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Product and Design | Nov 24 2020
Jessica Greene on June 26, 2019 (last modified on March 5, 2020) • 27 minute read
Of course, that’s easier said than done.
Getting people to provide their email address to get something for free is simple. Getting them to give up their money to continue using it: that’s the hard part.
To make the hard part a little less difficult, we asked professionals from 60 different SaaS companies to tell us what methods they’ve used to successfully increase their paid activation rates.
Most of our respondents work for SaaS products that cater to small and mid-sized businesses of up to 2,000 employees:
In total, they recommend eight major tips for converting trial users to paid customers—plus nearly two dozen different ways to put these tip into practice.
If you’re making changes to your free trial process to increase your conversion rate, it helps to know what a reasonable conversion rate to aim for is.
When we asked our respondents about the paid activation rate for their free trials, nearly half said it was between 2-10%, almost a third said it was between 11-30%, and close to one-fifth said between 31-50%+.
One reason for the variation in these responses could be that it combines data from three different types of free trials. Some of our respondents have freemium products, some require a credit card to initiate a free trial, and some offer free trials with no credit card required.
In a post on Sixteen Ventures, Lincoln Murphy explains that conversion rates can be wildly different for those three different free trial models.
Murphy says that:
Murphy says that optimizing for conversion rates higher than these benchmarks “may result in diminishing returns on that effort.” So if your freemium conversion rates are 10% or more, 25%+ for no-card-required trials, or 60%+ for card-required trials, you may not need to optimize further.
But if you’re not yet seeing conversion rates that meet these benchmarks, consider the eight tips below to boost your paid activation rate.
Editor’s note: Stripe users can grab the free Stripe dashboard below to get a quick overview of revenue, new customers, new plan subscriptions, and MRR—all in a single, shareable view. Not a Stripe user? No worries. Databox offers similar free templates for Xero, QuickBooks, ProfitWell, and PayPal.
Rekener’s Greg Keshian says that the key to converting trial users to paid customers is to “deliver value during the trial.”
And Flatly’s Josh Priollaud says that one way to make sure you’re delivering value is to develop a “fully linear workflow. Our users never get lost in our UI thanks to the concept of poka-yoke (mistake-proofing).”
So what are the best ways to mistake-proof your product, making it easy for users to discover its value? Our respondents offered several tips.
“Use screen recordings and user testing to see where in the process users encounter issues or get slowed down, and run A/B tests to solve those bottlenecks,” says Alex Kelsey of Greenvelope.
“By watching Hotjar screen recordings, we saw that users were constantly moving their mouse to the lower right-hand corner of the screen towards the ‘Upgrade Now’ option while on the ‘Edit Card’ step of the process.”
“However, the goal of that page was to get people to design their cards and see the value of the product—not to upgrade.”
“By turning the ‘Upgrade Now’ button to a much more discreet ‘View Pricing’ link, we saw a significant increase in people successfully completing their cards and making it through to sending and purchasing.”
“It’s important to educate free trial users on how to use and get the most out of the product,” says VitalDollar’s Marc Andre. “Be sure to have quality documentation, and also use an email sequence to provide basic information with links to more detailed guides.”
“One of my old projects was a photo-editing product with a free version and a premium version. I found video training to be very helpful for getting new users up-to-speed on the product, as well as for showing the benefits of paying for the full version,” Andre says.
Ontraport’s Casey Hill agrees: “One of the biggest things that turn people off in a trial for a SaaS product is complexity. The most effective tactic for converting free trials to paying customers is to have streamlined instructional videos that guide the user through the experience.”
“Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking it’s getting users on the phone that changes everything. While that is definitely critical, if you don’t have an intuitive application, the client will never pick that phone up to talk with your team,” Hill says.
And Tradogram’s Kyle Strong says it’s also important to “offer a range of options to suit the preferences of different users: videos, slideshows, infographics, user manuals, and live demo sessions.”
“Ensuring that these resources are highly visible to new users is also important. The resources themselves should also be concise; a typical user is often looking to evaluate their requirements against multiple platforms in as short a time as possible,” Strong says.
“We built a Tettra Academy to help educate people about best practices around documentation,” says Tettra’s Kristen Craft. “We find that people create new Tettra pages and document things at a rate that’s 2-3 times higher after engaging with our course material, thus increasing their likelihood of moving onto a paid plan.”
