February 27, 2020

How Qordoba launched a successful free trial

Each company’s evolutionary path is unique. Though there may be common threads, the specifics of the journey vary based on each organization’s culture, mission, and trajectory. In this series, we invite SaaS leaders to share stories of transition from a traditional to a product-led go-to-market strategy.

Try-before-you-buy is a here-to-stay feature of B2B software. Today’s buyers expect to be able to get hands-on experience before they make a purchase decision. Companies that choose to opt out of offering a free trial reveal their biggest vulnerability: the fear that their product might not be up to the task of earning paying customers on its own merit.

Fear is not an option. Modern software companies cannot fear the market. They cannot fear their users. They need to build a product that delivers real value, and then design a strategy to get that product into users’ hands so they can experience that value. 

There has always been a debate about whether it’s better to offer a freemium product or a free trial. Only you can determine which is more appropriate for your company, product, and user base. Freemium tends to require that you draw a deeper line in the sand, so to speak. For it to be sustainable, you need to have an intimate understanding of the value you deliver to your market, how your market is evolving, and what kind of short-term pricing strategy you need to support a free-forever offering.

While freemium is a valid strategy (and one that’s not completely off our roadmap), at Qordoba, it made more sense for us to start with a self-serve free trial. This is the best starting place for many companies as they enter the “free” space for the first time. It’s a strategy that’s more flexible and forgiving. Even so, there are a lot of strategic and tactical variables to consider in terms of logistics and mechanics. You also have to work through how a free trial will affect your overall pricing and sales structures, and—perhaps most important—you need to reimagine how internal business functions work together.

Step 1: Making the right choices

We believe that conversational brands—that is, brands that have a single, powerful, persuasive message that consistently connects with people across channels—win. That’s too hard to do today. So many people are writing across sales, marketing, customer success, and product, and they are not necessarily using the language that will move your audience to engage. At Qordoba, we help everyone at a company write with the style, terminology, and brand voice that will resonate with your audience. 

The value of Qordoba shines once a prospect is able to see it in action. This is why it’s so important for us to give potential users a free way to experience Qordoba for themselves. We know that once they realize how much easier we can make their lives, they will be hooked. 

Deciding to offer a free trial was just the first of many decisions we needed to make. There were three core decisions that really helped us outline the general structure of the trial:

Time-based versus usage-based

The first question we faced was whether our trial should be set to a specific length of time or be constrained by usage limits (meaning the trial goes on as long as it takes the user to use up their limit; in our case, we could have gone with the number of corrections or the amount of content checked). This question was hotly debated by our internal teams. We ultimately decided to go with a time-based trial that includes most of our product’s functionality. This, we felt, was the most effective way to really give users the best sense of Qordoba’s capabilities.

We did, however, include a kind of hybrid element to our trial. Qordoba includes a Chrome extension and plugins for Docs and Word. We set these up to be trialed on a “time plus” basis. In other words, if someone has installed the extension and/or the plugins during the trial, these elements will continue to function even after the trial has ended. The only difference is that during the trial, Qordoba will provide suggested fixes to any problems detected, but after the trial, the user will only see the problem without the suggested solution. 

This unique blend of the time- and usage-based approaches gives us a way to keep Qordoba top of mind, continue demonstrating its value, and potentially re-engage users even after their trial has ended.

Length of trial

Once we had decided on a time-based trial, the next question—of course—was how long the trial should be. The key to is to find the balance between motivating someone to use the product while making sure you’re giving them enough time, amidst all their other priorities, to follow through. You want to create a sense of urgency, but not set the deadline so tightly that there’s no way for them to achieve the goal. 

For us, 14 days (10 business days) turned out to be the optimal window. This span gives users enough time to do an initial walkthrough, understand how the product works, and engage with the product on their own. We have a demo doc that is a really easy way for new users to get started, and then we use the trial period to prompt users to add their own content, customize it, and invite team members. The 14-day trial is concentrated enough to keep a new user engaged, and open enough that we aren’t overwhelming them.

Sign-up requirements

The last major decision we had to make was whether to require a work email and/or credit card as part of the trial sign-up process. Research shows that requiring either or both of those negatively impact the top of the funnel. People don’t like having to give up personal or financial information. Not surprisingly, they prefer to get something for nothing. 

Since our primary objective was getting people into the product, we decided to really open things up. Our trial doesn’t require a credit card, and—while we do require an email in order to communicate with the user—it doesn’t need to be a work email. By setting the barrier to entry so low, we’re able to maximize signups and increase our overall opportunity to impress prospects.

Step 2: Establishing performance metrics

With any free trial, your primary KPI is obviously going to be conversion, but it’s really helpful to break that ultimate objective down into its component parts. We use three key secondary measures that help us stay on top of whether we’re on the right track at critical stages of the trial process. Those three milestone measures take place in order:

  • Have the user added their own content to Qordoba? Have they pasted in content for a blog, article, whitepaper, or marketing webpage? 
  • Have they customized the style guide and terminology manager? Have they tailored Qordoba’s style and other rules so they can see what kinds of suggestions Qordoba makes?
  • Have they invited team members? Our plans are team based, so it’s important to encourage new users to invite team members. 

