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Archive for February, 2016

Bad Advice on Free Trials from Marketers Who Should Know Better

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 18, 2016


I just read a post on the KissMetrics Blog by Cody Lister entitled, “More Trial Users is Not the Answer For Your Startup’s Growth.”  It’s not a terrible post.  In fact, some aspects are pretty decent.  Lister basically wants startups to focus on better engagement and the onboarding experience and less on just running as many people as possible through the trial process.  He wants you to be sure you’ve got product market fit before you try to scale out with as many trials as possible.  I have no problem with the latter, BTW, but it is unrelated to the areas I do have a problem with.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the act of trying to make the point as persuasively as possible, he strays into at least one area where I think his advice is dead wrong.  It’s way too Black and White, and whenever someone gives me a Black and White answer, I instinctively look for the exceptions to the rule.  Let’s put aside that in fact more free trials will help you to grow, it simply may not be the optimal thing for you to be focused on right now (or it may be, it all depends).

Instead, let’s drill down on the area that really got me thinking it was bad advice from a marketer who should know better.  Lister states:

Eliminate Or Reduce Free Trials

What if one day, your team just decided to shut down your free trial accounts that were past 14 days since their sign up date? Would you suddenly go out of business?

No, you’d save money from server costs and force people to make a decision.

It’s only when your free trials run out that you know whether the end user found your product worth paying for.

You need to figure out how to improve the engagement of your existing trial users to convert them to paid users.

ConvertKit and Edgar, which today generate millions of ARR, never offered free trials.

I often come across startups that give away free trials for 30 to 60 days. I just don’t get it.

I could not disagree more with his advice to eliminate or limit free trials to 14-days.  He states it as an absolute to the point that, “he just doesn’t get” why anyone would be stupid enough to offer a 30 or 60 day trial.

He gives only two odd exceptions to his rule:

  • A B2B SaaS offering costing more than $200 a month.  No explanation whatsoever why the arbitrary figure of $200 was chosen.
  • An offering where personal data had to be entered and value received increases proportionally to the amount of data entered.  He argues this creates switching costs, which is worthwhile, but actually misses the point.  What he misses is not only does it create switching costs, but the more data in services like DropBox, the more likely the user is to experience the “Aha” moment that closes the sale.  Switching costs come later, after the user is satisfied and someone else wants to woo them away.

Let’s dig into it with a couple of real world examples that I think will help explain the real reasons why you need to think about your Free Trial in terms of the user experience and not in terms of arbitrary advice from marketers.

Ironically, one of the reasons I tried but did not adopt KissMetrics (the very blog where this is posted) was because I could not tell within 14 days whether it would deliver value. In fact, KissMetrics is a wonderful illustration of the problem with this one-size-fits-all advice.

It’s biggest benefit is a better understanding of your sales funnel. So ask yourself, “How far does a user travel in the funnel in 14 days?” Further, how much of the 14 days is needed to get things set up and to accumulate enough people travelling through the funnel to make things even interesting?

You can now see where I’m going.  It might very easily take more than 14 days to get to that “Aha” moment where I see the value in a product like KissMetrics and I’m ready to pay up for it.  In fact, for my company, it really was longer than 14 days.  This was exacerbated by various aspects of the KissMetrics user experience.  It took the service time to accumulate enough data points to show me any funnel reports.  It took me time to understand the service well enough to get my funnels set up properly.  And it took time given my web site’s traffic to accumulate enough data points to see any kind of picture clearly.  BTW, it’s no small web site, I get 2 million uniques a year.  Pretty good for a small business.

I believe 30 days would’ve worked nicely for my case, but alas, I only had a 14-day trial to work with.  So I moved on.

Let’s try another recent personal example: Drip, the marketing automation app.  I wrote about my experience with them recently.  They had a 21-day trial.  During that time I was trying to:

  • Learn a complex new application
  • Tie in my mature and complex email best practices
  • Develop a new lead nurturing automation campaign far enough to evaluate the product

I felt it was reasonable that my “Aha” moments for Drip would include:

  1. Verifying it could do what my existing provider, Mailchimp, was already doing for my business.
  2. Verify that it could so something that Mailchimp couldn’t via its increased automation features. After all, Drip was going to be more expensive–it should show me some magic relative to Mailchimp during the trial.

As I documented in my write up, I was unable to accomplish these tasks within 14-days despite trying like crazy to get them done.  I had a mixture of problems ranging from product bugs to unclear UX to my own stupid noobie user mistakes.  I could not even get my email newsletter out, despite trying hard for 2 weeks running, so I couldn’t even verify Drip worked as well as Mailchimp, let alone see the impact of its new features.

I wound up sending Drip’s Founder an offer–extend the free trial and work with me until we can make my Drip experience a happy one.  In exchange, I’d buy the product and write about my experiences in places like this blog.  He declined, saying many of his competitors didn’t offer a free trial at all.