Yaguara’s J.D. Crabtree also recommends the academy approach: “One of our more successful conversion strategies is putting trialing customers through a Yaguara academy of sorts. Every day, depending on their usage, they are segmented into different feature explanations and introductions.”
“At the end of the trial, every user will get a unique recap on their journey and what they have learned.”
“This has been incredibly useful to learn about conversion rates for each journey—and even the best way to engage with those that did not convert,” Crabtree says.
“One tactic that has worked extremely well for us is sending emails based on activity triggers,” says Krish Ramineni of Fireflies.ai. “These emails come from our marketing automation system as well as our customer success manager.”
“Lots of free trials fail because companies are not proactive in helping their customers through the trial phase. More often than not, the trial ends, and the user has never been activated. We look at the activities they are performing along with other buying signals to help them understand the product.”
Poptin’s Tomer Aharon agrees: “The most important email we send is the email that tells users that they’ve reached their free plan limit (1,000 popup views). This email converts free users to paid users more than anything else.”
“Sending targeted email onboarding campaigns to free trial users can help you guide a customer through a journey, boosting their odds of making a purchase or subscribing to your service for the long-run,” says Nick Harley of NeverBounce.
“When setting up a campaign to convert free users,” Harley says, “it’s important to follow email marketing best practices:”
Interact’s Josh Haynam agrees but also recommends “story-based email onboarding. We have a 13-email sequence for converting free users into paid that follows a story arc based on what it looks like for a customer to have success using our product.”
And CrazyCall’s Szymon Golyski says that “the best way to convert free trial users is to build an automated process with onboarding emails and support available for any help. Those who will fall out of that should be contacted manually.”
“We’ve found that having a white-glove onboarding process has encouraged users to sign up after the free trial,” says Emad Hanna of CyberStockroom. “I think that one-on-one attention helps users see the full benefits that our software provides.”
Kontentino’s Bohumil Pokštefl agrees: “The software needs to be intuitive enough for users to discover its value immediately. However, having customer support and customer success managers doing onboarding and product demonstrations has shown great results when it comes to converting bigger leads.”
Privy’s Ben Jabbawy says one of the best ways to provide support during a free trial is offering live chat support: “Most companies aren’t willing to roll up their sleeves for free users. We’ve found that a huge portion of chats from free users pertain to features on paid plans, so that has been a huge conversion mechanism for us.”
And Nextiva’s Yaniv Masjedi recommends “requiring a 15-minute feedback session with a ‘user specialist’ (sales team member) halfway through the free trial. This sales team member should be briefed to genuinely collect feedback from prospects and propose solutions to any issues they may be having with the software.”
“The goals are to a) solve any user issues partway through the trial to increase conversions by the trial’s end, and b) to refine the free trial offering for future prospects.”
“At the end of this feedback session, the user specialists should encourage prospects to reach out anytime via their direct lines, as well as ask prospects if they’d like to schedule another call at trial’s end (typically one month),” Masjedi says.
Kommunicate’s Satadeep Biswas says that the best way to convert trial users to paying customers is “to have a feature-usage metric to base your pricing plan on.”
“In my experience, there are only two inputs that go into it:”
“For example, Kommunicate is customer support software, and it has all the features that modern customer support solutions have. However, we noticed that almost 90% of our customers use the chatbots feature.”
“A little market research helped us realize that only a few solutions offer custom chatbot integration—and those that do have limited functionalities. So we pivoted our product roadmap and created pricing tiers for the various buyer personas.”
“The results are ~11% trial-to-paid conversion without any dedicated sales team,” Biswas says.
Once you know your most valuable features, you have several options for how to present them during a free trial.
“With free trials, the key tactic is to figure out the functionality that will add the most value for the customer, then set limitations accordingly,” says Armin Laidre of ExitAdviser.
“With ExitAdviser, we let customers try many features at no cost, but we limit their options to set up a business sale listing. The rationale is that setting up their public listing brings a client one step closer to their ultimate goal (i.e. finding a buyer), thus motivating them to sign up for a paid plan.”
“And it works: up to 40% of our trial customers upgrade to a premium package,” Laidre says.
Many of our respondents agree with this approach:
“The most effective tactic is in the positioning,” says Chris Hanson of You Don’ t Need A CMO. “Don’t offer the most essential features, but allow people to see them. This piques curiosity.”
“Let users try all of the features of the product, but limit the time frame,” says Magic’s Christian Alan Vibar. “This gives them enough time to assess the user experience before paying.”
