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Free Trial vs. Free Demo: Which Offer Will Maximize My Software Sales?

Published by in B2B Marketing

Most serious software buyers want to actually experience a software system, i.e. its usability and features, before making a purchase decision.  So it makes sense that buyers who are comparing products are more attracted to Free Trial and Free Demo offers on landing pages or websites over offers like a content piece or “contact us” form.  Free Trial and Free Demo convert so well not only because they’re compelling, but because they align most closely with the buyer’s wish to experience the product first hand.

Free trial vs. Free demo

The question I inevitably get from software companies is, ‘Which one converts better- a Free Trial or a Free Demo?

As marketers, we all care about improving conversion rates, but it’s even more important to pinpoint which methods ultimately increase your software sales.  Instead of asking which one is better, ask what would you get from each one?

Both options can perform better than the other for different reasons. It depends on the type of software, your sales cycle, your target audience, and what fits best with your internal processes. When considering a Free Trial vs. Free Demo offer to increase your sales, there are a few pros and cons of both to help you decide.

Free Trial: A Self Service Way to More Sales

Giving a buyer immediate access to the resources they need to make a purchase decision on their own time allows buyers to move themselves through the sales process.  It also reduces the amount of friction in the process of a buyer finding the feature that solves their specific pain point.  With the rise of SaaS providers, accessible free trials are also on the rise.  Web-based solutions allow you to access your trial anytime from anywhere.  One example of this would be FlexBooker, an appointment scheduling tool that allows quick access to the trial with very few barriers (three field form).

Software providers doing well with Free Trial offers have a few things in common.

They have a simple, intuitive interface to navigate around the system.  The key is to ease new prospects into the system and quickly get them using the features that are going to help them the most.

One great example of this is Wild Apricot, which has a Free 30 Day Trial as their main offer.  After requesting a free trial, Wild Apricot has a wizard-type trial setup that is easy to understand.  With the wizard-like setup, Wild Apricot can also accomplish another important goal, which is to make sure their prospects are doing specific actions in the trial that will make them more likely to convert to a paid customer.  Compare this to a trial that drops someone in the system with no wizard or tutorial to help the user find their way around.  The likelihood of a user abandoning will increase dramatically if they can’t figure out what to do next.

A benefit of those succeeding with Free Trial to paid accounts is that they can free up higher cost sales resources.  Those SaaS providers that are able to do without a large team of sales reps have automatic nurture tracks setup for the free trial users.  They have these timed out based on how someone is interacting with the trial to help them get the most from the trial and also address obstacles in the process.  By tracking this data, they can further refine these email nurture tracks and auto-resource sends to help more trial users get to the buying stage.  For many of these software companies, it’s not enough simply to monitor who logs in to the trial and who does not.  To convert Free Trials at a high rate, they monitor and actively remove obstacles or otherwise encourage buyers to achieve Common Conversion Activities (CCAs), which Lincoln Murphy defines as ‘the things that all or most paying customers do during their trial.’

Finally, free trial providers also find the best length of the trial to get someone ‘hooked’.  Once someone has either accomplished the specific action in the trial process that addresses their main pain point and perceived value moves to value backed by data, they’ll be very likely to convert to a customer.  This data could be anything from time saved from using the software to something like an increased click rate on an email marketing campaign.  With a free trial user, the more they get from the system early on, the better, to prove value and justify costs.

Free Demo: Personalizing the Conversation

So when can a demo work better for your sales than a trial?

The simple answer is if your software is more complex and if speaking to a buyer over the phone is an integral step to closing business.  I’ve heard from a handful of software companies that they tried free trials but experienced a large abandon rate.  Now, this could be a sign that they can improve automatic steps in the trial process to help users get from step two to step three before leaving the trial, but in a good many cases, it means that the buyers are not able to answer their questions during their free trial.

Instead, these buyers need to communicate their specific workflow and have a much more catered sales conversation.  Sometimes, a video or webinar may be able to answer a few more questions than a trial for these types of buyers, and might be a good launching pad to a more personalized conversation with a sales rep and a 1-on-1 demo.

Another reason for abandon rate in trials is people get distracted.  These are businesses we’re dealing with and people are busy.  Some are not do-it-yourselfers, but rather need more handholding.  Getting them on the phone and asking specific questions based on their needs can get them engaged and keep you more top-of-mind in their software comparison.