Here’s the thing:

If you’re going to offer a free trial, you really should make sure it is long enough that your users can reach the “Aha” moment where they’ve confidently demonstrated your product’s value and it’s an easy choice to reach into the pocketbook and become a paying customer.  Ignore all the other rules of them because reaching the “Aha” moment is the only thing that matters for your Free Trial.  That is its singular purpose.

If you’re not going to do that, why have a free trial at all?  I can’t imagine a reason unless it’s just part of the old bait and switch–get them to commit a little, even just give us their email, and each thing they give up will make the next thing that much easier.  That’s a well-understood marketing concept, and it even works to an extent, but is that really the way to build your successful business?

I can’t believe marketers think so, at least not the good marketers.  Please tell me you’re not in that camp.

Length of trial is something that should be tested, preferably AB tested if you can arrange it. Don’t get too greedy and eliminate your trials before your customers can experience the “Aha” moment that guarantees they will love the product. If you can make that happen in 14 days, great, but don’t just assume that’s the case.  Give them whatever time they need. Even offer to extend the free trial for ANOTHER 30 days if they’re not done evaluating.

You’d be surprised what treating your customers as human beings rather than inventory will do for you.

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Drip: Great Idea, Not Ready for Prime Time

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 5, 2016

As I’ve written recently, I’ve had some problems with my Email provider Mailchimp.  I use Mailchimp to do a variety of emailings as part of my software company, CNCCookbook.  We’re a bootstrapped company that makes software for CNC Manufacturing, and we’ve managed to do very well largely using Content or Inbound marketing.  The company is completely bootstrapped, yet we have traffic that makes us the largest CNC-related Blog and Content resource on the Internet.

The problems with Mailchimp were not life-threatening.  Basically, they were getting some links wrong in the Plain Text version of my RSS Newsletter.  They have been quick to follow up, comping me with some free months and promising to get the problems fixed.  There’s a reason they’re as large as they are and they know how to handle customers.

The thing is, I’ve wanted to move up to a more powerful Marketing Automation solution. To do so, I needed features that were missing from Mailchimp and that it doesn’t look to me like they will be adding very soon.  In essence, they boil down to more powerful Workflows that let me do highly personalized Lead Nurturing.  I believe Lead Nurturing is the next step in getting the maximum value out of my large mailing list (nearly 50,000 members).

So I took this as an opportunity to try another vendor, and I settled on Drip.  The information on their web site made it look like they had the functionality I needed and I had seen that some of the sites I value for marketing information were using Drip.  The price was reasonable for a company like mine–a bit more than Mailchimp but bringing more functionality.  Best of all, I really felt their marketing slogan was perfect for my needs:

Lightweight Marketing Automation That Doesn’t Suck

Unfortunately, despite a week of working hard with Drip, it became clear that it just wasn’t ready for Prime Time.  At least not for a firm the size of CNCCookbook (which doesn’t seem all that large to me being bootstrapped by one guy who is an engineer and not a Marketing Guy).

Let me describe what I was trying to do and what problems I encountered so that others may understand.  By all means, if you’re aware of a solution that can deal with these things without breaking my bank, let me know about that too.  The Marketo’s, Eloqua’s, and Pardot’s in the world can probably do it with ease, but they’re far too expensive.  Even Infusionsoft looks extremely expensive to me.

Step 1:  An RSS Email Newsletter

CNCCookbook has grown through content marketing and I put out 3-5 new articles every week on our blog.  I build the mailing list for that blog via various forms and popups on the web site coupled with premium content offers for signing up.  One of the reasons I picked Mailchimp at the time was that it made it extremely easy to automate a newsletter with an RSS feed, and one of the reasons I picked Drip is that it clearly advertised the same capability.

Drip does a lot of things with their RSS (and other email workflows) that I love:

  • With one click you can specify to do a follow-up remailing to those who didn’t open the first one.  This is hugely valuable all by itself.
  • Their email creation UI is fully on part with Mailchimp’s and even a bit cleaner and easier to use.

But, there were problems–some major, some minor, all added up to my not getting a single Email Newsletter out before I decided to cancel my trial after a little over a week of intensive effort.  Here’s what I found:

  • You have to request the RSS Feed feature be turned on.  I found this to be odd and off-putting.  It’s like they’re not very proud of it or something.
  • It does show up in the UI looking like something of an after thought.
  • There’s no way to do Mailchimp’s useful “Forward to a Friend” link.
  • You can’t customize the Subscription Management page.
  • You can’t manually control whether a user gets the HTML or Plaintext version.  In fact, I don’t think you have a way to even tell which one a given user has chosen though the UI shows both.
  • I was never able to successful send myself a Plain Text version so I could verify it was good to go.
  • Importing my Mailchimp list took hours.  Makes me wonder just how scalable this SaaS app is in an age of Cloud Scalability.