“If you do this, not only you’ll get higher activation rates, but you’ll also get better sign-up rates.”
“Create a very simple onboarding funnel that will help the trial users immediately see the value that your product provides,” says Kate from EmbedSocial. “For us, this is very easy because our aha moment happens after a few clicks.”
CloudTalk’s David Cacik agrees: “make sure you’re navigating users through the essential steps in your tool to get them to the aha moment.”
“The freemium tactic isn’t new, but it is still extremely effective when converting free users to paying customers,” says Marissa Ryan of VisualFizz. “The idea is to get your users accustomed to what you offer so much that they don’t want to live without it, so when it’s time to convert to paying, they will gladly do so.”
“The freemium approach limits what the user can do with a free installation, saving other, better features for paying customers. But it’s important to make sure that free users know exactly what they’re missing out on by using the free version of your product.”
“Remind your users that with the paid version of your product they can do much, much more. It’s important to approach this tactfully; otherwise you might cause the user to feel negatively towards your brand.”
“Duolingo does an excellent job of this: at nearly every interaction, the user has the opportunity to ‘Try Premium Free.’ This allows your users to try out the paid-for features without fully committing.”
“Chances are that if the user loves your free version, they will also love your paid version, and they likely will not want to go back to the free version now that they know what they are missing out on.”
“Our free forever plan contains our business branding on elements that would be visible on the client’s website,” says Juicer’s Shawn Pillar.
“We’ve found that customers will opt for a paid plan to get rid of the branding once they’ve determined that our product is a good fit for their needs.”
“Offering a certain promotional period that is still beneficial to your business but feels exclusive, limited, and urgent is a great way to convert a free trial into a paid activation,” says Beverly Friedmann of MyFoodSubscriptions.
Andrei Vasilescu of DONTPAYFULL agrees: “When you communicate with your audience during the trial period, you must deliver a sense of urgency. Communicating urgency will considerably increase the conversion rate of free trials to paying customers.”
One way to do that, as Signity Solutions’ Hima Pujara recommends, is to “limit the offer period or use phrases like 7-day or 14-day free trial.”
And limiting the length of the trial period is something that’s worked really well for AcTouch Technologies, as Nityananda Rao explains:
“We launched our product with a 30-day free trial. However, we found that our salespeople were pushing trial users to begin using the application—not to close the deal. At the end of the month, we had many prospects but not a single closure, and we didn’t have any new leads because our salespeople didn’t have time to call them.”
“We didn’t realize we had a problem until one customer who was about to pay decided not to by saying, ‘Oh, you have a 30-day free trial? Then I’ll just pay after 30 days.’ He never came back, and we lost the account.”
“After that, we reduced the length of the trial to 14 days. We started monitoring customer behavior on this trial period length. Again, many customers never felt the urgency to close the deal because they just wanted to wait and pay after the 14-day trial.”
“So again, we changed the length of the trial from 14 days to 7 days. Now it’s just a ‘Free Trial.’
And where we use to take around 4-6 months to close a deal with a lot of follow-ups (15+ touch points, demos, etc.), now, in some cases, we’ve closed deals in three days.”
“On average, our sales cycle closure happens in 30 days, and the number of follow-ups and touch points has reduced.”
Editor’s note: Databox makes it easy to visualize your sales pipeline and look for inefficiencies. The free HubSpot CRM dashboard below is a great example: it shows you how many deals you have in the pipeline and in what stage of the pipeline most prospects are in.
Is a seven-day free trial enough, or do you need to give people a full month to test the tool and make a decision? To find out, we asked our respondents to tell us about the length of their free trials:
The most common free trial period was between 14-29 days, suggesting that a two-week trial may be the sweet spot for converting trial users into paid customers.
“The most effective strategy for pushing free trials to paid customers for us has been through our personalized demos,” says Trina Moitra of Convert Insights.
“Demos allow us to define the pain points of the trial takers, show them how our tool can generate results for their particular optimization challenges, and also put faces to the names of our customer success executives who play a key role in offering our 4X faster support. which in many cases seals the deal,” Moitra says.
Many other respondents agree:
“We’ve realized that providing customers with a demo of our product—whether before or after they sign up for a free trial—increases the rate of paid activation from free trials drastically,” says Mashvisor’s Daniela Andreevska.
