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4 best practices and strategies for free membership trials

If you want to grow your membership site, get these four best practices for membership trials. They’ll help you leverage trial periods to quickly boost your growth.

February 14, 2020 by Cyn Meyer

Think about the last time you were in the market for a new piece of software or online community.

Did you settle on the first one you found?

Probably not. 

You, like your customers, likely took a few for a spin first with free software or membership trials. Putting your cash on the line for a membership -- especially one with a recurring bill -- is a lot more like playing Goldilocks than choosing on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Now, think about when a membership or software you wanted to try didn’t have a free trial. How much more convincing did it take for you to sign up -- if you signed up at all?

A lot more, I’d wager, and it’s the same for your customers.

So if you sell a membership online, rather than making your audience wonder what’s on the other side of your membership door, why not let them in for free to experience your excellent membership for themselves?

It can pay off more than you might think. The benchmark conversion rate for free trials without a credit card is as much as 25%.

Sounds great, right? We think so, which is why today, we’ll show you how to not just climb toward that 25% conversion rate with a free trial, but how to aim even higher with these four best practices for using free membership trials.

Let’s get started.

4 best practices for offering membership trials

#1. Create a sense of urgency by setting a membership trial period

Our first tip today is to create a sense of urgency for people who sign up for your membership trial by setting a limit on their trial period.

To decide how long your trial period should be, consider a few factors, including what the average trial period is.

The bulk of businesses offer a trial period between 14-29 days.

As far as conversions go, a shorter period may prove to convert more of your membership trial users to paying members. 

That’s what the pros say, anyway. Close.io’s CEO, Steli Efti, recommends a 14-day trial period as the optimal length for a trial period. 

Plus, according to a study of nine Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies, 89% of those with a free trial had 50% of their customers convert within 30 days, and 67% of them saw that conversion within the first 14 days. 

And since a membership is a type of SaaS product -- a fun, lively, community-building one, but one nonetheless -- that gives membership owners a great starting point.

It should not, however, be taken as a hard-and-fast rule.

In some SaaS cases, longer trial periods have their advantages and have proven to convert better. 

For instance, if you’re offering a product or service that’s designed to be used for a long time, it’s worth extending a trial period, even beyond 30 days.

Take email marketing tool, Constant Contact, for example. They offer a 60-day free trial knowing their users are filling a specific need over the long-term.

Beyond that, another reason to extend your trial period is if your membership offers services that require a longer learning curve. Or, if it takes members a long time to achieve results, testing longer trial periods may work to your advantage, too. 

The key here -- as with anything that can impact your bottom line -- is to test your trial periods and find out what converts the most among your membership audience and niche offering. 

Some questions to ask yourself when deciding on a membership trial period:

  • How long does it typically take for a member to achieve a result or get a quick win?
  • What’s the length of your membership (i.e., monthly, annual)?

Then, match your trial period with the general length of your membership and problem-solving period.

For example, Pilates Anytime offers a 15-day membership trial for a monthly or annual membership period. 

Offering a 60-day trial period wouldn’t make much sense for Pilates Anytime since that would be more than two whole pay periods if you were to be on a monthly membership plan. 

Likewise, offering a free trial for only a handful of days wouldn’t give prospective customers the time to achieve their first quick-win, either.

It all depends on context. Judge your accordingly, and don’t be afraid to test things out to find your optimal length.

Just make sure you’re keeping friction to a minimum before, during, and after testing.

#2. Reduce friction for free trial signups

We recommend two ways to reduce friction for free trial signups, the first of which is to avoid requiring a credit card for membership trial signups. 

Why? Simply put, you’ll get more conversions. 

Trials that don’t require a credit card at signup convert 1.2% of their visitors to paying customers, compared to 0.6% for trials that do require a credit card.

What’s more, trials that don’t force visitors to give up their credit card numbers convert 10% of their visitors to trial users, which is five times more than the 2% conversion rate of trials that do require payment info upfront. 

The data comes with a caveat, though. 

The same study found that trial users convert to paying customers when they do require a credit card at a much higher rate of 50%, compared to only 15% when you don’t require one. 

So what do these conflicting metrics mean? 

Basically, you get better-qualified leads when you require a credit card during the membership trial, but you’ll have a smaller pool to work with. Conversely, you get more leads when you don’t require payment info during trial signups, but you have more people to win over.

Our advice -- don’t require a credit card for membership trial signups, but do rely heavily on providing an excellent customer experience once they’ve signed up (more on that later).    

The second way we recommend reducing friction is to use anchor pricing for your membership trial. 

In other words, leverage the psychology behind anchoring bias, which is the tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information given -- in this case, your membership price.  

Entrepreneur and membership founder, Elizabeth Tollis, does this well with her free January Full Focus membership trial, where she lists her paid membership fee of $250 per month right above her free membership in the header section. 

As you can see, she also displays her $250-monthly paid membership below her free trial option. 

What this does is immediately sends a signal to visitors that they’re receiving a $250-monthly membership value for free if they sign up for the trial. 

Elizabeth takes price anchoring a step further and includes her $150-monthly Founding Members membership fee and a 7-day free trial to capture any prospective members who want a middle-ground trial. 

The main takeaway is to reduce friction by removing any payment requirements during your trial signup process and to juxtapose your free membership trial to a paid membership option, so your visitors associate a perceived value before submitting any personal info.

Then, once you’ve captured your trial member, you’re ready for our next strategy -- welcoming them with open arms.   

