Lessons and Examples from PLG Reverse Trial Pioneers
By Lauren Holliday on 10/19/2022
Primary data source: The PLG List
You may have heard about “reverse trials” by now.
It’s a hot topic in the PLG community, and according to Google Trends and Meet Glimpse, searches for “reverse free trial” are on the rise.
Over the past month, this query has been searched 4,000 times, which is a 358 percent increase from the month prior.
A reverse trial gives you the luxury of not having to choose between prioritizing new user growth goals with revenue goals, because it scales both simultaneously. Kyle Poyar described it well:
“In a reverse trial, new users start with a time-limited trial of your paid features. At the end of the trial, they can either buy or downgrade to a fully free tier.” (source)
While the way it plays out varies in nature, it usually involves a freemium product giving away free access to its paid features for a limited trial or usage period with the goal of getting users to build habits with not only free features but also paid features they otherwise may have never known about.
- Elena Verna appears to have started the conversation around reverse trials in May, with her introductory LinkedIn post that defines the tactic. She also wrote an in-depth overview of the tactic on the Amplitude blog recently.
- Kyle Poyar is the other PLG leader promoting reverse trials. His article on OpenView features a phenomenal interview with Airtable’s Head of Growth Lauryn Isford. In it, she breaks down Airtable’s reverse trial strategy.
We thought we could add value to this conversation by hunting for reverse trial role models in our PLG dataset, which tracks 660+ product-led companies across stages and categories. To start we looked at this breakdown:
Out of 664 PLG companies tracked, we found that:
- 74 percent have free trial
- 26 percent have freemium
- 20 percent have both
Free trial + freemium does not always = reverse trial mechanics. There are multiple hybrid approaches, but this segment is a starting point to find role models and examples.
After studying nearly 100 PLG companies offering both a free trial and free product, we found that reverse trials could be broken up into two main buckets:
- The mandatory reverse trial
- The optional reverse trial
The Mandatory Reverse Trial
A mandatory reverse trial forces all new signups, including free signups, into a free trial, no credit card required, of its premium tier. After a certain amount of time, or usage, they downgrade you to the free product.
Example 1: Basecamp
Basecamp’s reverse trial is the most unique by far.
According to its pricing page (see below), for a limited time, anyone who signs up before Dec. 31, 2022, gets their first three users free for the first 12 months. They will get access to ALL premium features too.
So this is essentially a one-year free trial or a usage-based reverse free trial. It’s hard to know what they’ll do after the year is up, because it doesn’t look like they’ll have a “free” product anymore like they did before.
This could be a really smart play for Basecamp because after a year, users will have had enough time and space to invest in using the product, and they’ll have a compelling reason to convert later on.
Basecamp has taken the long-term approach here, allowing their customers to “grow” with them.
As for activating these users, Basecamp provides helpful content in the form of example projects, a welcome message from the CEO and a CTA bar at the bottom of the dashboard, where users can get help from customer success.
Example 2: LastPass
Over the last year alone, employee YY growth at LastPass is up by 394 percent, so they must be doing something right.
LastPass splits its pricing into two categories: personal and business. They’re different in two key ways.
- Business plans don’t have a free plan, whereas personal plans do.
- The business trial is 14 days long, whereas the personal trial is 30 days long.
Because the focus of this post is reverse trials, we’re going to narrow in on LastPass’ personal pricing strategy since there is no free business plan.
A premium account of LastPass personal provides users with unlimited password management, dark web monitoring and a security dashboard.
As you can see from the pricing page, under the free column, all free accounts “include a 30-day trial of Premium,” no credit card required.
New signups are redirected to the above registration page, and if you look closely at the bottom of the screenshot, you’ll see there is fine print around the premium trial they’ll be upgraded to.
If you want to test drive the “Families” plan, you can but you have to click on that button, as opposed to the free or premium ones to get routed into that version.
Once you’ve joined, you’ll be redirected to download the Chrome extension, and then the onboarding tour begins. It ends with a handy activation checklist on the right-hand side of the screen. For every task you complete, you get points. Get enough points, and get 10 percent off your first month.
Once your free trial is over, it notifies you via dashboard popup and email, which, if you click through, will take you to the “why pay” page.
It’s also interesting to note that after the trial has ended, there’s a survey bar that appears at the top of your dashboard, which I think is to probably figure out how to do its trial strategy.
Example 3: Oneflow
Oneflow’s free product allows users to send, track and sign an unlimited number of PDF contracts. If you want more features, you have to upgrade.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder Oneflow forces all new signups into a 14-day free trial of its premium product.
If you click on the “Try Oneflow free” button on the homepage (see above), it takes you to the signup page, which says:
Access the extensive features available in our premium package for 14 days. When your trial is over, the basic features of Oneflow, such as e-signing and uploading PDFs, will be free to you forever.