That was all stuff I got my head around and was willing to move forward with.  But then there were some major gotchas.  For example, you can set the RSS up to generate the bulk mailing but wait for you to approve it before it goes out.  You can even trigger its generation without waiting for the once a week date so you can use it to debug your efforts.

Bravo, very cool feature!

But the bad news is, each time you trigger it, it won’t run again until the specified interval.  So, if you test it, but don’t send the mails, you can’t do it again for real for 1 week.  Whoa, totally unworkable and the reason I never sent one email newsletter.

Lead Nurturing and Fancy Workflows

This is where the product really shows promise.  On paper, at least, it is capable of much Marketing Automation Coolness.  Want to trigger actions based on what people are doing on your site?  This is the Holy Grail of email personalization, and Drip can do that.  You drop a little Javascript snippet on every page and voila!  They are now monitoring all that activity.  You can even bring up a subscriber and see the activity.  Tres Cool!

Want to know if they opened emails or clicked through?  No worries.  There’s even a lead scoring mechanism.  Oh boys!  Now you’re ready to put together some awesome Lead Nurturing Workflows, right?

Well, not so fast.  Let me describe the very basic lead nurturing program I came up with, and my attempts to implement it.  Here is the basic Lead Funnel I was after:


No Rocket Science, right?  The Brand Loyalty stage is about our giving value in the initial emails by sharing our most popular and valuable articles.  Gradually, we start to introduce some popular articles that are about the sorts of problems our software addresses.  Then we provide articles that show how our software solves the problems.  Finally, we provide articles that show why we are the best choice.

What we want to use the workflow in a product like Drip to do is to determine which articles are being read.  Based on that, we may escalate or fall back from one stage in the funnel to another:


Based on which email links readers click, we may escalate them to later funnel stages.  If they quit clicking or opening emails, we drop back and start over because they’re not ready…

Again, this is pretty basic lead nurturing, so I’d expect most products to be able to handle this kind of thing.  Here are the obstacles I encountered with Drip:

  • Inability to work with large numbers of links in Visual Workflows.  For example, they’re very excited about their new Visual Workflow Editing.  It looks awesome in the demo, but for even middling complex workflows it is very cumbersome.  For example, you can’t horizontally scroll the diagrams.  I was stretching the window across 2 32″ monitors but still lost the ability to edit when I wanted rules based on 5 links.
  • You can use their Rule Editor, but it is going to be a lot of work.  What would be ideal would be to simply enter a list of links that trigger a new campaign, with one campaign assigned to each funnel level.
  • There’s one single lead score and one threshold for everything.  I need separate funnels, campaigns, and lead scores for each product.  I want to potentially trigger transition to another level of the funnel not just on links clicked but on leadscore.  Maybe a score of 25 = Awareness, 50 = Consideration, and 75 = Decision, or some such.  Not possible–Drip’s Lead Scoring is way too embryonic.  It would also be nice to be able to reset or reduce the lead score if the prospect fails to move forward and we fall back to wait for another time.

There were a number of other detail level fit and finish issues, but I tend to overlook those if a company is moving at a good clip and working with me.  Speaking of working with me, I will say that Drip has some of the best Customer Service I’ve yet come across.

What Now?

I really wanted to work with these guys, their product has a lot of promise.  But I had so many problems during the 21 day trial it was clear I wasn’t going to get it figured out.  So I sent the founder a proposal.  If he’d comp me a quarter and work with me on the issues, I’d work with him.  I’d write about his product, serve as a case study, and provide him with input.  In the end, I’d be a decent sized account for him too as we’re off the top of his published plans.

I was surprised when he turned me down:

Hi Bob,

Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts down and let us know your situation. I’m sure it’s been frustrating so far as you’ve attempted to get setup, and I appreciate you touching base about this.

From your email, it sounds like a tool like MailChimp, AWeber, or ConvertKit is actually going to be your best bet. It seems that Drip isn’t a fit for what you’re looking to do based on the number of issues you’ve faced. We are unable to extend trials past 21 days as you’ve requested (our competition, such as Infusionsoft, AWeber, ConvertKit, do not offer free trials at all).

With that said, I do appreciate you getting in touch and I’m sorry this last week has been a challenge. I wish you the best of luck with whichever provider you settle on.



Rob Walling

I probably shouldn’t have been, but I have always gone out of my way to work with folks who are providing good feedback about problems that I knew we would have to solve to move forward.  CNCCookbook seems to me is small enough and the problems we had seem broadly applicable enough I would’ve thought we were in that category.

In any event, we have parted company.  I wish Drip all the luck, as I mentioned, I really believe in their core value proposition.  Companys like CNCCookbook need affordable marketing automation.

I pick this story up over on my Entrepreneurship Blog,, with a discussion of what I’m doing today for email automation and why I love the solution I found.

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