Have you noticed how free trial buttons have become a constant feature in SaaS/ cloud technology websites?

Why do you think these buttons are cropping all over the place?

To, perhaps, make the lives of SaaS customers easier? 😉

That is the simplistic response.

To get the real answer, you would need to peek beneath the hood.

Nobody sets up a business for the purpose of giving stuff out for free.

The real reason behind this proliferation is self-love. At a very basic level, every SaaS owner believes that his product is the alpha word, the one-pill-cures-all answer to the pains of every small business owner.

So when you see a free trial button, the message intended is that the product on offer is so good that it sells itself; that all one needs to do to be hooked is to take it for a spin drive.

But in truth, a lot of them turn out to be wrong.

After many months of heavy lifting, they painfully realize that despite having a lot of site visitors who sign up for their free trials (which is great, by the way), the number who proceed to buy the product after the free trial is so negligible that they do not have a sustainable business(a tragic outcome).

Thankfully, there is plenty that can be done to remedy this ill, assuming that you have a product that meets a need in the first place.

Here are 5 ideas you can apply to your SaaS product to make it so incredibly sticky that trial users would logically want to remain as customers after their trial period:

1. Exceed customer expectations

The fact is, for your SaaS business to survive, it needs to be solving real, not perceived customer problems.

Lincoln Murphy, the founder of Sixteen Ventures, states this correlation even better: “Customer success is when your customers achieve their desired outcome through their interactions with your company.”

Product perception goes far beyond the product feature list. Chances are, there a number of products that offer a similar feature set, or there would soon be!

As the infographic below by Cheifmartec clearly highlights, the burgeoning landscape of SaaS and Cloud services is to say the least, overwhelming. The image illustrates a high number of players in marketing industry which is only one of many.

Distinguish your product more with how your users perceive it by engraining a customer-focused company culture. Your users are family, and you should make them feel like it.

Set, meet and exceed expectations from the initial sale onward and have a system in place and ensure everyone knows how they fit into that customer success model.

Ask questions and engage with your trial users.

Do they have concerns? What would make their onboarding less painful? Why did they signup in the first place? Are they aware that you offer free data migration?

Personal touches like this make your SaaS product memorable and may even make your free trial users feel like they are a part of something.

Put differently:

Under promising and over delivering may well be the secret to higher retention rates.

2. Achieve High App Engagement Levels

Efforts you expend getting people to signup for your free trial all comes to naught if you cannot get them to use the product.

Adobe gives us some insights into how widespread the problem of trial abandonment is:

Software developer Patrick McKenzie @Patio11 could not agree more! In fact, he paints an even more dismal picture:

“40-60% of users who sign up for a free trial of your software or SaaS application will use it once and never come back.

Huge numbers like this may be scary to digest, but it is smart to test your data before you disagree with his. The million dollar question is, why so much abandonments?

For the most part, it is likely that the user was unable to see the benefit of using the software. Patrick claims that abandonment of this kind can be decreased by both making the software better and by better communication with users.

So the first experiences a user has on the platform should be designed, not accidental.

That moment is arrived at when a user finds the intersection between your product and specific needs he has. At that valuable frame, a user gets why your SaaS product is a necessary addition to their business strategy.

Here is an expert viewpoint from no other than Neil Patel as shared in this post on KissMetrics.

Hear how he makes the case for user engagement:

“However you choose to define it, engagement matters. Why? Because a customer who doesn’t use your product isn’t going to keep paying for your product. Think about it. If you pay $90/month for a home cable subscription, but nobody in your home uses it, you’re going to cancel. Likewise, if your customers are not engaged — not using the service for which they are paying — then they will cancel.”

You will agree that he makes a lot of sense.

Do not let customers stop using your product. The moment that happens, you have lost them. It is as simple as that.

So if users are not logging in [danger soundtrack plays], you should take proactive action as that is a precursor to their saying ‘adios’.

But what if users log in? Does that always mean all is well?

Far from it!

A logged-in status does not always predict engagement. The key is looking at what your users do after they log in.

Are they using the product in predictable ways? Are they logging out almost immediately, without any deep interaction with your product?

If the later is the case, you and your product team have to get to the bottom of the source of their frustrations – assuming that you have a product that fits the bill in the first place.

We will return to Patel to see how he would respond to this situation:

“…the most valuable way to retain the customer is by contacting them directly. Whether it’s an automated email or a personal phone call, make it your goal to get the customer’s time and attention.”

3. Segment your trial users


To have meaningful engagement metrics, it is a smart move to segment out your high interaction users from casual users and tire-kickers.

It’s a shame to note that about 99% of SaaS businesses do not make an effort to segment their free trials signups.

Predictably, they end up with monthly churn rates above 5% and annual churn rates approaching 50%.

Bottomline is: as a result of not properly segmenting their users, they do not know who their ideal prospects are, which ones convert, which ones just play around and lock up support time before moving off to the next shining thing.

You do not need the whole world to signup to your free trials for your startup to be successful. The fact is, the broader the net you cast, the higher drop-offs you will have in your sales funnel and the uglier your metrics will look.