“The reason is that during the demo, we are able to show customers the full potential of our platform, the most efficient ways to use the different tools and features, and how to optimize the search process.”
“Instead of giving immediate access to our product and waiting for users to inevitably churn, we invite them to a product demo so they can learn how to get the best value out of the product based on their business needs,” says Steven Macdonald of AutoClipping.
“It’s become so successful that in some markets we operate in, we’ve been able to convert as much as 40% of trial users into paying customers.”
“We A/B tested a couple of techniques,” says Gohar Shafique of Funnel CRM.
“Test number one: people would sign up for a product demo, and then we give them access to the tool.”
“Test number two: after regular trial signup, we initiated an email sequence, popups, etc. to make prospects book a product demo call.”
“Test number two was very effective for us. Our conversions grew from 5% to 9%.”
“The most important tactic for us is to have a personal conversation with our trial users,” says Niklas Dorn of Filestage. “We ask them about their businesses and their needs first.”
“Once we understand their wishes, we dive into a personal demo to setup the workflow with them and show them how they can be more efficient with our solution.”
“Too many prospects download free trials as a last resort; it’s the only way for them to see/experience the product,” says Marie-Charlotte Patterson of Omedym.
“The SaaS company either doesn’t offer demos (it’s too expensive to give in-person demos), or the buyer doesn’t want to deal with the vendor’s demo process (too much friction). So the trial becomes a qualification process for the buyer. It’s the only way they can experience the product.”
“Allowing buyers to experience the product ahead of downloading the trial—via a great online, on-demand, interactive, personalized demo—means buyers can get a lot of their questions answered before they even choose to download the free trial.”
“As a result, activation rates increase as buyers have already self-qualified themselves. And assuming the demo is correctly structured, buyers can engage with the trial in a more informed and prepared manner.”
“This tip will almost certainly elicit some strong opinions, but collecting a credit card number at sign-up and billing it automatically after the free period is over is effective,” says PromotionCode’s Mike Catania.
“If you’re clear about it during sign-up and make the opt-out straightforward, you can be confident that any users you retain are because you successfully demonstrated value during the free period.”
As Catania mentioned, opinions can be strong when it comes to whether or not to ask for payment information up front for free trials. So we asked our respondents to tell us if they require a credit card to initiate a free trial: 80% don’t, and only 20% do.
Still, if you decide that asking for payment information up front is right for your business, use these tips to keep people from canceling before making their first payment.
“Make renewals simple,” says Bernard May of National Positions. “Free trials are great, and getting users to enter their payment information prior to beginning trials is gold.”
“If you can make this leap (and your solution provides enough value) the user will have no issue renewing. And if it’s an automatic renewal, it’s almost ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”
“But if requiring a payment method up front is a tough pill to swallow, offer a discount at the time of renewal. Ending your 30-day trial with a ‘get your first quarter for the price of one month’ offer can entice the user from the free trial to officially become an actively paying user,” May says.
Dunnly’s Jees Raj agrees: “Provide trial customers with a considerable discount (Dunnly offers up to 60%) for an extended period of time, say 3-6 months. In this case, the possibilities of fully paid conversions are much higher than those of extended trials.”
“A good portion of SAAS spend is allocated for customer acquisition, so it makes more sense for us to spend that on retaining existing customers,” Raj says.
“If you take money up front, promise to give full refunds with no questions asked if a prospect wants to cancel the service at any point during the trial period,” says Annika Helendi of ContentFly.
“This is a great way to make sure that the customers who sign up will try to get the full value out of your product.”
“It can be extremely tough to convert free trials into new customers, but rebates often are enough of an incentive,” says Sam Maizlech of Glacier Wellness.
“Whether it’s promotional items, free samples, gift cards, or straight-up money, rebate campaigns often yield solid returns with typically manageable sacrifices.”
“A properly worded and timely delivered end-of-trial email is your last (and probably the best) chance of steering your customer into a conversion,” says Helprace’s Vitaliy Verbenko.
“Sometimes, it means thinking about your customers in a different way. What kind of decisions can they make? Are there any obstacles in their way? Can they easily relay their take on your software to others within their organizations? And to a lesser degree, what is going on in their lives outside of trialing your software?”
“Most of us are stuck in routines and don’t like to take chances or leave things to chance. Touching on these questions in your email is something that could give them the nudge to respond to it—and for you to start addressing their concerns.”