Many times important qualifying information for certain software companies won’t be gathered via a lead capture form but over the phone.  The reason is twofold – you want to keep the initial lead capture form short to gather as many leads from your web traffic as possible, while keeping the qualifying questions that may be more sensitive to ask a buyer for the phone or follow-up email.  Examples are ‘What system are you currently using?  What other systems have you looked at?  Do you have an idea on budget? What challenges are you looking to solve?

Finally, you might want to try a demo if your Free Trial takes a good amount of time and manual work to setup.  The longer you take to follow-up once someone has filled out a form, the less likely a software company has of having a meaningful conversation.  In fact, ‘Companies that try to contact potential customers within an hour of receiving queries are nearly  7 times  as likely to have meaningful conversations with key decision makers as firms that try to contact prospects even an hour later.’ (HubSpot)

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Having a clear idea of what types of interaction a buyer needs to become a customer will help you determine if a Free Trial or Free Demo will increase your sales.  While the above tips go over the two opposite spectrums for Free Trial use and Free Demo use, there certainly can be other combinations and iterations than what I’ve covered here.

For example, it’s possible that a more complex software solution can still see success with giving a free trial in the lead funnel, but it may not be the initial touchpoint with the buyer.  Every company is going to be different based on the product, tech resources, sales and marketing set-up, etc.  The point is that conversion rate is merely one component to track.  Ultimately, finding which path drives more sales will determine which offer to go with or, at least, which to make more prominent should you go with both.

In fact, by understanding a buyer’s needs, some software companies have found they can increase close rates by offering both a free trial and free demo.  They have found that their buyers are about half and half (self-serve versus hand holding needs). A great example of this is mHelpDesk that offers a 14 Day Free Trial and a 1-on-1 demo with an expert.

Excited to start offering a Free Trial use or Free Demo offer and are able to track conversion rates, but not close rates for each marketing channel?  Reach out to your Capterra Marketing Advisor to get more details and tips on increasing inbound leads, tracking activities and closing more leads to paid customers.

Looking for Sales Force Automation software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Sales Force Automation software solutions.

About the Author

Jennifer Bischoff

Jennifer Bischoff

As part of Capterra’s product team, Jen focuses on CRO and UX, particularly on best practices for mobile lead generation. Staying abreast of how buyers access and interact with product content across devices keeps her fingers tapping. A graduate of UofM, Jen enjoys reading classics, writing, and being taken for walks by her Bernese and St. Bernard.



Comment by Thad on

Jennifer, awesome post. Curious for your thoughts on this approach… let people sign up to trial but follow up right away with a phone call to answer questions/clear up confusion that might come from being in the software without any training?


Comment by Wesley Bush on

Great points, Jennifer. I agree that complexity plays a very important part of what model might work best for your business. Before making a decision on whether a free trial or freemium model is best for your business, I highly recommend making sure you’re well aware of what go-to-market strategies gel best with free trial or freemium models. If you use a disruptive strategy (like Google Docs), freemium can be super powerful. If you use a differentiated approach, a free trial usually works best as you are selling to underserved customers who have very specific requirements and a completely “hands-off” onboarding (ie freemium) may be near impossible to pull off with a complex product. If you’re still curious whether a free trial or freemium model is best for your business, I recommend checking out my article that covers this topic from the angle of what go-to-market strategy will serve your free trial, demo, or freemium model best. 🙂 https://trafficiscurrency.com/free-trial-or-freemium/

Comment by Pramod Patil on

Hello Jennifer,
Superb article, very insightful
In my opinion, it is better to give a free demo than a free trail irrespective of the complexity of software. My reasoning for it is, with the Free demo you can give more personalized, native and tailored experience to the customer as compare to the free trial and it also helps to better close rates. We have tool which is the cheapest, easiest to use and learn
Full disclosure, we are so convinced by it that we are selling it, let us know your opinion on my thoughts and our tool



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Comment by George Athan on

Great article Jennifer. The major shift in power has gone from the business to the buyer. It went from the businesses selling, now to the customers buying. The more information provided online, the more content being created, the more control of the buying process the customer has. Your topic is the perfect example. The problem with this idea is that many buyers are adopting this process for every transaction and in some cases (many actually) they are not qualified or educated enough control this process. Many businesses should still try to be very involved in the process so they can deliver the information that is needed at the right time. Especially with complex sales, we need to teach buyers on how to make some of these decisions.

We teach companies how to still control the parts of the buying/selling process so that the customer and the business both benefit in the end. Again, great topic. I look forward to reading your future posts.

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