(Article first published in Apr '10. It has been modified slightly to suit its publication on our site)
We have all been in a supermarket or shopping centre and been offered a taster of food by someone promoting a new product. The other day I received a small packet of breakfast cereal through the door! Whichever way it's delivered, this is known as a free trial and it is most commonly linked to consumer products like food, face creams, toothpastes etc. and computer software. In essence anything that needs to be experienced through touch or taste or evaluated for its appropriateness. This can mean a free hair treatment if you run a salon, a free round of golf if you run a golf club, it might be a free sample platter of food if you run a restaurant/take-away. If you clean carpets, you might do a free sample clean of the smallest room in the house. A free trial is essentially the ultimate "special offer". In other words I give you something completely for free. But do they work? Yes they do!
A recent study by a research organisation called "Marketing Experiments" showed that in a real-life test comparing two online ad pages (where one incorporated a 30-day free-trial and the other didn't), the ad with a free trial offer delivered almost double the number of orders than the ad that had no trial offer (22 orders vs. 12). However, more interestingly the number of visits increased by a much smaller percentage (972 vs. 904). This seems to indicate that including a free trial offer brings a more targeted audience to your door, who is more likely to order. But they only work really well when they are implemented properly and there are a number of factors in promoting them:
1) Don't Make It Too Hard...
You may have experienced the free-trial that looks really good, but then you are asked to fill in the 50-page survey to get it and you suddenly lose all interest. If all you want to do is have a person taste a new food product then you don't really need any information. If on the other hand you want to have them try a new service or software product, you might want to get their name and email address and if limited to this, most people will provide those details.
2) Limit The "Catches"
Running a free-trial that has nasty catches is one way to actually have people turn-off from your product/service. The free-trial of software that only works for two days and 50% of what you wanted is only available when you buy it, is going to get uninstalled pretty fast. That's like providing a box of Fruit and Nut cereal for free, but removing all the fruit and nuts! Ultimately your customer is not really experiencing the benefit of the product/service. Or where the "free-trial" is actually linked to you buying a bunch of other stuff from them will leave a bad taste in your mouth.
3) Make It Habit-Forming
Where you want repeat customers, you have to use a mechanism that will have them come back. Typically, research has showed that it takes 3 weeks for an action to become habit and this can be loosely translated to purchases too. So why not combine your free-trial with a number of special-offer vouchers?
4) Optimise Your Advertising
Make sure the free-trial detail is in your headline and there is a clear-sign-up call-to-action and explain the benefits the reader will enjoy from the free-trial. Although there are other elements these are the most important. Remember the test at the top of the page? The same organisation ran another test where two ads both had free-trial offers. The ad with the optimised free-trial page layout out-performed the non-optimised ad by 352 orders to 128!
Remember the name and email address you took in step 1? Now follow-up. If the trial has a 30-day expiry, follow-up after 25 days and remind them of it, while encouraging them to sign-up. If they received a free sample of something, ask them if they enjoyed it and include a short survey. At the very least you'll get some useful data.
The free-trial can be a very powerful sales tool, but you need to evaluate how/if you can implement it for your business and how you are going to exploit the opportunity it provides to its maximum.
Franco De Bonis has worked in the field of sales and marketing promotion since 1990 and was most recently the global marketing manager for a major international technology company before setting up The DG Group in January 2007.
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