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Free membership trials: The what, why, and how [Tutorial + Tips]

Membership free trials can boost membership sales when offered strategically. Read up on the pros, cons, why, and how of offering a free membership trial.

February 14, 2020 by Taylor Barbieri

Let’s get straight to the heart of it: Are free trial memberships the best way to bring in new members?

 More importantly, will offering free trials pay off in the long run, or leave you high and dry?

Here’s our take: When offered strategically, free membership trials can help creators attract new leads and convert them into customers.

But they aren’t right for everyone, and that’s why it’s important to check out the pros and cons of offering a free trial before you commit to providing one.

Today, we’ll go through the ins-and-outs of why you should -- or shouldn’t -- offer a free trial, plus some tips for converting free members to paid customers.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Why offer a free trial for your membership?

The two main benefits of offering a free trial membership are: 

  • Giving customers a no-obligation way to get to know your brand and product
  • Giving you the opportunity to bring in and nurture more customers in your sales funnel

As for the pros and cons . . .

Pros of offering a membership free trial 

Consumers often perceive free services to have more benefits and entail fewer sacrifices than premium ones. 

(Kind of a case of the obvious, I know, but bear with me.)

Thus, it’s not unreasonable to believe members may have a more positive view of your membership by starting off with a free trial rather than by directly paying for it. 

Besides, 12% of American consumers like joining a business’ community or forum if they like a particular brand. 

Research from Google found that customers could have anywhere from 20 to over 500 touchpoints during their customer journeys. 

A free membership trial could be an influential touchpoint in your customers’ buying journeys. Participating in a free trial could include them in your online community and help them get to know and trust you more.  

The second benefit of offering a free trial is that it gives you an opportunity to nurture free members to become paying ones. 

53% of consumers say they always research a product before making a buying decision so they can make the best choice possible. 

But here’s the thing: 

64% of global consumers have said they feel there’s too much choice online. Another 38% of consumers have said they often feel overwhelmed at the variety of options at their fingertips when shopping online. 

That’s where you come in. 

After new members sign up for your free trial, you can send them a carefully chosen drip of information to build trust and interest in your business. 

Your promotional emails could upsell them on a more advanced tier or cross-sell them on a related product (you can use this guide to brush up on upselling and cross-selling). 

Along with educational and promotional content, you can also send personalized product recommendations to your members as you learn more about them. 

You can learn more about your customers by observing how they participate in your membership community, as well as how they interact with your emails. Don’t overlook live chat messaging for marketing insights, either. 

Given that 74% of consumers expect to be treated as individuals, not as a segment, your free triallers will likely appreciate you taking the time to learn about them. 

Additionally, 70% of people think brands should understand their unique situations.

Sending personalized product or content recommendations -- or even just a personalized check-in email -- can demonstrate that you view each trialler as an individual. 

Doing so also shows that you care about their situation and want to learn more about them. 

Even if free members don’t upgrade immediately after the trial ends, don’t despair. 

You can continue nurturing them with personalized and targeted marketing messages until they’re ready to convert. 

Free membership trials sound pretty dandy, right? 

But, as with all good things, free trials do have some drawbacks. 

While they’re not dealbreakers, you should be aware of them and know how to handle them in your business. 

Cons of offering a free trial 

Perhaps the biggest drawback to offering a free trial is attracting qualified leads. 

While a free trial can be the perfect opportunity to convince customers who are on the fence to convert, it can also entice people who have no intention of upgrading to join the membership solely for free content. 

To discourage triallers who may want to join your membership to pirate content, check out these ways to protect digital downloads and piracy and theft.

Don’t let these kinds of trial members keep you from offering a free trial, however. 

Just because a customer doesn’t convert doesn’t mean they weren’t genuinely interested in your program, or that they may never convert. 

Some customers may not check their emails regularly, or may not be able to afford your paid tiers. It’s not unheard of for would-be members’ payment methods to get declined, either. 

This entrepreneur, for instance, noticed their product free trial earned double the number of sign-ups compared to when they offered only a money-back guarantee. 

Even though they validated members’ payment methods when they signed up, 22% of the payment methods were declined once the trial was over. 

Lastly, members who didn’t convert may need more information and nurturing (we’ll cover ways to convert more customers shortly). 

To better understand why certain customers didn’t upgrade and what membership retention strategies you should implement, send out surveys.

Hotjar, a software company, sent exit emails to customers who stopped paying for their software. They discovered three common reasons why users stopped using Hotjar. 

This information helped them begin brainstorming how to retain more customers in the future. 

Likewise, customer surveys may reveal that would-be members want you to change about your program before they’ll sign up. Perhaps customers want you to change the tiers, fees, and payment terms for your membership site or the content for your membership program

Whatever your customer analytics and research show, don’t sweat it if you can’t convince every free trial member to pay for access to your program. 

Customer churn affects all industries. Customer churn is defined as the number of people who stop paying for a service over a given time period. 

Churn rates ranged from 18% to 28% for major industries, and it may be higher or lower for your business. 

Here’s the gist:

Free trials do come with some drawbacks, such as attracting unqualified leads or members who may not be able to pay. 

Fortunately, while no membership site will see a 100% conversion rate, some of the tactics below should help you convert more free members into paid ones. 

How to convert free members into paying customers

Just because a customer didn’t convert at the end of their free trial doesn’t mean they didn’t want to join a paid tier -- they may just need some extra nudging. 

One way to convert more subscribers is by reminding them what they have to gain by upgrading to a paid tier and what they could lose by not doing so. 

Consider Apple’s email as an example. 

Apple reminded subscribers that they could continue listening to music they enjoyed if they set their Apple Music subscription to renew automatically. 

