user in your product dashboard with nothing clear to do next, the free trial is going to be a FAILURE MACHINE instead: it will take new users and transform them into inactive disappointed users.

A free trial can do much more, but you need to actively design it to achieve the results you want.

You need to actively design a free trial for it to engage your new users

By “actively” I mean your free trial is like a journey you want your user to go through. And you want to actively guide your user to go through success milestones (thanks Lincoln Murphy for this terrific concept). If at some point he can’t reach a success milestone and falls, you pick him up and gently indicate him how to achieve the next success milestone.

When he experienced enough success milestones with your product, you can assume he’s about as ready to buy as he will ever be. At that point, you can just ask for the sale. You have a new customer!

Does your free trial have a funnel?

You can’t dump your newly acquired users to your product and just leave them figuring things out by themselves. That would be cruel. Don’t do that.

Instead, see your free trial as a funnel, taking new users from the top and creating paid subscribers at the bottom. How can you move them from top to bottom? By answering this question, you can design a series of steps inside the funnel that brings your new users without fail to the bottom of the funnel: paying subscriber!


The free trial funnel is about them, not you

If you want your users to convert to paid customer, you have to solve for their success.

Solve for customer success

A successful user is highly correlated to a paid customer (provided you have qualified traffic at the beginning and not people who are not serious about buying from the beginning). So how do you solve for your customer success?

  1. your customer success is NOT your success – it’s important to realize we’re talking about what your customer envisions as his success. We’re not talking about your product success, whether customers use all the features, or what you think success should be for your customer.  It’s your customer’s idea of their success.
  2. How does success look like for your customers? Sometimes organizations are so focused on themselves and their product and how it does everything… that they forget that what matters in the end is the customer. What does success look like for the customer? Do you ask your new users what their objectives are with your product? If not, you should.
  3. Solve for customer success – Third, once you know what success looks like for your customers, you can start solving for that, by identifying steps that bring them towards that success.

It’s not “feature A, feature B, feature C”. It is “success A, success B, success C”. Your users are not motivated by your features. They’re motivated by what your features enable them to do (success in their work/life with your product). If you make the free trial funnel about you, then you make it harder for your users to connect the dots and decide whether they want to go further with you or not.

Don’t drown them into features. Show them the potential success that is waiting for them.

Treat every new potential customer for what he is: a potential customer

I see some companies having this hands-off attitude: “thanks for evaluating our product, let us know if you have any questions!”. Sorry my friend, it’s going to take a little more work than that. You have 30 days (or whatever your free trial length is) to convince your potential customer that he should give you his hard-earned money in exchange of your product. How can you design these 30 days to convert him from intrigued free trial user to convinced customer? Your free trial can help, only if you design it so.

Don’t leave it to chance. Get your user moving to the bottom of the funnel.

How to start moving your free trial users through the funnel

It starts from before the free trial…

Your marketing site sets the expectations. It tells your potential customer what to expect, and why he should trust you. This is not easy, as you often have only a couple of seconds to convince a prospect you have something good for him. Make these count.

Then you have the free trial signup form. Is it doing a good job of convincing the visitor to take action? Be careful not to have too big of an ask here: every form field has to be carefully thought of. Can you ask for some information later in the process? Do you really need that company name now? Or you can ask later, once the user already signed up and it becomes easier for him to invest a bit more time. Don’t underestimate other elements on that page, such as social proof, or a summary of the benefits your product provides for example.

… It continues with user onboarding…

SaaS companies are becoming more aware that their onboarding experience matters. What would be a meaningful first experience of your product? It doesn’t have to be complex, just a glimpse of the good times to come. Maybe you can just ask for a little bit of data before displaying something interesting to the user. Don’t make him work too much before giving him a reward. Otherwise, if it feels like too much work, and he doesn’t think it’s going to be worth it, he will leave.

…and it continues with ongoing engagement…

Onboarding is just the beginning though. Once a user is on board he has higher chances to stick around, but is it going to be enough? After a meaningful first experience, think of the next quest to accomplish: how can you make your user a little more successful than he is right now? What does he need to experience to feel that way? When you find that, that’s your next step. How can you make sure your user goes from activated (meaning he completed the onboarding process) to fully engaged with your product? Or maybe it’s a series of steps. But you need to actively bring him to this next step. How do you do that? Well in 2015 you have plenty of ways to do that: with in-app messages (intercom), with behavioral emails, and of course with your product UX.

… and it ends (for now) with the sale…

Hopefully if you managed to get your user to being fully engaged with your app, and the potential he sees outweighs the costs, he’s ready to buy. That means you can ask for the sale (whether in an email, by phone or pigeon courrier).

Your assignments for designing a killer free trial

Don’t rely on hope for converting your free trials to paid customers. Start designing your free trial today :

  1. What steps must a user go to in order to realize the value of your product? Write the steps down.
  2. How can you move your user from one step to the next one? Draw a flowchart to express the transitions for each step.

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