Freemium Mechanics

I read an interesting blog post by Ruben Gamez titled Why Free Plans Don’t Work. If you are interested in freemium business models or any of the variations on the theme, this is well worth reading however I take issue with a couple of points.

First and foremost, Gamez uses a statistics breakdown (in %) to highlight the disparity between free and paid plans. Whenever someone does this they invariably open the door to the question about what their customer numbers because a percentage breakdown without knowing what the denominator is will lack the proper context. Knowing that 1% out of 100 customers are paid versus 1% out of 100,000 is a fundamentally different discussion to have… and there is no discussion about the cost to serve free product customers.

Gamez points out a number of well known freemium companies and the transitions that they have made between free products and free trials. This is an interesting discussion and the body of work that can be studied is relatively small and fluid given the immaturity of freemium as a business model. However, a couple of things are increasingly apparent for people who are running these businesses.

You can have a freemium business that depends on a free trial process instead of a free trial and a free product option at signup, there is no debate about this, and you can have an exclusively paid product that depends on a free trial process for acquisition and onboarding. This is a smart decision in my opinion and at Get Satisfaction we are constantly tinkering with and evaluating the options relative to placement and purchase path for the free product. The idea here is to route every website visitor who becomes a prospect into a funnel that exposes them to the full product before downgrading them to a free product.

In 2010 we relaunched our website with a new “plan picker” page, which over the course of the year went through 2 significant updates that are very relavent to this analysis. Initially we had Free placed as a promo box on the sidebar, separate from the monthly subscription plans but highly visible nonetheless… this is the control group as best I can provide one because with each subsequent change to the plan picker page we changed more than just Free product placement.

In April of this year we elevated placement of the Free product to equal standing with the monthly subscription plans. Almost immediately the number of new communities created through the free product jumped substantially (and for the record, I am not going to disclose actual customer numbers so I’ll do my best to avoid putting up percentages, following my own advice above). At the same time the number of new trials created for our monthly subscription products remained flat and in some months declined materially, however the number of free-to-paid conversions for customers who were net new (not a previously paying customer who canceled) went up.

The net result was still a decline in new customer conversions and our churn rate (turnover of all paying customers in a single billing period) stayed constant or declined slightly so I would have to say that elevating Free to first world status did not improve the business.

In August we changed the plan page again and pretty much hid the Free product option. The resulting decline in Free product signups was dramatic but offset by the trial signups and associated trial conversion rate, however churn went up as well so the net effect was offset by customer cancelations in the first 90 of total life.

Churn is a really important consideration in freemium models and not just because of the financial impact. The raw churn number is obviously important because that represents the size of the hole you need to fill each month before you can start adding customers, however when churn happens is often overlooked.

You should be doing a cohort analysis each month on cancelations to determine what the survival curve is for each customer segment, which graphically represents how quickly cancelations are happening in the customer lifecycle as represented by the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile groups.

This first example is basically a bad curve because it shows that over a proscribed period of time a large percentage of your customers fall off. It’s basically telling you that you are attracting the wrong kind of customers and you are going to invest disproportionately in replacing lost customers.






This next curve is a pretty good one, the drop is initially steep but then levels out and after 12 months you still have over half of the customers you acquired in any single cohort. What this curve is telling you is that you are losing customers who are not a good fit for you very quickly and then cancelations stabilize.






In the context of freemium this information is very valuable because it is a consequence of how prominently you are positioning free vs paid product options. If you are hiding free in order to stimulate take-up rates on paid, then you have to expect that cancelations rates will go up as a result of people converting to paid that otherwise would not if presented with a prominent free option.

This leads to the next topic I want to discuss, which is the methodology you embrace for the trial process. In the interest of being honest and transparent, the way we do it at Get Satisfaction is not the optimal way to do trials because we provision trials as a time based variant of a specific product instead of having a single trial where everything is turned on and then have the prospect select the product they want to convert into at the end of the trial process.

The second problem we created for ourselves is that we require the web visitor to create an account and give us their credit card information in order to create a trial account. This is an obstacle for trial creation first and foremost but also orients the trial experience to people who are pre-disposed to buying you before they even enter the trial process… so in effect you are giving them a free period of service for something they would pay for.

We are going to make changes to the trial process to address the two issues I raise, however I can’t do much about the account creation requirement simply because my product requires a named user to be the administrator of it… no user registration would mean I would have no account to attach the administrator rights to. My recommendation to you is that you create a free trial process that downgrades to a free product at the end of the trial period if someone doesn’t enter their credit card details and select a plan, instead of offering a trial experience in addition to a free product.

Annual billing options are a game changer in the freemium model, arguably the single most effective strategy for reducing your churn rate. Typically the way that annual billing is presented is 12 months of service for the price of 10, a 16% discount.

You can also use a buy-it-now option to bypass the trial process, offering something like a discount or promotional offering in order to pull forward demand that exists in the trial pipeline, and in the process isolating true prospects who are won or lost in the trial. I’d like to do this at Get Satisfaction as part of our structural changes to the trial process.

Having a freemium business model is dependent on a number of strategies but one that often gets overlooked is how well you identify potential demand and feature marketing inside the free product for free to paid conversion and inside the various monthly subscription products for paid-to-higher-paid conversion.

Ultimately the freemium model is a strategy that increases the catchment of leads as a result of using your product as the primary marketing vehicle through which you deliver a funnel to. Take care to structure your website so that every aspect of the content you are creating is designed to deliver a site visitor into a product experience or isolate them for followup through a traditional enterprise sales process.

It’s also worth pointing out that if you have a product that you are primarily selling to businesses, and the product itself has a multistep onboarding process, then you really have to have a higher touch sales process where you are nurturing the free and trial accounts at a higher level than if you were, for example, Evernote.

For me the mechanics of a freemium business are some of the most interesting to be involved with in a modern software as a service company. The implications of billing and provisioning system dynamics, how you structure your website content, surface funnel analytics, build upselling cues into your application, and manage high volume sales nurturing processes are incredibly complex but increasingly normal for the B2C and even B2B markets.