How to convert free trial users to paying customers?

How to Convert Free Trial Users to Paying Customers

We've collected 9 strategies (with examples of each) to improve your free-to-paid trial conversion rate. Keep reading to see which could help your digital product.

Here’s a secret about free trials that most SaaS organizations miss: No one signs up for a free trial to learn more about your product. They sign up to learn how your product benefits them.

Truthfully, most people couldn’t care less if you offer one feature or 50. They just want the product to solve their problems and make their life easier.

So, if you want to convert free trial users, your task is to show them how your product meets their needs. If you can’t help them achieve a desired outcome, they simply won’t buy.

In this article, we’re going to discuss how to convert free trial users to paying customers. We’ll talk about your free-to-paid conversion rate and offer some strategies to boost conversions.

What is a Free-to-Paid Conversion Rate?

Free-to-Paid Conversion Rate measures the percentage of users who transition from using a free version of a product or service to a paid version.

If you want users to upgrade to paid tiers of your product, this is an important metric to track.

It’s also important for freemium models, where users can access some features for free and are encouraged to pay for premium features.

Here’s the formula to calculate a Free-to-Paid Conversion Rate:

Free-to-Paid Conversion Rate = (number of users who convert to paid / total number of free users) X 100%

For example, if a SaaS company has 10,000 free users and 500 of them upgrade to the paid version, the Free-to-Paid Conversion Rate would be:

(500/10,000) X 100% = 5%

As you would imagine, you’ll want to push this number as high as possible, as more conversions to paid accounts mean more revenue.

What We Mean by “Free Trial”

Before we discuss converting free trial users, let’s clarify the different free trial strategies.

Freemium Model

Freemium is a two-tiered model with a free tier and a premium plan. The free tier usually grants perpetual access to a restricted version of the product, either by limiting the accessible features (e.g., four of six features available) or placing caps on features (e.g., a limit of 20 downloads per month).

Freemium product users can upgrade to a paid version to access the full features. In some cases, freemium users are charged a la carte for product usage.

Reverse Trial

In a reverse trial, a time-based approach coined by Elena Verna, Head of Growth at Dropbox, users start with full access to all features for a limited time during a trial phase. Then they get moved to a freemium plan with limited product features.

With this system, they get the product’s maximum value from the beginning of the trial experience. If they want to regain access to full features, they need to purchase the paid plan.

Trial With Payment

In a trial with payment, users are required to provide payment information upfront (a credit card) to gain full access to the product for a limited period of time. The trial is free, but upon a specific date, they will be charged to use the full suite of product features.

Which Model is Right for You?

Naturally, it depends on your product and potential customers. There is a ton of nuance in understanding and building your product strategy.

Two helpful tools to leverage when exploring the right fit for you and your users are the ROPES framework and verb scoring.

ropes framework for product led growth

Once you know what your customers expect and need, you can choose the trial offering that matches their journey.

How Do I Convert Free Users to Paid Users?

Converting free trial users to paid users is about demonstrating your product’s value. You can do this by strategically placing messaging throughout your site and/or app.

Keep in mind that your free trial signups already know the product is good. That’s why they signed up in the first place. Your job is to convince them that the value they’ll get from the product is worth the price.

Basically, you need them to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of your product and decide that your product comes out on top. Highlighting benefits, offering social proof, giving product tours, and boosting user engagement are just some of the techniques brands use to increase activation rates.

You can’t invite this kind of thinking unless you know your customers well. Exceedingly well. Only once you know what triggers them to buy can you build a user experience that entices them to convert.

9 Free Trial Conversion Strategies

Let’s walk through some powerful free-to-paid conversion strategies. Use some or all of these to turn free trial users into paying customers. As always, experiment and test to find the techniques that produce the best results.

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1. Remind Users to Upgrade Early and Often

Many SaaS organizations make the mistake of waiting until the end of the free trial to prompt users to upgrade, often by direct outreach from the sales team. However, this approach fails to make use of numerous opportunities that could lead to a potential conversion.

Start prompting users to upgrade from the beginning of their experience and remind them that they aren’t getting the full feature suite. Do this often using CTAs, in-app notifications, tooltips, popup overlays, onboarding videos, support messages, and marketing emails.

Dropbox isn’t shy about prompting non-paying users to upgrade on each page of the dashboard.

