Stop Confusing Free Trials and Onboarding (It’s Costing You Customers)

Prospective customers use Free Trials as an opportunity to see if your product is right for them before they buy.

Customer Onboarding is the process a new customer goes through to get up and running with your product after they buy.

If you confuse Free Trials and Customer Onboarding, you’ll try to engage prospects as if they’re already customers, resulting in poor engagement and lower conversion from free to paid.

Let’s dig in.

Understanding Customer Engagement

In our Customer Engagement service we work with companies to improve, well, customer engagement. Contact us to learn more.

Among other things, we analyze the performance of, and rewrite, email sequences.

Many of our clients reached out because their Free Trial email sequences were not delivering the results they wanted (i.e. engaging the ‘trialists’ and converting them to customers).

It was instantly obvious that every company having trouble engaging and converting prospects in their Free Trials were confusing Free Trials with Customer Onboarding.

Specifically, they’re trying to engage Free Trial prospects as if they’re already customers who are now going through Onboarding.

And that’s causing a lot of problems.

So I wanted to make sure you’re not also making this mistake.

It starts with an understanding that Free Trials and Onboarding are not the same.

Free Trials vs. Customer Onboarding

Remember, from the prospect’s perspective, Free Trials are a mechanism to see if your product is right for them BEFORE they make their buying decision. 

That’s why I make it a point to call them a prospect or prospective customer. Not a “trialist” or “free user.”

Even in cases where the prospect is going through the Free Trial as a way to validate a decision they’ve already made, the fact is, they haven’t actually become your customer yet and that decision can be invalidated by a poor experience during the Trial.

Customer Onboarding, on the other hand, is the process that new customers go through to get up and running and to start using your product.

Customer Onboarding vs. User Onboarding

Customer Onboarding and User Onboarding are often used interchangeably, but they can be different. 

For instance, you can onboard a new Customer and 10 users, and then later on after those users are fully adopted, onboard the next wave of 10 users within that same customer.

But for our purposes here, we’re just saying Customer Onboarding as an umbrella term.

The Source of the Confusion

In a Free Trial, you want your prospect to do certain things to see the value potential in becoming your customer.

Where the confusion comes from, is that those things you want the prospect to do in the Free Trial may closely (or sometimes exactly) map to what a customer would do in Onboarding.

So what’s the rumpus?

In a Free Trial, they aren’t your customer yet. So don’t try to engage them as such.

The Psychology of Engaging Prospects vs. Customers

If you try to engage a prospective customer as if they’re a fully-converted, paying customer, your less-than-stellar results will reflect that decision.

It really comes down to the psychology associated with whether they’ve made that decision to buy yet or not.

Once they sign-up and pay, as Robert Cialdini said in his amazing book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, they’ll want to take action consistent with the commitment they just made.

The commitment they made with that buying decision is FAR stronger than the one they made to simply sign-up to try your product for free.

Free Trial Engagement

In a Free Trial, we need to build the prospect’s confidence in our product over a relatively short amount of time. 

We need them to see how our product will help them achieve their goals. Make them look good. Save them time. Or whatever they’re trying to accomplish.

We need to get them to a point where becoming our customer – making that buying decision – is the most logical next step.

This means Free Trials should be designed with this singular goal in mind. And the only measure of success is conversion rate.

The entire Free Trial experience, from inside the product to the email sequence, should be designed with that goal in mind.

If you have historical data to learn from, you can even design your Free Trial around Common Conversion Activities (CCA), a Free Trial metric I invented way back in 2012.

But in a Free Trial, the way you engage is what matters.

WIIFT? What’s In It for Them?

So you want them to use a feature. Great. Why? What’s in it for them (WIIFT)? Why should they do it? What’s the benefit?

It’s not easy to come up with that – I get it – which is why those tasked with creating the sequence – Marketing? Sales? Customer Success? Enablement? A mix of everyone? – constantly drop back to function- and feature-based language.

It’s always easier to talk about our product than it is to understand and talk TO the prospect about stuff that matters to them.

But during the Trial, when our relationship is fragile and they literally aren’t bought-in yet, we need to lead with WIIFT.

Now, contrast all of that with…

Customer Onboarding Engagement

Ideally, you don’t want to be purely product-centric in your Onboarding messaging.

While our relationship is slightly less fragile immediately after they’ve become a paying customer, and they are (in theory) excited and ready to get moving on this, we can’t just assume using our product will instantly become a priority for them.

This assumption is the top reason brand new paying customers immediately ghost you.

We know the principle of Consistency and Commitment is at play here, but we also know that it’s not magic.

It doesn’t always work. At least not by itself.

The Principle of Consistency and Commitment

We need to work with human nature, not against it.

So even in Onboarding, even after they’ve paid, you still want to map what you need them to do to the value they will receive as a way to motivate their action. Again, WIIFT?

Now, and I hesitate to say this, while being customer-centric will generally yield (far) better results, the reality is, you can get away with a lot more product-centric and far less customer-centric language in your Onboarding messaging since they already made the buying decision.

Again, Consistency and Commitment.

In practice, however, if you want to ensure success for all involved in Onboarding, you cannot rely solely on that principle of Influence to work on its own.

You need to augment it with WIIFT messaging.

And in Free Trials, that’s even more true.

Customers and Prospects are Different

Confusing Free Trials and Customer Onboarding will result in poor engagement and lower conversion from free to paid.

And what those not-so-great conversion metrics really mean is that the prospect wasn’t able to see the value potential in your product during their trial.

Even though you have the best product out there.

About Lincoln Murphy

I invented Customer Success. I focus primarily on Customer Engagement. Learn more about me here.