Dear SaaStr: When is Offering a Free Trial a Bad Idea?

Lots of SaaS companies don’t offer a free trial — intentionally.  But more and more are adding them, from Atlassian to New Relic to and more:

Free Plans are Back in Fashion in SaaS. Big Time.


Slack and Zoom showed us you can be more far freer than average and grow far faster than average.  At least some apps can.  And HubSpot and Mailchimp added Free later … and accelerated as a result.   Some great data from HubSpot here a little ways back:

Still a free edition and/or a free trial is a bad idea if:

  • Your product has a lengthy and/or complex deployment process. If it’s going to take 30–60 days to go live, a Free Trial will just lead to failure. That’s way too much work just to see if you might want to buy a product. Most prospects will give up and quit.  Not the case for Slack, Zoom, etc.
  • Your product requires a significant amount of multi-step or manual data entry to have any value. This is common with some HR apps, for example, that often have no value unless the org is populated with lots of data. Or many finance apps. If the app has no perceived value without a ton of layers of data added, again a Free Trial will just lead to failure.
  • The product is too clunky for a Free Trial. This is actually pretty common in enterprise-focused apps. In the enterprise, you can use people (customer success and support, solution architects, consultants, agencies, etc.) for a lot of onboarding of data and processes. If your product just isn’t easy enough to use for a Free Trial on their own to be a success, again, it will fail.
  • If customers can’t self-onboard instantly or very, very quickly.  A quick way of summarizing the prior 3 points.
  • You can’t resource it properly.  If you can’t support a free edition or free trial users, sometimes that’s OK if the product truly is dead simple to use.  But just as often, adding a free or free trial later is underresourced.

Free Trials are magical, done right. But they really only work if a customer can deploy successfully, on their own, very quickly.

If you can’t deliver that today, have humans manage the process instead.

And if you can’t deliver a frictionless Free Trial today, it has a “cousin” — a Free or Much Better, a Paid Pilot. A pilot is, in essence, a trial with a lot of human help and oversight to assist with the deployment and engagement. Pilots work well, too. Enterprise customers are used to them, in fact.

Many sales pros hate pilots, free or paid.  Because they are forced to sell the deal twice — first for the pilot itself, and then again to extend the pilot into a full contract.  But the thing is, a pilot is like a free trial for an app that can’t pull it off.

So if your prospects want a pilot, find a way to offer one.  It removes friction from the sales process in the end.  And most likely, they need a pilot.

They need one because a free trial wouldn’t work.

A related post here:

Dear SaaStr: Should We Charge for Pilots and How Much?


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