Dropbox uses a header row in the dashboard that continually prompts users to upgrade.

2. Drive Users to Value Quickly

As we’ve mentioned a few times, people use your product to benefit themselves. If you want them to think it’s worth the cost, help them achieve that value quickly.

First, you have to understand what that “moment of value” is for your customers. This requires robust knowledge of your customers’ problems and needs. The moment they see value in your product may not be as intuitive as you think. For example, you might think the most valuable feature is Download when really it is Share or Cloud Storage.

Next, drive your users toward that valuable moment by nudging user behavior. Checklists and progress bars are great tools here. Give your users a concise set of steps to follow that culminates in the moment of value.

Trello uses an onboarding checklist to encourage users to set up quickly.

When a user begins a checklist, psychological motivators like the sunk cost dilemma and endowed progress encourage them to complete it.

Throughout the checklist, you walk free trialists through any tasks necessary to get to the moment of value, like adding contacts, filling out their profile, integrating other apps, etc. At the end, the user should achieve something that makes them think, “Oh, this product actually solves my problem.”

Evernote's onboarding checklist prioritizes actions that help the user achieve value with the product.

3. Present Gated Features Near Free Features

By strategically placing prompts or highlights for premium features adjacent to free ones, you create an opportunity for trial users to envision how the paid features can enhance their experience.

For example, PDF Converter lets you convert PDF files into other formats for free. However, the premium feature (a higher print quality) is positioned nearby.

PDF converter How to Convert Free Trial Users to Paying Customers

This ensures that users are consistently reminded of what they are missing, sparks curiosity, and demonstrates the tangible benefits of upgrading.

free vs gated

Using visual cues, such as icons, badges, or color contrasts, can further draw attention to these gated features. For example, a lock icon next to an advanced tool can indicate that it is part of the paid tier, prompting users to consider the upgrade.

4. Make Your Calls-to-Action Clear and Consistent

A call-to-action (CTA) is a quintessential marketing tool. Clear and consistent CTAs placed throughout your user journey are great ways to guide users toward the next step. In this case, the next step is a paid tier of your product.

Your CTAs should be direct and easy to understand. There’s no room for ambiguity here. Users should immediately understand what will happen when they click that button.

Avoid vague or overly complex language. Use straightforward phrases like “Upgrade Now,” “Unlock Premium Fonts,” or “Start Your Subscription.”

Place your CTAs in locations where users are most likely to engage with them, such as:

  • Onboarding screens
  • Dashboards and home screens
  • Email campaigns
  • Global header
  • In-product

Maintain a consistent design for your CTAs so they are recognizable across your platform. Use uniform colors, fonts, and button styles.

It’s also helpful to accompany each CTA with some brief text that highlights the benefit. For instance, “Upgrade Now to Access Advanced Analytics” or “Unlock Unlimited Storage.” This helps remind users that the upgrade is worth their investment.

Canva uses a great call-to-action. It describes the benefits and what users get and reminds the user that they can cancel at any time. The app uses upgrade buttons of similar design elsewhere in the app.

try canva pro for free

5. Be Thoughtful About Which Features are Gated

Generally, you want to give away enough value with the free version of your product to build a solid user base. This will help users make the connection that the paid version offers even more value.

Offer free features that make users reliant on the product. You want them to build it into their personal and professional workflow.

For instance, if your product involves storing users’ files, give away some storage space for free to bring them into the product, then charge for additional storage. They will be more likely to purchase your storage because their files are already there rather than switch to a new provider.

Canva is a notable example of this. Creating documents is free, but exporting them into certain formats is gated behind a paywall. Which formats are gated? The ones associated with experts or business users.

canva pro gated features

6. Make Free Users Aware of Their Trial Time

Keeping your users aware of their remaining time can create a sense of urgency and encourage them to consider transitioning to a paid tier before the trial expires.

Clear and Frequent Reminders

Send regular emails or in-app notifications to inform users about their trial status. These reminders should start as soon as they begin the trial and become more frequent as the trial period nears its end.

Chipmunk keeps free users informed about their trial time limit, including an easy-to-understand visual indicator.

Countdown Timers

Incorporate countdown timers within your app or on your website. These visual cues serve as constant reminders of the trial period’s ticking clock, subtly urging users to make a decision.

