The Psychological Difference Between Freemium & Free Trial Plans

I’ve been in hiding for the last few months, mainly to work on my startup, serpIQ. We just passed the one year milestone, which is an awesome and surreal feeling simultaneously. And in that year, to say that I have learned a lot about startups and business would easily win “Understatement of the Year” at the StartUppies (That’s what I assume an award show for startups would be called).

One major misstep I think that we made was back in February of this year. Amongst other things, we switched from a usage limited free trial plan to essentially a freemium plan. Previously, you could sign up and analyze 5 keywords for free, then you’d have to upgrade to continue. Now, you can sign up and analyze 5 keywords the first day, then 2 per day after that. When we made this switch, the mentality was that this would allow for people to have a longer time period to test out serpIQ before pulling the trigger and upgrading.

However, after doing a lot of research (and looking at our numbers) it appears that there was a more subtle thing going on that was negatively impacting our bottom line.

Before I dive into the psychology here, I want to define freemium and free trial and also drop in some cautionary statements. So first, here are the definitions:

Freemium: A free plan (usually limited in how much you can do with a product, whether that’s save pictures, analyze keywords, etc) with premium plan options to upgrade to once you outgrow it. Usually, freemium is feature or usage limited, but unlimited in duration.

Free Trial: These can have a few permutations, but I’ll explain the most common one (and the one we’ll be using in the next iteration of serpIQ): A “mini-plan” that allows you to try all of the aspects of a product or service for a limited amount of time (usually 7 days, 14 day, 30 days, 45 days, or 60 days). Sometimes companies will charge you at the end of the trial, sometimes they won’t take your payment information until after the trial is over. Regardless, the main point is that free trials end at some point.

Now, time for my cautionary statemenst:

  1. I am not a psychologist, I just like psychology (and read about it) a lot.
  2. Most of my post here is going to be anecdotal, I can’t share performance numbers yet as we haven’t launched our new setup yet. I’m merely explaining the mindset behind the changes we’re making. Freemium works. Free trials work. Your mileage will vary, of course.

Ok, so let’s get going.

There is a subtle psychological difference between Freemium and Free Trials in the mind of your potential customer.

When a customer sees that you have a free plan, you’re planting a seed in their brain that your product, in some form, is free. This has a domino-like effect on your customer’s mindset that will affect their purchasing decisions from the moment the seed is planted.

What’s happening here is that when a customer gets the idea that your product is free (even if they don’t have all of the features of a premium plan) they immediately start categorizing it with all of the other free products and services that they use online. Over time, friction will begin to grow in their minds towards the idea of ever having to pay for this supposedly free service of yours, and your product will need to overcome this friction in order to convert them to a paying customer.

Additionally, by offering your product for free, you’re subconsciously telling your customer that “yeah, our service is so cheap to run that we can afford to let you use it for free”. This puts your customer into the mindset of “well if it doesn’t cost them anything for me to use this, why should I pay them for it?” If that thought is running through your customer’s head, you’re dead in the water.

Of course, there are thousands of instances where the freemium model works for companies, but the reason it works for these companies is that they have architected the freemium plans very very well to essentially be the equivalent of getting a cheap buffet at a nice restaurant while all the other patrons are eating their awesome steaks behind glass a few feet above your head.

These freemium customers need to be enticed by all of the cool stuff they *could* have if they just cross that divide and upgrade their account to a premium plan. You’ll notice that companies that employ a freemium plan model are usually companies where the cost of offering what they do for free is extremely cheap (to the point of being negligible in the overall scheme of things).

A good example of this is Evernote. The cost of storing the data you could possibly put into Evernote is ridiculously low. That allows them to offer you the whole product for free, where you can fall in love and start incorporating it in your life. But then one day all of a sudden, you’re out of space. You can’t bear to part with Evernote at this point, you rely on it every day. So the friction to upgrade your plan is nearly gone and you punch in your credit card info.

