Driving Paid Digital Content: Tradeoffs Across Various Trial Models

Boost Digital Subscriptions with a Free Trial of Your Content

If you’ve ever gone fishing, you know that when you hook a fish, you need to reel it in quickly. But not too quickly, either. Moving too fast or not fast enough can cause you to lose your catch entirely.

Subscription conversions are a lot like catching a big fish. In order to monetize your content, you need to establish your brand and demonstrate its value proposition, build trust with your readers by offering free content—and, of course, move them through your sales funnel. But you don’t want to undermine your business model by giving away too much for free, or else there will be no value in a subscription. Reel them in quickly… but not too quickly.

Because the balancing act between free and paid digital content is a delicate one, many publishers have found solutions through various free trial models. Here, we’ll explore the pros and cons of some of the most popular models for driving paid content. By understanding the differences between each, you’ll better understand how to convert your own free readers into paying subscribers in no time.

Free Trial, No Credit Card Required

There are several kinds of free trials you can offer prospective customers. The first, a free trial with no credit card required, is one you’ve probably seen quite a bit. It’s used by a lot of SaaS companies like ClickFunnels. In fact, 75% of SaaS companies offer a free trial of some kind for their service.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. Prospects get full access to a product for a limited amount of time to help them make their buying decision. Of course, the free trial is usually in exchange for an email address so a sales rep can follow up and attempt to close the deal later on down the line.

The great thing about free trials that don’t require a credit card is that they streamline your sign-up process. Your form for a free trial can be as simple as an email address if you want it to be. Their downside, of course, is you’ll need a sales rep or marketing campaign to help you convert them into paying customers after their trial expires, or your leads will go cold quickly.

You also need to make sure the trial period is long enough for a customer to understand your value proposition. If it takes several weeks to really understand the power of your product, and you only offer a one week trial, few customers will pay up.

You should also couple a free trial with an “onboarding campaign.” This is series of emails that encourage the user to try different features of the product so you nudge them toward understanding the benefits you have to offer.

Free Trial, Credit Card Required

Free trials with a credit card usually involve an automatic upgrade to a paid plan after the trial ends. The onus is on the prospect to cancel the trial before the subscription starts if they don’t want to be rolled over into a paying model. The most popular example of a system like this? Amazon Prime. But you can find this model across companies of all sizes and industries. Check out Fine Woodworking to see how fellow publishers are using free trials with a credit card requirement.

This set-up essentially automates the conversion process for you. But the way we see it is that it comes with two major drawbacks. The first is that some companies (like CrazyEgg) have found that the credit charge exchange can scare off prospects early on in the process. The second, you do run a certain risk of boosted refunds. How many times have we all realized we forgot to cancel a service only after it showed up on our monthly statement?

As with the Free Trial, No Credit Card, you need to make sure the time period is long enough and supported with an onboarding campaign.

Free Trial, Credit Card Extension

Credit card? No credit card? Why not create a trial that can do both? Appcues set up a 14-day free trial (no credit card required). If prospects felt they needed a little more time to decide whether or not to use the paid product, they could extend their free trial by five days in exchange for their credit card info.

And it yielded pretty stellar results. Trial extensions with a credit card converted to paid customers at a rate of 66%, and they saw a 68% increase in the speed of sales after implementing their paywall.

The Freemium Model

The freemium model is actually pretty complex in and of itself. In fact, according to Sixteen Ventures, there are at least seven different kinds of freemium models. But generally speaking, a good example of a freemium set-up is a mobile game with in-app purchases (think: Candy Crush). You can play the entire game for free forever, but there are options to boost your experience if you’re willing to pay a little more. Other great examples include cloud services like Dropbox. Dropbox is free to use, but customers can pay for access to extra trappings like additional storage.

In the digital content area, you could choose to have some content (like news or entry-level information) free while gating off the premium content (like how-to articles or advanced analysis). Subscription Insider does this. News and Features are always free, but How-To and Best Practice articles are locked behind a paywall.

Unfortunately, critics of the freemium model argue it’s simply not scalable in its classic form. The companies who see the most success have huge user bases and are backed by some pretty heavy-hitting investors. If you’re a small- to mid-size publisher, this model won’t likely produce substantial revenues for your business.

Finite Free Content in Front of a Paywall

This type of trial is one where users have a certain amount of free clicks or visits, and then they are blocked from further access by a paywall. You’ve seen this all over the publishing world if you’ve ever noted how many newspapers handle their digital content. The New York Times, for instance, allows visitors to read a number of free articles per month. Once they reach that limit, the site blocks users from content until the month rolls over or they purchase a subscription.

This is truly a standout trial model for publishers (which is why you see so many industry top dogs using it). It’s a quick and easy way to display your value proposition while still protecting some of your strongest assets. But keep in mind: it will be most effective if you’re a company that produces a significant amount of high-demand content. If you don’t publish new work very often, or if the subject of your work can be found elsewhere for free, you’ll have a hard time convincing readers they need access to those hidden gems behind the wall.

Free Demo

A free demo (or demonstration) is exactly what it sounds like. Companies offer a walk-through of the service or product by one of their sales professionals, like you can see here with Politico Pro and Uberflip.

Demos work best on highly-customizable or complex products and services. If your content model is easy to understand (“For $50 per month, receive exclusive industry research reports in your inbox!”), a demo won’t result in very much movement. But if your content service is a little more in-depth (“Use this feature to save articles and review them later. Use that feature to mark up and make notes on what you just read.”), a demo can educate your prospects on exactly what’s so cool about your product.

Money-Back Guarantees

Money-back guarantees aren’t actually a free trial, but they offer a similar experience by making it easy to cancel a service in exchange for a refund if the customer isn’t happy. Business Insider has made use of this model with their subscription services.

These guarantees are a harder sell upfront, but if you’re confident in the quality of your content, it provides a safety net for new members while still bringing in revenue for your business.

Free in Exchange for Promotion

It’s possible to make a service or product free in exchange for some kind of promotion, i.e., “Up to 3 months free once you share this referral link on Twitter and Facebook.” The “unsubscription” service Unroll.me takes advantage of this model. When you launch the service for the first time, you are given the opportunity to unsubscribe to newsletter lists. But after you unsubscribe to a certain number of emails, you have to stop for the day. Or, you can share about the service on social media to “unlock” more features.

This model won’t necessarily result in direct revenue, but it can offer solid word of mouth advertising that boosts your lead generation efforts.

Choosing the Right Model for Your Business

So, how do you choose? It’s difficult to know whether a free trial, freemium model, or money-back guarantee will resonate with your readers. Consider the unique factors in your publishing model. Research your audience: What is the value of your content relative to their budget? How often do readers consume your content? If visitors tend to check your website once a month, “10 free articles a month” isn’t going to be an offer that converts.

Armed with your research, come up with your best two or three guesses and test them out across audiences. In time, it will become obvious what sells your publication and what doesn’t.

How Sterling Woods Group Can Help

At Sterling Woods, we can monetize your digital content. We will launch a paid digital membership business for you and help you launch (and test) trial offers that move your visitors through your sales funnel.

Want to learn more? Email info@sterlingwoodsgroup.com for a free 30-minute consultation.

About the Author, Rob Ristagno

Rob Ristagno is the founder of The Sterling Woods Group and partners with companies to drive rapid digital revenue growth. Prior to creating Sterling Woods, Rob served as a senior executive for several niche media and e-commerce companies. Rob started his career as a consultant at McKinsey and holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College. He has taught Product Strategy at Boston College.