Slack's countdown timer is always present within the app.

Highlight Benefits

Each reminder should not only inform users about the time left but also emphasize the value and benefits of the paid version. Use these touchpoints to showcase features they haven’t explored yet or to highlight how the paid tier can solve specific pain points they’ve experienced.

duo lingo highlight benefits

Offer Limited-Time Discounts

As the trial period comes to a close, consider offering a limited-time discount for upgrading. This tactic leverages the sense of urgency created by the trial countdown and adds an additional incentive to convert.

Storyist offers a 50% discount for upgrading before the trial ends.

That said, we don’t always recommend discounting your product. It can be useful to get someone in the door, but it can also devalue your product and brand. Be very careful with discounts.

7. Offer a Great Onboarding Experience

The onboarding process is the first impression users have of your product or service. A positive experience can significantly influence their decision to upgrade.

Provide a clear and concise step-by-step guide to help users navigate your product. Use tooltips, interactive tutorials, or walkthroughs to highlight key features and demonstrate how to use them effectively.

Userpilot walks users through a product tour so there's no confusion.

Emphasize the unique features and benefits of the paid version. Show users how these features can solve their problems or enhance their experience.

It’s also smart to help users achieve quick success to boost their confidence and satisfaction with your product. These early wins can be as simple as completing a task, setting up their profile, or customizing their dashboard.

8. Use Paywalls to Demonstrate Paid Features

Paywalls demonstrate the value and benefits of premium features, which entices users to upgrade to unlock full access. When designed thoughtfully, they can drive conversions without causing frustration.

vogue paywall

Place your paywalls strategically at points where users are likely to see the value of upgrading. These can include:

  • Feature usage: When a user attempts to access a feature that is only available in the paid tier, present a paywall that explains the benefits of that feature. For example, if your product is a photo editing tool, a paywall might appear when a user tries to use advanced filters or high-resolution exports.
  • Content access: Content-based platforms, such as news websites or educational sites, use paywalls to restrict access to premium articles, videos, or courses. Clearly communicate the added value of the premium content to encourage users to upgrade.
  • Usage limits: Implement usage-based paywalls where users can access basic features for free but encounter limits on their usage. For example, a project management tool might allow a certain number of projects or tasks in the free version, with a paywall prompting an upgrade to manage more.

Each paywall should clearly articulate the benefits of upgrading to the paid version. Use persuasive messaging to highlight key value propositions, such as enhanced features, better performance, exclusive content, etc.

The Wall Street Journal's paywall includes clearly articulated lists of benefits.

9. Clearly Label Your Paid Features

Transparent and distinct labeling helps users understand what they are missing out on and how the paid version can enhance their experience. This fosters a sense of curiosity and desire.

Ensure that the paid features are visibly differentiated from free ones. Use consistent visual cues such as icons, badges, or color schemes to indicate premium features.

MailChimp places an impossible-to-miss call-out on features that could be better if the user upgrades.

For example, you might use a lock icon or a different color for buttons and menus that lead to paid features. This visual differentiation helps users easily identify what they can unlock by upgrading.

Use in-context prompts to highlight paid features during the user’s interaction with your product. For example, if a user is using a basic editing tool, a prompt might suggest, “Upgrade to access advanced editing options,” along with a brief description of the additional tools they would receive.

Improve Your Free-to-Paid Conversion Strategy with The Right Disciplines

While you may handle some strategies internally, improving your free-to-paid conversion rate requires a specific skill set and multiple disciplines. The Good’s Digital Experience Optimization Program™ offers a comprehensive solution tailored for SaaS, ecommerce, and product marketing teams.

Clients like Adobe and The Telegraph have praised The Good for our ability to validate hypotheses, drive engagement, and achieve substantial growth.

How it works: We conduct a full funnel analysis of your digital product using heatmap analysis, session recordings, and usability testing. Then, based on those insights, we build a custom program that includes road mapping, experimentation, and customer journey mapping.

Ready to see how your strategy can be optimized? Schedule an introductory call and unlock your brand’s full potential.

Find out what stands between your company and digital excellence with a custom 5-Factors Scorecard™.
maggie paveza

About the Author

Maggie Paveza

Maggie Paveza is a Strategist at The Good. She has years of experience in UX research and Human-Computer Interaction, and acts as an expert on the team in the area of user research.