You can always upgrade your account to continue experiencing the magic of truly digital contracts 💫
The above sign up page is the same regardless of whether or not you choose the “Free” option on the pricing page (see below), because it automatically upgrades every new account for 14 days.
This makes sense for Oneflow because users wouldn’t know about its premium features unless it pushed them into a trial automatically so they could experience them firsthand.
I will say that they could do a much better job of activating users’ usage of premium features during their trial. There was no onboarding tour, and I didn’t hear from them throughout my 14-day trial.
When my trial ended, they sent me a short , generic email letting me know it was over.
And then my dashboard’s CTA bar changed from “Trial over in…” to “Upgrade…”
The Optional Reverse Trial
The optional reverse trial lets users choose whether or not they want to start with the free plan or a trial of their premium offering.
If you don’t register for the free trial at first, you can always try it out for free later -- and usually with no credit card required.
Example 1: Apollo
I had never tried Apollo before researching it for this post, and I won’t lie, it sucked me in, but ironically, only after I signed up for a free TRIAL.
Apollo prioritizes its free product on the homepage, and I feel like when it markets itself too, because I had always known about its free LinkedIn extension, but I never really paid attention to its paid offerings, because a) I assumed it was a tool for B2B enterprises only and b) I did **not** know how cool some of the premium features were and how they could be useful for me.
How many of your free users know what your paid features are or what value they would provide them? Free users essentially stay in their “swim lane,” only using what you give them for free.
I know that was true for me with Apollo, as I only signed up for a trial so I could see what happened for the sole purpose of writing this post. Now, I’m a premium prospect.
All this to say, it’d probably be smart for Apollo to test the mandatory reverse trial approach instead of the optional one.
Currently, Apollo has two signup flows.
If you sign up for free on the homepage, then you’re automatically redirected to the free dashboard, where you can always upgrade to a free trial of premium for 14 days.
Once you choose the trial you want to start, it makes you confirm you understand it’s starting (see screenshot below).
According to Apollo’s pricing page, trial plans include 50 lead credits, no direct dials and ALMOST all of the features of the selected plan. The exception is the ability to link a non-Gmail email account to send campaigns from.
This makes sense, because otherwise, it would cost them a lot to offer free trials, as I’m sure they pay per lookup to their public records supplier and probably have an API cost associated with the email send feature.
Example 2: Wistia
Wistia has a free plan and offers a 14-day free trial, no credit card required, of its premium tiers.
New users can choose to start with a trial or the free product, and they can upgrade any time they want after signing up for the free product via their dashboard.
Like Apollo, they confirm you’re ready to start your 14-day free trial of Wistia starting immediately.
Once you confirm, you’re greeted with an onboarding popup to ensure you get the most of your 14 days.
Wistia also supplies an example project to jumpstart your usage. They do this for both free subscribers as well as free trials.
During your trial, they constantly remind you of it via multiple countdown timers and CTA bars.
If you click on the “What’s in my trial?” the following message pops up:
It makes sense for Wistia to have a free plan and offer a free trial at any time for a few reasons.
First and foremost, their free product is great for top-of-funnel (TOF) brand awareness due to the “view-only” share links that have Wistia branding.
It’s a product that grows with users as they go through their video journey.
There are so many feature gates in the free product dashboard, which serves as constant reminders of cool features you’re missing out on.
Example 3: Mention
Mention is a social media app that allows users to track what people are saying about them as well as schedule social media posts.
Its free plan allows users to monitor one brand or topic, otherwise known as an “alert,” and they can connect to three social media platforms to monitor and publish from.
Starting with its homepage, Mention very much pushes people into a free trial, where it almost looks more like a mandatory reverse trial at first glance.
Take a look at the homepage, and you’ll notice it clearly prioritizes the free trial, as it’s the main CTA above the fold.
It’s hard to read the microcopy below the trial form but it says:
- No credit card required
- 14 days free
- Cancel anytime
Click “Start your free trial,” and you’ll go through nine onboarding screens before landing in the dashboard. It’s by far the most personalized onboarding experience I’ve seen during my research. They clearly want to make sure you’re landing in the right trial plan, because the first six screens are entirely to recommend the right trial plan.
Finally, at the end of this sequence, after answering all the questions, you can actually choose to “Skip the trial,” “Request a demo and start your free trial” or “I don’t want a demo. Start a free trial now.”
The final three screens help you setup your first project.
Should your product-led company try a reverse trial strategy?
After digging deeper into the 22% of PLG companies offering both free trials and freemium, we learned a lot, like just because a company has both does not mean it’s a reverse trial. More importantly, we found that “free” is a very nuanced concept.
There are free products. There are free trials. And there are reverse trials. But within each of these buckets, there are tons of different approaches, trade-offs and implementations. As a company considering or scaling PLG, it’s vital to understand this topic in-depth, so you can make the best decision for you.
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