NordVPN took a different but equally compelling approach. 

This end-of-trial email from NordVPN reminded subscribers several times of what they could lose (their online privacy) by not paying for the service, and what they could gain (protected online privacy). 

Zapier’s email outlined both the benefits and drawbacks of a member not continuing their subscription. It reminded them that they had completed 229 tasks since using Zapier. 

The email also told them that they would lose access to certain apps, Zaps, and tasks by not upgrading, too. 

You may also want to offer a discount or other special offer to encourage more members at the end of their trial to convert. 

65% of people have said getting a great offer is more important than great customer service. Additionally, 69% of millennials said they can’t proceed with a purchase unless they’ve looked for a deal or offer. 

Another 48% of consumers have said they would avoid businesses that don’t offer discounts, too. 

Put another way, discounts can push customers to make a purchase. 

If discounts aren’t your thing, you may want to give triallers an exclusive offer to convince them to convert. This could incentivize them to continue doing business with you.

Blue Bottle Coffee offered their members free shipping on their first purchase after their trial ended. 

For a digital product business, creators could offer a personal coaching mini-session, ebook, or access to an exclusive course if members opt for a paid plan. 

Like Flow did, you could also offer to extend their trial upon request if they need more time to feel your program out, so to speak.  

Beyond offering a discount, you may want to limit enrollment in your membership and emphasize how exclusive your program is. 

One research study found that when consumers are buying something for themselves, cues about product scarcity could elicit purchase intentions more so than cues about product popularity. 

As for making your membership more exclusive, you have a few options. 

Like Classy Career Girl, you could limit how often your program is open for enrollment. You could also only take on a certain number of new students per month or quarter. 

To make your program even more exclusive, you could have members join a waiting list and only enroll them once a “seat” is made available when a current member leaves. 

Regardless of whether you woo members with an irresistible offer or exclusive access, you need to make it easy for them to make a purchase by having clear calls to action (CTA). 

Typecast included a CTA in their email where subscribers could pick a plan.

KISSmetrics used their CTA to ask the member to enter their billing information in order to upgrade. 

Now, our final conversion tactic is one you should implement as soon as your member starts their free trial: nurturing them. 

Nurturing customers doesn’t mean drowning them with marketing content. 

Instead, it means learning more about your customers so you can send them the content and product recommendations that can help them address their pain points. 

84% of consumers have said that clear and easy-to-understand content is important, although only 49% of people believe brands are doing a good job delivering this kind of content. 

Nurturing also means letting customers get to know and trust you so they’ll view you as a business worth buying from. 

True, customer nurturing can take time to yield results. But building relationships with happy customers can pay off handsomely. 

Emotionally connected customers have a lifetime value (LTV) 306% higher than customers who feel merely satisfied with a brand. (LTV is a measure of how a business can earn from a single customer over every purchase they make from that business.)

Besides spending more, emotionally connected customers tend to stay a customer for a longer time period, too. 

To build your relationship further, encourage triallers to reach out if they have questions. 

Screenhero, for example, promised to respond to free trial members who had questions or feedback in this email. 

Answering customer questions can provide you with insights so you can send more targeted recommendations and marketing content. It can even help you sway bottom-of-the-funnel customers to make a purchase. 

To recap:

To increase membership sales, nurture your members as soon as they sign up for a free trial. 

Towards the end of their trial and afterwards, it can be beneficial to offer a discount or special offer to encourage more triallers. 

And of course, being there to field members’ questions and comments can be a great way to build trust and your bottom line, to boot.  

If you’re onboard the free trial train, stay tuned for our final section, where we’ll cover how you can offer a membership free trial with Podia. 

How to offer a free membership trial with Podia 

Setting up a membership free trial with Podia is even easier than settling in for an evening of Netflix and pizza. 

To start, log into your dashboard and go to the “membership” tab, and then go to “plans”.

Scroll down to the “add new plan” button and pick a name for your membership. 

Next, scroll the toggle button beneath the plan name so that it turns from gray to purple. 

If you don’t move the toggle, the plan will remain free forever. If you move the toggle so it turns purple, however, you can set free trial and payment terms. 

To change the values for the “per month,” “per year,” and “free trial days” boxes, move each of the toggles so they change from gray to purple. 

If you don’t want to change a box’s value, then leave it gray. 

You can charge whatever price you want for the monthly and yearly price. 

You can pick between one to 365 days for your free trial.  

If you want your membership to include access to existing products, you can grant access using the product list below these three boxes. 

Scroll down one more time and click “publish plan” and ba-da-bing -- your free membership trial is live. 

Simple as that.

Offer free membership trials to attract more leads and loyal customers

Free trials are a must-have feature for membership websites looking to boost interest and enrollment. 

Free trials allow new members to familiarize themselves with your business and product before making a financial commitment. They also give creators an extra opportunity to convince would-be customers to convert. 

Attracting unqualified leads and member churn are the biggest cons of offering a free trial. However, makers can boost their chances of converting more free trial members by:

  • Outlining the benefits of upgrading to a paid tier and the drawbacks of not doing so 
  • Offering a discount or free offer if they join a paid tier 
  • Limiting enrollment in your program so it will feel more exclusive and desirable to free triallers
  • Making it easy for members to join a paid tier by including a CTA in your reminder messages
  • Nurturing your members the moment they join a free trial so they’ll be ready to convert by the end of the trial period
  • Encouraging members to reach out if they have questions so you can address their concerns and hesitations

To create a membership free trial in minutes, sign up for Podia free trial today. 

Otherwise, just remember that, like all great marketing tools, free trials have their flaws. However, they’re a tool each creator should consider adding to their marketing and sales toolbox, especially those looking to build a vibrant membership community.  

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