Why Free Trial Offers Aren’t Always the Best Choice

There’s a great article (and not just because I’m quoted) in this week’s Demand Generation Report describing how marketers are actively seeking alternatives to the free trial offer.

download buttonAs I say in the article, free trials have become popular – too popular, in my opinion – as offers, because they’re perceived to be the shortest route to a sale, and quick sales are the order of the day in this economy. The conversations we have with clients on the topic often go something like this:

“My product sells for $49 a month. I’m not going to spend a bunch of valuable sales resources chasing after people who downloaded a white paper, in the hope that they then agree to a trial and only then maybe end up buying the product.”

Don’t get me wrong, offering a free trial often makes a lot of sense. Many products can’t really be appreciated in full until the user has experienced them first-hand. But many technology marketers are discouraged from even testing alternatives to the free trial because of the argument above – namely, that they can’t afford the follow-up, and because (they fear) too few leads would ultimately convert to paying customers.

But that ignores two realities: one, that (again, as I say in the article) offering a free trial risks eliminating a huge subset of potential customers – people who may well have the relevant pain or problem your product solves, but aren’t at a place where they feel compelled to actually evaluate the product.

This problem is particularly acute when free trials are used as the offers in search ads, a situation where many prospects are likely to be only in the initial stage of research and just aren’t ready for the commitment of a free trial. In search campaigns, we often recommend free trial offers only be used for branded terms or keywords that suggest the user is actively shopping for a solution.

The second counter-argument to the “I can’t afford to offer anything but a free trial” is lead nurturing. Offer something with broader appeal, generate a much larger number of leads, use automated lead management to offer the free trial as a next step, and then systematically nurture those prospects over time. No sales rep need be involved, though with a marketing automation system in place you could choose to trigger a sales call or generate a sales alert if, for example, the person met certain qualification criteria (say, company size, purchase timeframe, or named account.)

So what to test? The usual alternatives: free assessments, ROI calculators and the like can be valuable sales tools, but they’re also limited in their appeal because, like free trials, they’re only likely to appeal to prospects further advanced in the sales cycle. As such, they’re better candidates for offers made once the prospect is engaged, as part of a systematic lead nurturing process, then they are for lead acquisition.

Consider a video demo – you still get to show off your product’s capability, and you’ll engage with a much larger pool of prospects (including those people who would have responded to the trial offer immediately.) Or offer a “buyer’s guide” – still likely to appeal to prospects further along in the sales process, but much less of a time commitment.

[For more information on how to choose the right offer for your next campaign, download a free copy of our white paper: “How to Choose Your Carrot: Effective Lead Generation Offers for High-Technology Marketers”]

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