#3. Onboard your membership trial user as if they were active paying members

Our third membership trial best practice today is to onboard your trial users as if they’ve already converted to paying customers. 

If you’re serious about providing your members with an excellent customer experience -- something that 86% of buyers are willing to pay more for -- it’s best to get this right from the beginning.

To start, give your trial users the royal carpet treatment and send a warm welcome email.

You can follow in the footsteps of Meetup and send an encouraging welcome email that pats new users on the back in a congratulatory way. Meetup uses motivating copy from their subject line to their headers, getting readers psyched by the time they reach the CTA.  

Doesn’t get more welcoming than that, right?

Don’t be afraid to include an offer to your paid membership in your welcome email, too. 

The reason is it’s another opportunity to grow your membership. In fact, welcome emails that include an offer can lift your revenue by 30% compared to welcome emails that leave out an offer.

Once your trial members are welcomed, one of your main objectives for your trial members is to keep them as engaged as possible during their trial period.

What’s a powerful way to engage your users? 

Teach them how to get the most value from your membership. These days, you have plenty of options to guide your new trial members through the benefits of your membership.

For one, you can send subsequent onboarding emails that help your users engage with your membership site.

Check out how GoDaddy’s onboarding email uses strong CTAs such as, “create something wonderful,” to help guide their users toward going live with their site by using GoDaddy’s platform.

GoDaddy even offers “friendly advice” in the form of articles that help beginners through their first site publishing experience.

Another way to engage your readers is to use helper text in product tours or live chat messaging as soon as your newcomers log in to your membership site. 

A simple chatbox with tailored copy from messaging templates can do wonders for supporting and engaging your new trial members as soon as they enter your membership portal.

What’s an even more powerful way to engage your users?

In a word, personalize.

For instance, going back to the GoDaddy example, its onboarding email subject line is, “Don’t feel ready to publish your site? Read this.” The subject line and content are personalized for a novice user. 

Can you imagine this type of content being delivered to an expert programmer? 

The messaging would be way off and, chances are, the trial user wouldn’t convert to a paying customer -- let alone become a loyal lifetime customer. 

So, to personalize your trial members’ experience, try to segment your trial users, which you can do by simply asking them questions as soon as they sign up for your membership trial. 

You can simply send a survey to collect the data by using free survey tools like SurveyMonkey, Typeform, or Google Forms

Once you have that segmented data, you can start personalizing your content and communication with your trial users. 

To do so, focus on their specific goals and let them know you’re thinking about how to provide value that’s designed especially for them. 

The effort to personalize will be worth your while. After all, a hefty 90% of consumers see custom content as useful.

Which, of course, makes sense because who doesn’t want solutions that are hand-tailored for them?

The lesson here is to treat your new trial members like they’re new paying customers, rather than on-the-fencers. To that end, send a compelling welcome email and engage them in your membership by offering custom content and personalized support.

OK. Now that your trial users are inside your membership portal and engaging with your content, it’s time for one last strategy -- keeping up your marketing effort.

#4. Prioritize your marketing effort

Our final best practice for offering membership trials is to continue marketing to your trial users. 

Why? The answer is simple -- your conversions rely on it. 

The most effective channel for converting free trial users to paying customers is, at 63.4%, marketing, while customer support and sales only account for 18.3%, respectively.

That’s right. Marketing is even more impactful than sales at this point. 

One way to market your membership site is to incentivize your paid membership offer.

Just as you create a sense of urgency by setting a limited trial period, you can also offer an exclusive discount to your membership trial users before their trial period ends. 

While you’re at it, try out other price-based incentives to grow your paying membership base, just like Misty Sansom does by offering a 10% discount to her Life on Purpose members who pay annually rather than monthly.

With an annual payment upfront, you can rely on the recurring revenue for the next 12 months. 

Another membership site marketing tactic to use to convert your trial users is to feature testimonials in your communication. Whether in an email sequence, chatbox message, or social media post, try different ways to demonstrate the success of other members. 

You’ll be glad you did because testimonials go a long way. They have the highest effectiveness rating at 89% for content marketing. 

As you focus on marketing to your trial members, be sure to focus on providing educational value, as well. After all, you’re trying to solve their problems through your membership site. 

So, take it up a notch and educate your members through video content. These days, video is the preferred content format, with 78% of people watching videos online every week and 55% watching them daily.

You can even get creative and combine testimonials and videos, just like Becky Mollenkamp does. She features member testimonials on her Gutsy Boss Club membership site. 

In sum: Prioritize marketing to your trial members by incentivizing paid signups, highlighting testimonials, and focusing on educating your audience.

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Time to trial your membership revenue with these best practices

Membership trials are a great way to give people a taste of the value and benefits of your membership. 

Once they’re in, it’s time to win them over with an excellent customer experience and convert them to paying members.

To get the most out of offering a membership trial:

  • Create a sense of urgency and determine a trial period, which should complement the relative length of your membership itself.
  • Reduce friction for trial signups by not requiring a credit card upon registration and anchoring your membership price next to the free trial.
  • Treat your trial members like paying customers and greet them with a compelling welcome email. Then, make sure they engage with your member benefits by providing personalized support and resources.
  • Continue to make marketing a priority during your trial period. Use incentives, testimonials, and educational content to nudge them toward converting to paid memberships.

Speaking of trials, if you’re in the market for a seamless all-in-one experience for selling your online courses, digital downloads, and memberships, then check out this 14-day free trial with Podia to experience these best practices for yourself before, during, and yep, after your trial.

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