Free trial emails 101: What you need to know

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If you’re here right now, I’m willing to bet that your SaaS company offers a free trial. In fact, free trials are prevalent enough that you can assume nearly all software companies use some version of it, or a freemium product. 

While having a free trial is a given, new users who automatically become engaged and convert aren’t. For reference, the average conversion rate for a free trial that doesn’t require a credit card is around 10%.

There’s good news for you in this scenario, my marketing friend. SaaS professionals’ general consensus is that marketing is the most effective means of driving free trial usage and conversion.

free trial emails usage chart

That means you hold power to make a real difference in your company. Your tool? Free trial emails. 

What are free trial emails?

Free trial emails are the messages you send to a new user to support them during their free trial, and to move them towards possibly signing up.

By this definition, the goal of your free trial emails is to:

  • Educate new users about your company and product
  • Encourage people to use the product often
  • Increase conversion by establishing value straight away

So are they onboarding emails? In a sense, yes. All free trial emails are like onboarding messages, but not all onboarding emails are for free trials. The examples we’ll cover today are only for the free trial, and not for after a user converts to a paid plan. 

Product-led growth is a strategy that aims to align software so closely to the end users’ needs that the product itself is the primary driver of acquisition and growth. Within this framework, there are a few key metrics to measure your free trials by:

  • Activation, also known as an “aha moment,” is when a specific persona completes a high-value action within their first weeks as a user. Activation rates, or the percentage of trial users who complete those “aha moment” actions, is between 20% and 40% for top product-led companies. 

In a 2020 study by OpenView, 50% of product managers indicated that they track “activation” actions for new users.

  • Conversion rates are obviously important during free trials, with 6.5% being the average for hands-off trials. If you use your sales team to make contact alongside your free trial experience, the average conversion rate rises to 10%.
  • Retention is critical for long-term business sustainability, and can indicate how well free trials are driving the right conversions. Average user retention rates after the first month range from 37% to 55%. 

The emails your free trial email campaign needs

Welcome email

As the name suggests, welcome emails are the kick-off for your free trial series. These emails are focused on keeping energy high after a person signs up, and using that momentum to get them started. 

GoDaddy understands that starting something new can be overwhelming, so their welcome email focuses on easy progress. They break the entire process into three simple phases: “activate free trial,” “create website,” and “launch.” Luckily for the reader, they’ve already completed step one. Next, they have time estimates beside each action to make the work less intimidating.

free trial emails example GoDaddy

Automate it

Welcome emails need to go out right away to capitalize on new user momentum. Even if none of your other emails are triggered based on user action (or inaction), this one is non-negotiable. 

Feature spotlight emails

The next free trial email example to consider is a feature spotlight message. These emails shine a light on a single feature within your app, and offer the next step for new users. 

For example, InVison says why this feature matters by stating teams need to “reflect on what worked during a project and what could have worked better.” InVision also includes a list of three benefits you can expect from the feature, such as “bringing everyone into the conversation.”

Invision free trial emails example

Automate it

During a free trial, the features you highlight are critical, which is why there’s such a big personalization and automation opportunity. You can send an email when you see that a user hasn’t touched a valuable tool, or progress emails quicker for highly-engaged teams. 

Use case 

Another way to position your company with free trial email marketing is with use cases. Use case emails tend to bundle a few features that all work towards a common goal, such as “increasing productivity.”

Asana calls attention to four features that impact a user’s productivity. While each element in the email, (eg. templates and email integrations) could stand alone as a feature spotlight email, Asana decided they’re more powerful together. 

Asana free trial emails example

Automate it

Use case emails are ripe with personalization and automation ideas. For example, you could tailor use case emails to match the blog topics a person has viewed.

Or, you can send information tailored to the user’s industry. Information that the user provided during sign up, such as company size, department, and top goals, are also gold mines of automation opportunity.

Educational email

With the right content, your company can become a resource and thought leader to users, instead of just a tool. Educational free trial emails send relevant content that helps users accomplish whatever task they set out to do with you. 

