How long should your “trial” period run?

I’ve had this running debate with a handful of friends – I’d love to throw it out there for comment. The questions at hand are 1) whether companies should offer a “free trial” period for their software/web service; 2) if they do, how long should it last; and 3) what information should you ask for before starting a trial (specifically should you ask for credit card information up front).

Here are a few thoughts. I’d love to hear your opinion.

While you know that your web service is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it’s really really hard to convey the chocolaty goodness that is your product to the average consumer. You have to pull them in and offering a dry run of what you do is a good way to do this (maybe you have a free version of the service as well, but even so, you’re saving the best features for your paid users and you need to show them what can do).

Now on to the question of how long your trial should last. While avoiding the obvious cliche answer (“as short as possible”) I’d point out that many (most) companies default to 30 days. I think this is a mistake. If you can’t show value in a week or two you’re doing something wrong. And by waiting 30 days you’re just extending the number of people in your trial funnel and making more work for everyone involved (not to mention stretching out the trial and potentially losing customers). Your product should be designed to quickly get people up and running and to show value right away (see some ideas on that here). I believe your trial period should have three parts: 1) onboarding – quick and as painless as possible; 2) show value – make sure you’ve designed what you do in a way that you’re in front of your customers immediately after they input information; 3) ask for the conversion to paid – once you’ve shown them what great value you add, ask them to fork over the dough. Most companies err in all of these categories. Onboarding is too difficult. Value comes over time, not right away and the product forces users to remember to come back to it rather than the other way around. The “ask” comes too late, after people have forgotten what the service did in the first place.

Lastly open for debate is the question of how much information you should collect up front. On the one hand are people who believe that you should collect as little as possible – probably just and email – and get people into the system and up and running. On the other are people who believe that since you have their attention you should grab their credit card information up front so you can start charging if they don’t opt out. I’m in the former camp. I couldn’t find any scientific study on this, but in my experience asking for a credit card (or even having a two page sign-up form) significantly drops the number of people who get from the beginning to the end of the sign-up process. In one case, asking for credit card information resulted in 9 out of 10 people who started the free trial process dropping out.  That’s not worth the back-end trade-off of having the information to charge them later (plus the opt out thing isn’t cool in my opinion).

Your thoughts are welcome/encouraged!