As you can see in this graphic of various Evernote conversion numbers, they don’t reach peak conversion numbers until TWO YEARS after signup:
Now, with serpIQ, we incur costs on every keyword that’s processed in our system. Granted, it’s a small amount, but we’re still paying for premium APIs and other services, where there’s a direct data processing cost for each keyword that comes through our system. And there are a lot of companies out there with similar setups where there are real costs associated with usage (beyond negligible storage and usage costs, like with Evernote or maybe Basecamp). These types of company’s are much better suited for a Free Trial as you can control your costs better and you can position your product better as a Premium Service that costs money to use.

The main motivating force behind the freemium model is that you can use it to grow a very large userbase and then even with low conversion numbers, you can still become profitable. The risk you run is that even with the cheapest services, there are still costs that can add up (especially when you start getting thousands upon thousands of users) so if you don’t start converting like you thought you would, your growth might actually be the death of your product.

Remember, more users does not mean more profit. I can’t stress this enough. You have to monetize effectively to grow a profitable business, otherwise you’re just becoming the popular kid in school.

The Psychological Impact of Offering a Free Trial

The important psychological difference with a Free Trial is that from the moment the potential customer comes in contact with your product (and free trial) they are being reminded that they’re being allowed to TRY your product, and that they have a LIMITED amount of time to try it before they have to BUY it.

Your product is in no way free, you’re just reducing the the initial signup friction. This is a huge difference from using a freemium plan, where a user signs up under the pretense that as long as they stay within certain limits, they can always have free use of your product. With a free trial, the clock starts ticking the moment a customer registers and they’re completely aware of this.

This opens the door to a very different marketing strategy for the Free Trial companies. Let’s say you’re going to offer a 7-day Free Trial to your product. When your potential customers sign up for your free trial, you need to be doing everything in your power to show the true utility/power/greatness of your product in those 7 days.

You need to not only walk them through your product and show them how it all works and make sure their engagement is high, you also need to be emailing them with tips, tutorials, testimonials, videos, anything that will convince them to come back and USE YOUR PRODUCT.

You need to force your customer through your product’s entire workflow repeatedly in that 7 day period so that they can feel what it’s like to actually own your product, and hopefully become dependent on your product to the point where stopping use of it will be a bigger burden than paying for it and signing up.

The advantage you have when offering a free trial versus a freemium plan is that this push to convert your users to paying customers is transparent. They knew when they signed up for your trial that they were doing a digital test drive of your product, and they’ll subconsciously already be in a buying mindset, whether or not they end up buying your product.

From day 1, you’re showing the customer that your product costs something to use, and your job is to show them in that trial period that the benefit your product brings to them blows away the cost they’ll incur by signing up.

Nothing is hidden from your users in the trial period: they can use your product and its features, and if they want to continue, they need to become a paying customer. They get a taste of everything, which opens the door to your customer growing dependent on your product and the benefits it provides them, which is how you convert customers. You gain control of your funnel and subsequently gain leverage in the sales process.

A perfect example is HelpScout (I actually got a trial-ending reminder email while writing this post). I’ve already started using their product, and I like it a lot. And since it’s a time limited free trial, they have me right where they want me. I now need them for my company, so when I get an email from them…my first thought is “OH SHIT my company is going to go under without this, of course I’m going to sign up right now!”

Boom. They converted me.

Now of course, this all will vary widely by niche and market. serpIQ is in the Internet Marketing and SEO niche, where customers seem to be divided between people who want everything for free or who will pay a premium for a product, with very little left in between for a modestly priced product. So I’m in a position where I have to decide what direction I want to aim in terms of acquiring new customers. As I’ve been looking at our freemium option numbers, it just doesn’t seem like the right position for us: customers in this space will gladly use something for free indefinitely if they can.

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about A LOT in the last few months. Freemium and Free Trials seem roughly equivalent on first thought, but the subconscious differences can have a massive impact on your bottom line. You have to look at what you’re offering, what your competitors are offering, your costs, and ultimately your growth strategy to determine what is best for you and your company.

The bottom line is this: with both freemium and free trials, your job is to convince a potential customer that your product is worth paying for. With a freemium option, you will be creating your own friction by making your customer treat you like all of their other free services they use, making it hard for you to ultimately convert them. With a free trial, you have much more control over the sales process and funnel and can architect everything around the VALUE of your product and the BENEFITS it will bring to your customers (once they sign up).