“We used to only send emails on the day of trial expiration. But we noticed that by introducing an additional email a week beforehand—relaying a sense of urgency and using some behavior data during their evaluation period—we got a clearer picture of what they wanted from us.”
“So a user that did not really use a product received a slightly different email than a user that set up some modules or functions during the trial period.”
“This particular email increased our response rate overnight by almost 200%.”
“One of the simplest tricks is to just ask customers to upgrade,” says Adam Hempenstall of Better Proposals. “This seems basic, but lots of business don’t do it and fail to convert trial sign-ups to customers.”
“You should guide your customer and let them know what’s the next step. A quick reminder email that explains the process makes a huge difference.”
“One successful tactic is showing a summary of the benefits the user has received from the product,” says Fueled’s Ciara Hautau.
“For example, if they were using a product that helped their business, what key results can you share with them that they could not live without if they didn’t use your product? Did it bring in more valuable traffic? Conversions? Purchases?”
“Once the free trial is about to end, send an email to the user stating that their free trial is about to end and highlight where the user is now compared to where they were a month ago without the product.”
Olumide Gbenro of Globo Brands agrees that you should send a benefits email but also recommends offering a discount in that email:
“I helped run an Instagram marketing SaaS product where a five-day free trial was provided. We provided a visual graph of how much improvement in lead sourcing and growth our software had provided, and then at the end of the trial, we offered a 20% lifetime discount for signing up and recommending the product to friends.”
“This helped grow the platform tremendously, and referrals come in for trials that become full-time clients.”
“Overall, the lesson is clear: share a strong solution over a short period of time, show the results, and invite them to share the opportunity with their network or community in exchange for a small but long-term discount for a product they already fell in love with,” Gbenro says.
“If someone doesn’t convert to a paid customer, make sure to set a trigger to periodically reengage them with similar content—and ramp it up if they revisit your site,” says Ampjar’s Quincy Smith.
Sophie Knowles of PDF Pro recommends a similar approach for keeping unactivated users engaged: “We’ve found that offering a recurring credit system for our free software, as opposed to a typical X-days trial, creates more conversions long term.”
“It encourages not only recurring website visits, but also more frequent upgrades.”
“Once a typical free X-day trial expires, a majority of customers stop using the software or try to do things like creating alternate emails to access it again.”
“But if users know that they can come back in a month to access what they need for free, without hassle, you’re ingraining brand awareness. They will bookmark your site, become familiar with it, and value your products as they use them over time.”
“This creates the perfect environment for conversions—particularly when they get frustrated with having to wait for a credit refresh. If you are able to keep your prices low, the process is a lot less painful for your users since trust has already been established,” Knowles says.
“We realized that for our product, freemium is an acquisition channel but not really a method to expand our top of the funnel,” says Vivek Khandelwal of iZooto.
“Given this, instead of focusing our energy on converting these freemium users into paying customers, we turned the tables around and offered them a monetization solution (and a revenue share) that almost 90% users bite into, thus converting our freemium user base into a revenue-generating user set.”
“Quick brief on how our product works: iZooto helps publishers engage and monetize their audience using web push notifications. Our freemium product offered users unlimited subscribers with a limit of five notification campaigns a day.”
“When we realized that these users were unlikely to convert into paying customers, we turned this around and offered to push ads to subscribers of these freemium users, and in the process, started generated revenue for them (instead of asking them for money).”
“It’s still early for us, but we see that having a very smooth way to switch between free/pro without losing data is key,” says Ludus’ Lionel Cordier.
“In our case, a user can downgrade and still have access to his/her presentations in read-only mode. It’s really reassuring for most of them, even if they rarely downgrade.”
Our respondents offered lots of tips for converting trial users into paid customers. Some of those tips were for tasks related to sales, some were related to customer support, and some were related to marketing. But we wanted to know overall what channel was the best to focus on to drive more free trials and conversions.
63.4% of our respondents said marketing was most effective at driving free trials and conversions. The remaining 36.6% cast an equal number of votes for both sales and customer/technical support.
So if you’re looking to increase your free trial conversion rates, it may be best to start with some of the marketing-focused tips in this piece. In particular, anything that can be automated (e.g. emails) could provide a quick boost without requiring a lot of time and effort.
Ready for more? Discover the 18 metrics every SaaS company should track, read Unbounce’s former VP of Marketing’s thoughts on how SaaS marketers can think more strategically, or learn about how we track and improve our conversion rate at Databox.
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