How do you identify your ideal user?

Start by identifying the commonalities your most engaged users share. This could be location, above or below a certain age, industry or job position, anything at all that could define a category.

It is even possible that this exercise will yield more than one segment.

The more the merrier!

Having well-defined segments like this identified among your top users has a prophetic note to it. It can predict profitable audiences your team can target in your marketing efforts.

Sujan Patel agrees:

“Rather than trying to throw everything out there to see what sticks, you should target only certain groups with specific messaging. This focuses your content marketing efforts and greatly reduces your ad spend.”

Zuora takes this up a notch by using their best customers as their poster boys, effectively helping them attract more like customers.

Now, this doesn’t mean Zuora chases customers who are not an exact fit – all subscription based businesses are potential users of their product. Rather, they actively market unicorn level subscription businesses and have identified this category as their ideal customers.

Tom Mohr of CEO Quest delights us with chapter four of his bestselling Scaling the Revenue Engine. [Spoiler Alert] He expands more on how Zuora used their customer segmentation strategy as an engine for growth.

4. Declutter your features list

A smart analogy to help you keep the weight of your SaaS product in check is to think of your app as a backpack.

If you needed to go on a long hike, a lot of careful planning goes into what goes into your backpack.

Failing to take that time out to carefully go over what gets into the bag, you may have to dump some stuff on the trail when your backpack suddenly becomes too heavy and you can no longer justify why you needed five pairs of jean for the hike.

New York Times columnist David Pogue called attention to the problem as far back as 2006 in front of a TED audience. He demonstrated “what happened when he opened every possible toolbar in his Microsoft Word program—there was no room on the screen for the primary value-adding function of composing a simple text document,” explains Matthew May.

Don’t let your SaaS product fall into the features trap.

All features that make it into the application should be features that are needed and used by your customers. Remember that you will have to maintain the code, so no line of code should be just a nice-to-have.

If your review of app usage data shows that certain features are not being used by the majority of your customers, it may be a smart idea to purge those features entirely.

At times, it may be a smart move to give in to feature requests from your customers and address missing features. But as Churn University points out, this requires a delicate balance.

Keep in mind that every additional feature increases the complexity of your product and the onboarding process.

So if you must add a feature, make sure it can carry its weight. In other words, how does it advance your metrics?

A safe way to find that out would be by first carrying out a staggered feature launch to your segments. Does usage level increase or decrease? How is the feature received? Do you perceive from your data analysis that the feature takes your product forward or backward?

When a feature passes your split test on your segments, you can safely roll it out to all your segments. If the feature advances your metrics within your segments, then you can roll it out to your entire customer base.

Of course, your eyes have to be on the data throughout this process. You can now ask, ‘Did I attract a new segment?’ ‘Is the product engagement level on the increase?’

5. Utilize Action Triggered Communications

Most product abandonment occurs as a result of a break in communication between product owners and customer.

That is why an effective onboarding system can significantly reduce churn and give you the retention rates you have only dreamt of.

Instead of having just a standalone support and knowledge system, it may be a good idea to seamlessly integrate support throughout the onboarding process. As you can see from the study conducted by Thinkific, there is a serious gap in on-demand training for SaaS businesses.

That could be a low-hanging fruit you can use to distinguish your service.

However, it is important to warn that you do not take things to the extreme and flood the user with messages.

Keep things simple.

The user’s first call to action should be seamless and painless – leading the customer to first value fast.

The customer should never be left wondering what to do next – you know the actions that predict value achievement on your platform. It is your responsibility to guide customers down that predictable path as unobtrusively as possible.

Importantly, email communications should also be action triggered. Having time triggered email sequences are a bad idea. Here’s why:

If you are sending emails to a user about features they don’t use, or the emails are out of sync with the pace they are using the product, chances are high that user will unsubscribe.

Action-triggered emails, also called lifecycle emails, will make your emails a seamless part of the onboarding and user experience of your product. Emails will be triggered based on actions the user has taken or actions they did not take.

Such contextual communications will improve the onboarding flow and guarantee more users making the switch from trials to customers.

This mega list from Vero includes over a hundred lifecycle email examples you should check out!

Conclusion

If there is one thing you take from this post, it should be that you have to learn how to win more customers by studying how your best customers use your products.

The first steps they took that led them to first value attainment is likely going to help others attain similar outcomes. Forget about all the great things your app can do for just a moment.

Buffer Co-Founder, Leo Widrich, got great results following just this approach:

“At Buffer we focused on taking a step back and think about what the most successful customers did when they first joined Buffer. And the results were quite striking. It wasn’t to share on social media – which is Buffer’s main focus in terms of helping you with publishing and scheduling. Instead it was to optimize posting times, set timezones, connect all accounts, check if everything is ok and ready to go. Only then did they feel comfortable to share. So we rebuilt our onboarding process to focus on those items first and not push sharing and all other features instead. It made a huge difference in our activation!”

Now over to you!

What strategists have you found most effective in turning trial users into product evangelists?

Feel free to share in the comments.