I plan on covering this topic a few more times from some other angles, so I would love to hear your feedback on this post so I can use that feedback with future posts.

Plug: I learned a ridiculous amount of stuff regarding Free Trials and SaaS marketing in general from this course: Free Trial Dominator Lincoln is a smart dude and is super responsive, and this was a great investment considering how much I’ve already taken away from it. I recommend you check it out if you’re into SaaS products.


  1. The Article is good, but why is the refferal – Free Trial Dominator looking more like a spam / phishing page.

    1. Hey Abhishek, thanks for reading and commenting.

      I promise the link is to a legitimate product, I have no affiliation with the product (it’s not an affiliate link, nor do I own the product). It’s something I subscribed to last month and learned a lot from and I just wanted to give credit where credit is due.

        1. Ah yeah that makes sense. There certainly is something to be said about long form landing pages, they wouldn’t be so prevalent if they didn’t work. But I can assure you that the program is solid and I’ve learned a ton from it.

  2. Well-written article and a really interesting read. I’ve never considered the issue before. You rest a lot on the idea that a user will already be in a buying mood with a free trial. Correct me if I’m wrong, the assumption is ostensibly that the trial makes the user *want* to use the product more, because they only have a short chance before they have to make a decision to buy or not.

    Perhaps I’m an outlier, but this isn’t how I think at all. When I see a free trial, that’s a signal to me that I shouldn’t get too invested, because the trial probably isn’t long enough for me to really get to know the product. Maybe that’s an execution problem on the part of the vendor.

    In both cases (trial or free plan), if I’m signing up to try something, I’m going to have to make some mental effort to work that thing into my life, into my routine. It takes time, and sometimes it takes more than I have, or more than I’m willing to expend.

    In the case of a free plan, I can take the time to let the product work its tendrils into my consciousness. There’s little pressure, but there’s a promise: “If you give us some money, we’ll give you even more.” A free trial on the other hand, places demands on me: “If you can’t decide if you like our service by now, then we don’t want your money. Go away.”

    Now; in the article, you point out that the Free Trial’s job is funnel you into using the product. Maybe the problem for me is that free trials generally don’t do enough to insert themselves into my life while I have them. In that case, it’s just the way the free trails have been executed that makes me shy away. Or, maybe I’m just a lazy user.

    But consider this; Every time I come back to Dropbox and Evernote, I get better at using them. As I get better at them, their premium features look more and more interesting. Someday, I may buy their product. However, after my beta of Flow expired, I’ll probably never pay for it. Not because it wasn’t good, but because it wasn’t good enough to buy in 14 days. Well; it may have been, I just couldn’t give it the attention it demanded.

    I can certainly appreciate that your cost structure means that you can’t wait for your users to hem and haw over the product for an eternity, but I don’t think that freemium vs. free trial necessarily sends the kinds of signals that you’re arguing here.

    1. The trick is to attract signups that are likely in a buying mood. People who don’t want to spend money are, from a business point of view, wasted signups so you want to minimize those people.

      I rather skimmed the last bit of the article, but the other place where freemium works is where your business NEEDS lots of users. Social networks are the obvious place, but any product where having a lot of users increases the value is a reason to go freemium. It also depends on whether you’re trying to build a company that sells products that bring value to the person buying and using them or not. If your product has value to the person using it, charge them. If having lots of users is more important, make the product free or freemium.

      Basically you want to make the decision on whether there IS a price based on business model. What the price should be is a mix of market conditions and costs.

      1. Great point Rick regarding product value derived from customer interaction. My product (like many other B2B style products) has very little social components; you use it to speed up data collection and analysis for SEO. Now if we were running say a community help system for businesses, we’d obviously need a ton of users for value to be more obvious for potential customers.

        Thanks for your comment!

    2. Before I even begin to reply, I want to thank you for your comment, it’s very insightful.

      I suppose my point could have been more concise by mentioning that I am really referring to B2B style products (as that’s what I do professionally). When dealing with B2B, your potential customer is 1) used to free trials and 2) not opposed to paying for a product so long as it demonstrates its value.