In Shopify’s case, they know that their users want to start a business. So, they created a “Dropshipping 101” course to help people find their way. The content is completely free and complements Shopify’s offerings. 

Shopify free trial emails example

Automate it

Similar to use case emails, it’s a good idea to send educational emails on topics a person has expressed interest in. You can set up a trigger for when a user reads a particular blog or signs up for a webinar, and then send additional resources.

You should also send resources related to the user’s “job to be done,” which is what they want to achieve with your company.

Call to action

There comes a time in every free trial where there’s a fork in the road. Will the user upgrade, or will they let their free trial fizzle out? Call to action emails let users know that the clock is ticking, and prompt them to sign up for a paid plan now. 

Call to action emails also need to educate free trial users about pricing plans. While the person may not have reviewed pricing tiers before signing up, they need to choose what’s best for them now. To make it easier for them, consider highlighting which tier they fall into based on current usage, or team size information from signup. 

FreshBooks frames their ask under the headline “FreshBooks + You = Success.” They let the person know how many days are left in their free trial and reiterates the product’s benefits.

Since there’s still time in the free trial, FreshBooks eases up on the pressure by reassuring the user that there’s still time to learn more, or talk to a support team member.

Freshbooks free trial emails example

Automate it

A key automation lever you can pull for your call to action emails is timing. See that a user is taking massive action and getting the hang of the product quickly?

You may be able to bump up your CTA earlier in the trial. On the other hand, you may spend more time encouraging inactive users with feature emails before asking them to get out their credit card.

Offer

If at first you don’t convert, try again. Some companies choose to sweeten the deal with a discount, usually on a longer-term commitment. Offer emails present a discount that’s hopefully a final push to get new users to upgrade. 

Calm lets users know that they have one week left in their trial, and that they can save when they upgrade now. The offer is 40% off of an annual subscription, and they add a little scarcity by letting the reader know the deal is only valid for the next week. 

Automate it

Similar to how you may change your call-to-action email based on user activity, usage volume, and features used, you can tailor the timing of offer emails. You may also experiment with different offer structures, or calling out specific plans that match user needs. 

Free trial extension

A free trial user that doesn’t convert isn’t necessarily a lost cause. A free trial follow up email offering an extension, may give you and the user enough time to test the fit before calling it quits.

Your free trial extension email could come at the end of a typical trial, or when circumstances have changed. Monday, for example, saw an opportunity to help newly-remote teams.

Therefore they sent an email offering an additional seven days to try the tools again. You could send these types of “winback” emails after time has passed, or new versions and features have launched. 

Monday free trial emails example

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Automate it

Different free trial extension messaging may better suit user segments. For example, if user activity picked up towards the end of the trial, you may offer an extension right away to keep them going.

Inactive users may not have been a good fit at the moment, and you can create an automation to check back in a few months with new positioning.

Feedback?

Without customer feedback and data, it’s hard to pinpoint where you can improve. That’s why some companies choose to send a feedback email to ask users why they didn’t convert. 

When free trial users let their accounts lapse, Beegit sends an email asking why they didn’t continue their plan. While it may seem uncomfortable at first, you’ll never know what went wrong if you don’t ask. A simple email is best here, since you don’t want to take up much of their time.

beegit personal email

Automate it

You’ll want to be prompt about asking for feedback, since users may forget their feelings as time goes on. Another automation option would be to focus on your most highly-engaged free trial users, since these represent your “close, but not quite” users that may be toeing the line between decisions. 

4 keys to a great free trial email marketing strategy

Consider user context and goals

Understanding a new user’s goals and motivations helps you deliver a more relevant experience. So ask users why they’re signing up now? What’s going on in their life or work that led them to you? Was there a tipping point that led them to signing up?

Next, think about what they may be frustrated with, and what they want to achieve. Then, plan how you’ll guide users from feeling frustrated to accomplished in as few steps as possible. Ideally, you’ll have gathered some of this information during signup, like Demio does. 

Demio free trial emails example

You also need to consider the different types of roles that may be in your free trial. A marketer and engineer within the same company may have different goals and tasks to accomplish.

