Trial Memberships: Are They Worth The Hype? Pros and Cons To Consider
In 2023, memberships are practically universal.
Gone are the days when they applied only to gyms, Netflix, and AAA.
Now, you can become a member of almost anything, from a Sichuan chili oil company to focus enhancing “brain music” (you’ll see those examples – and more – later in this article).
Yet, one thing remains constant as memberships emerge and evolve: the trial period.
Offers for free and paid membership trials hit us from all directions. You'll see them on Facebook and Instagram, in your email inbox, and even sprinkled throughout your Amazon Prime member's area.
Because of their popularity, it's easy to forget what a trial membership is at its core: a marketing strategy that’s designed to draw you in and convert you into a long-term member.
There’s a reason why free and paid trials remain so popular – they still work incredibly well!
Offering a free or paid trial for your membership can be a great way to encourage signups and boost conversions. But it's not quite as simple as slapping a Get a Free Week! banner across your site. There are many things to consider before you create a trial membership.
That's why in this article, we'll discuss:
- What a trial membership is
- The pros and cons of offering trials
- Free trials vs. paid trials
- 7 factors to consider before offering a trial
- 4 alternatives to membership trials
- Inspiring examples of free and paid trials
- Plus how you can set this up for your business
Let's dive in!
What is a Trial Membership?
A trial membership is a marketing strategy that lets your potential customers test your product, content, or community before making a long-term commitment. Membership trials can be free or paid. They're so effective because they give people an easy way to explore the benefits of your membership without making a big upfront investment.
Trial memberships typically last for a set period of time — from as little as 3 days all the way up to a month. For example, Brain.fm gives people 3 days of unrestricted access to their focus enhancing music in their free trial. Whereas, you can grab a 30-day trial on Hulu so you can catch up on The Curse of Oak Island before the next season starts.
While there are shorter and longer trials like these out there, it's most common to see 7 and 14-day trials. This gives your potential members enough time to explore your offerings and ensure they're a good fit.
The Pros of Offering a Membership Trial
Let's take a look at the upside of offering a free or paid trial for your membership.
1. Helps Encourage Sign Ups & Increase Conversion Rates
One of the main benefits of offering a trial membership is that it can boost the number of people who sign up. From there, it can give people the confidence to stick with your membership beyond the trial.
The reason trials are so effective at encouraging sign ups and boosting conversions has to do with consumer psychology. Before someone makes a long-term commitment to your membership, they need to know a few things:
Can they trust you? Will your product work for them? Will they enjoy the experience inside your membership?
These are all big questions that can be tricky to answer through marketing communication alone. The best way to ease the doubts of your prospective customers is to let them jump inside your membership and discover for themselves. A trial is perfect for this because it's a low-cost and low-commitment way for them to get the answers they need.
2. Lets Potential Customers Test Your Membership
As the owner of a membership or subscription business, we're sure you know how painful refund requests are. After someone has been inside your membership for a week, month, or even a year, you get an email from them saying:
“Hey! I didn't realize I was still a member. I haven't used your product in over 3 months. Can you cancel my account and send me a refund?”
Ugh. No thank you.
This is why offering a free or paid trial is so important. You give your prospective members a way to determine your membership is right for them before they make a full purchase. This way, the people who do continue in your membership already know they are a good fit. And those who aren't, can exit without messing up your revenue forecasting.
3. Provides You with Valuable Feedback
What's great about a trial period is that there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. Many customers are often most active during their trial as well, so they can determine if they want to continue with you or not. This gives you the perfect reason to check in with your trial members at key points.
For starters, you can monitor and measure how your trial members are engaging with your membership. In the emails you send out during your trial period, you can ask your trial members for any feedback – positive or negative – about their experience.
This feedback can help you improve your membership for your existing members. It can also help you improve your membership in ways that will help convert more trial members in the future.
4. Creates the Potential for Increased Revenue
Last, but certainly not least, another benefit of offering a membership trial is the potential to increase revenue. If you offer a free trial, even if someone doesn't continue with your membership, you could create a downsell path for a different product that better meets their needs. Or, if you offer a paid trial, you could increase your revenue simply by getting more people into the trial.