      I think really it all boils down to a case by case basis, and what I wrote here is my thought process regarding my own product, our business model, and decisions we’ve made in the past versus where we’re going. I have a list of other topics I plan to cover that will hopefully illuminate this topic even more.

      But of course, as the differentiation I’m making here is dependent on the psychology of your customer base, you’re going to run into every possible case over the lifetime of your product. You yourself are demonstrating an appreciation of Freemium versus Free Trial (which is perfectly fine, some people lean one way or another on everything) so if I was trying to convert you, I’d need to take a different approach than what I described above.

      Essentially, I’m just trying to document my thought process behind the decisions I’m making with my own product with the hope that it might help someone else in a similar position.

      Again, thank you for your comment!

      1. Thanks for clarifying that you’re mainly B2B. I arrived here from Hacker News, and in all honesty, didn’t poke around too much before commenting.

        Given that information, I completely understand where you’re coming from. If I’m evaluating a product for my job, of course I’m going to make a pretty concerted effort to integrate it into my work. So by the end of the trial, I definitely will have a pretty good idea of how valuable it is for me.

        I think my original comment applied mainly to myself as a consumer, not as a business.

        I’d say your analysis is probably quite accurate given the nature of your customers. It may not cover all bases, but you weren’t trying to, so that’s fine!

    1. I’m pretty sure Basecamp still does this too (at least they used to, not sure if they killed it after they launched their new system).

      Combining the two could be a nice option if you can get a user to invest themselves into your product beyond what they could get for the free plan. Then, when the trial ends, they have to choose to reduce their usage or to become a paying customer, which is a great spot to have a potential customer in from the vendor’s point of view.

    1. The first thing I’d recommend to anyone interested in the psychology side of business and marketing is Influence by Robert Cialdini. Very very good book, the principles in it are applicable to many aspects of running an online business.

      As for the specific psychology behind this post, I really just formed these ideas from going through that Free Trial Dominator course I linked to as well as with studying other Psychology topics and looking at what the market is currently doing, so I don’t have many specific recommendations for you. If I do come up with any, I’ll be sure to share them here.

  3. Interesting. A lot depends on the usage pattern of the product too. If the product is like Evernote or Dropbox, which are characterized by repeated small uses, the free trial makes sense. But I have installed many products offering a free trial where I know going in I’m never going to buy, because the product does something “big” I only need to do right now but not much again, such as convert a bunch of WAV files to mp3. If time comes that I need to do it again someday, what I’ll likely do is download someone else’s free trial!

    1. Absolutely Jim, and that’s something we’re actually also up against currently as well. I think the trick to getting out of that dilemma is to target customers who can derive repeated value from your product beyond the free trial.

      An example in our case (which we’re actually planning to do soon) is to target Consultants and Agencies. These customers will repeatedly use our reports and analysis tools to land new clients, so they’ll realize the value of a paid subscription versus the free trial much more easily than someone who SEOs their own sites and might not profit for 6 months from the data we provide.

    1. Thanks for commenting Nick! Loving your product so far, it’s a really nice balance between feature packed and simple, exactly what we need for our support needs.

  4. Just came across this post now – very interesting and helpful! My company already employs a freemium and free-trial model – I’m not going to be able to change that plan. However, I’m looking for some case studies or recommendations for succesfully marketing of the freemium model, specifically for software. Our product is used by Database Administrators – so a pretty technical crowd. To date I’ve done regular email blast to specific segments of our database with some success, but looking for some new ideas to increase downloads of the freemium product this year. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks.

  5. Just read this post, very helpful insights thank you for sharing the info.

    One question, you mention moving from a free limited use model to a Freemium model. Free limited use seems to go right down the middle of the two options you discuss, does it offer the best of both scenarios? e.g. no pressure to convert, get familiar with using the functionality and as you get more familiar and start using it more then you are ready to convert. Why did you ditch this model? What was your experience and conversion rate? Many thanks.

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