Educational content should be segmented for each so that you don’t have confused users receiving blog posts for polar opposite roles. You can also help each user work as a team, such as notifying a marketer that a technical setup isn’t complete, and that they need to check with an engineer.

Reiterate benefits and outcomes (without sacrificing clarity)

While your company and product team view your fantastic features as a labor of love, new users also have outcomes in mind. While you should never have marketing that’s so abstract and “benefit-focused” that people don’t know what you do, you still need to portray value. 

For example, Trim manages to give details about their service while also playing up the benefits and outcomes that users can expect.

They clearly mention features, like being able to “get a debt payoff plan, chat with a financial coach, and get your interest rates negotiated.” Then Trim follows up with a benefit the user is interested in— ”kicking your debt once and for all.”

Trim free trial emails example

Send useful and educational information

What topics does your audience love? Are there pieces that consistently get attention and engagement? Use your free trial emails to show off your best content. The more you can be a true partner in your users’ success, the better. 

Typeform recognizes that while its tool is easy to use, users may still struggle with content. So, the company outlined four steps to create more engaging surveys. By repurposing blog content into an easy-to-read list, Typeform added value to new users and enticed them to read more on the blog. 

Sync emails to user behavior for the most relevant experience

If you want to send the most relevant and impactful free trial emails, you need to sync them to user behavior. Marketing automation helps you create hyper-personalized email sequences at scale. Setting up “triggers” like the one shown below are the green lights for action-based emails to deploy. 

Best practices for higher free trial email conversions

Personalize, personalize, personalize

The more relevant your emails are, the higher chance of conversion. Your personalization starts with your automation strategy, but dynamic content is also worthwhile to explore. 

For example, you can use dynamic content to adjust the content shown to match a user’s industry or role. You can also use dynamic content to pull in user data on their progress and actions. GasBuddy uses this tactic as part of a “driving scorecard,” which helps users track their efforts. 

GasBuddy dynamic content example

Focus on one action at a time

Your free trial emails should be less like a buffet and more like a fine dining experience. If you continuously send emails with a long list of features and actions, users might get overwhelmed. Focus on one topic and CTA at a time, especially when you’re using triggered emails to drive a particular action.

Use loss aversion tactics

Sometimes you have to apply a little pressure. Using loss aversion tactics such as limited time offers can help users act now, and not later. Simple ways to incorporate this include putting a timeframe on a discount, just like Calm did. You may have also noticed that FreshBooks maintains a countdown in each free trial email to let you know how many days are left.

It’s also a good practice to let users know what happens to their accounts after their trial has expired. Does their data disappear? Will they still have access to their past work? If they’re bumped down to a permanently-free tier, which features will they lose access to?

Newton’s trial expiration message tells users that they’ve lost access to some features, and that access to others is limited. As long as a person renews, though, their information and features will return to normal.

Send personalized emails and push notifications

Improve the impact of every message you send your customers by including engaging content.

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Run A/B tests

Email A/B testing is always a good practice, especially on an email series that directly impacts revenue. Test out subject lines, positioning, call to actions, highlighted features, dynamic content, and more to learn what’s best. 

Make upgrading easy

Emails are a launch pad for getting users into your app, but the email’s success sometimes relies on what happens on the other side. CTAs for upgrading should be clear, and signing up on your site needs to be a one-step (or as close to it as possible) process.

A complicated signup process on your site that tanks conversions could negatively impact the perceived performance of your marketing.

Add a “free trial abandonment” email

Our last tip for boosting conversions within your free trial emails is to add a “free trial abandonment” message. While this type of email isn’t common, it could be a useful addition to your series down the line. 

In the example below, Copper calls out that a person started to sign up for a trial, but then left. Sometimes a simple reminder sent to a distracted person can boost signups. 

Copper free trial email example

Free trial emails are a critical set of touchpoints during the early days of your user relationship. Through careful strategy and segmentation, you can use the excitement and momentum of new signup to propel users into action.

Want to learn how to organize your marketing tech stack to create your best campaigns yet? Check out our guide to marketing stacks here.


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