Based on these three key measures, we were able to clearly define our activation moment as the point at which a user has completed two of these three items and installed our Chrome extension. Completing two of the three milestone steps is critical because it indicates that a user is actively engaged with our product. Having them install the Chrome extension is important because that’s the element that puts Qordoba at the user’s fingertips and allows us to re-engage and promote stickiness.

Internally, we looked at these performance measurements in terms of identifying which business functions or roles are responsible for specific stages of the trial and related outcomes. That accountability breaks down into three phases:

  • The click-through rate (CTR) and landing page conversion rate into the trial is owned by marketing. 
  • The conversion from the trial to paid is owned by product.
  • The conversion from self-service trial to activation is owned by customer success. 

While we have defined these areas of responsibility, there is some overlap. For instance, at this early stage of the free trial, customer success is very hands on across the board. We don’t discriminate between customer tiers, but rather offer the same support whether the customer is a smaller organization paying $49 per month or a much more involved enterprise company. Our primary goal is to make sure that great teams have great experiences. 

Especially in the beginning, everyone needs to be working together. It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation while you’re getting up and running. Once you’ve found your groove, you can refine the points of collaboration and connection between one function and another. 

For example, the way we have things set up, marketing is responsible for the first part of the process (conversion into the trial). Marketing then hands off to the product team, who handles conversion from trial to paid. However, even though product technically owns the trial-to-paid conversion, they are also the ones building the engagement funnel for our ideal customer profile. This engagement funnel will be dead in the water unless we’re  getting the right people in the door. To ensure we’re getting the right people, marketing needs to be sophisticated enough to activate users and influencers who are as closely related as possible to our target personas. The process needs to be about the quality of trial signups, not just the quantity. So, while product owns that trial-to-paid conversion rate, marketing is a secondary owner of that metric and shares the responsibility.

Step 3: Aligning teams and managing change

As I’ve already mentioned, one of the biggest issues a company needs to work through when launching a free trial is addressing internal concerns, especially those of the sales team. Salespeople often worry that they will lose people to the trial or to self service, and they aren’t necessarily wrong to worry. The best approach to making sure everyone in the organization is evolving together is to be collaborative and open about the strategy, the process, and the long-term vision. 

We worked really closely with our sales leadership before we launched. We looked closely at how the online pricing bled into the unpublished, sales-assisted pricing. We were very transparent throughout the entire process. We have an internal pricing strategy doc (which is accessible to the whole company), and we used this to lay out the self-service package alongside the multiple tiers of the sales-assisted packages. This provided clarity about the various paths sales could take to upsell people from the free trial. 

It’s also important to leave yourself open to making adjustments along the way. You don’t have to consider your first approach as written in stone. There will be plenty of opportunities to learn along the way and refine your approach. Based on initial feedback from the soft launch of our free trial, we introduced a new sales-assisted package called “starter select” that falls between self-serve and our existing sales-assisted packages. You can always create new options based on what your users and sales teams need.

While we were open to being flexible and adaptable, we also made it a priority to keep things dead simple. This is why—apart from our “starter select” package—we only present two options: one universal self-service trial and then everything else falls into the sales-assisted category. This means that there’s no confusion about trialing on one package and then downgrading to a different paid package. Our trial includes all the features available in our paid option. 

Keeping things really simple on the customer-facing side makes it easier to move people through the funnel. On the backend, however, you can segment offers however makes the most sense for your business. At Qordoba, we have one front-facing enterprise category, but on the backend, that breaks down into six different packages based on the team’s feature and usage needs: Professional One, Professional Two, Team One, Team Two, Enterprise One, and Enterprise Two.

The other internal element to navigate is team relationships. In a sales-driven organization, marketing and product tend to work together only occasionally. There isn’t a lot of crossover in their areas of responsibility. In a product-led organization, however, they are each owners of key initiatives to grow and convert the same trial base. This creates a lot of internal points of collaboration, which evolve into a very tactical, day-to-day relationship. 

At Qordoba, we had a leg up on team integration because our Creative Director oversees both marketing and product design. In addition, our product designer and head of product had worked together previously. Both these facts went a long way toward ensuring that everything came together seamlessly. 

Launching a free trial with confidence

A self-serve free trial can be a very powerful tool for attracting and engaging new users. And in today’s software market, it’s really a mandatory part of any successful go-to-market strategy. Modern B2B software buyers are no longer willing to be “sold” on a product. They want to get in there and check it out for themselves so they can make the most informed decision possible. 

Companies thinking about launching a free trial will be best served if they can accomplish a few key things during the planning stage:

  • Get really clear and detailed about goals for the whole company.
  • Work out the strategic and tactical details of execution in collaboration with your functional leaders.
  • Articulate exactly who the trial is for and how it will effectively deliver value. 
  • Nail down all the variables to make sure the trial is designed to serve both your target audience and your business.

With these four pillars in place, you won’t have anything to fear—from the market or your users. You’ll feel confident about putting your product into the hands of prospective buyers. Using this framework, we have been successful with our initial free trial launch; and we only see good things ahead for both our customers and our company.

May Habib is the CEO of Writer, an AI writing assistant for businesses. Writer allows the whole company to speak with the same voice, for consistent messaging everywhere where companies speak to their customers.

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