For example, let's say that 100 people join your membership each month at $100 each. This creates $10,000 in new monthly recurring revenue for your business. Now, let's imagine that you offer a 7 day $7 paid trial. Now, 200 people sign up for your membership each month. Even if only 100 people continue on with your membership, you're still adding an extra $1,400 per month to your bottom line. We think that's worth testing!
Another benefit of the trial is that it allows you to add people to your email marketing list. So if they don't convert directly after the trial, you can continue the conversation through your email list and potentially count them as a new member in the future.
By now, it should be clear that there are many benefits to offering a free or paid trial for your membership.
The Cons of Offering a Membership Trial
That said, there are still some downsides that you should consider before implementing this marketing strategy. Let’s take a look at those now.
1. Increased Costs & Workload
One of the cons of offering a membership trial is that the more people who enter into your membership, the more work you create for yourself and your team. While it's true that a tool like MemberMouse can help you automate many aspects of offering a trial, there will still be some work that'll have to be done manually.
For example, as more people try your membership, you'll likely see a rise in support tickets or questions in your email inbox. Maybe people will have trouble logging in, or wonder how to use a certain feature of your product, or want to know where they can find a certain resource. Having a system in place to address these sorts of questions is essential to ensuring your trial runs smoothly.
Additionally, you may see a rise in costs from tools like your email service provider, Zapier, or video hosting platform as more and more people come into your world. Before you offer a membership trial, we recommend you run the numbers and make sure it'll be a profitable strategy for your business.
2. The Risk of Abuse & Misuse
Here's the ugly truth about offering a free or paid trial: you'll likely attract a few “rotten apples” who will try and take advantage of your generous offer.
On the softer end of the spectrum, you might have people who sign up multiple times for a trial with different email addresses so they can consume as much of your content as possible.
On the extreme end, you might get some “smash and grab” members who actually try and steal your content. This is why it is so important to ensure your content is protected as much as possible.
Pro tip: don't allow your members to download your content directly from your membership site. Use a tool like Vimeo or Wistia to protect your videos and set the maximum protection permissions.
Finally, you should have a plan in place for how to address thieves and pirates if they do steal your content. We recommend a service called DMCA Takedown Czar in case you ever see pirated versions of your content floating around the interwebs.
3. Potential for Decreased Revenue
A membership trial period is a double edged sword. Just like it can lead to an increase in revenue, it can lead to a decrease as well. This is especially true if you offer a free trial. Many times, curious customers will sign up and pay for a month to “test the waters” of your membership. This is sort of like an unofficial paid trial. If you suddenly begin offering a free trial, many of the people who may have previously paid for a “trial month” will get inside your doors for free.
Before you implement this strategy, take a close look at your membership metrics and see what your 1-month retention rates are like. If you see a significant number of people canceling their trials after a single month, run the numbers so you know the amount of revenue you might lose. That way you won't be surprised if a big chunk of monthly revenue suddenly dries up after creating a free trial.
4. Potential for a Negative Customer Experience
We all know how important first impressions are. This is doubly true when it comes to offering a free or paid membership trial. The trial period is your chance to make or break a customer's opinion of you. Executed correctly, and you could win a customer for life. But if you have a sloppy onboarding experience, you could lose the trust of someone who was ready to become your customer.
This is why it's so important to carefully plan the experience you want your members to have during their trial period. Consider these questions as you strategize your trial so that you can create the best possible experience for your members:
- What will the trial email sequence include?
- Do you have a welcome video or orientation training for people to go through?
- How can members reach you or your team if they encounter problems or have questions?
- What happens after their trial expires?
Carefully answering these questions and implementing systems around them can help you ensure your members have a fantastic experience and stick around for the long-haul. If you ignore them, you run the risk of creating super-haters instead of super-fans.
7 Factors to Consider Before Creating a Trial Membership
There are 7 things we recommend you consider before deciding whether or not to create a free or paid membership trial.
1. Is a Membership Trial Right for Your Business?
First things first: is a trial even a good fit for your membership?
Even though there are a ton of benefits to offering a trial, they aren't a good fit for every business. For example, if you include a lot of personal support and coaching to your members, a huge influx of trial members could exhaust your bandwidth and eat up time you should be spending with your existing members.
On the other hand, if your membership includes evergreen content and an engaged community, a trial could be the perfect way to showcase the best of what you have to offer.
2. What Should You Include and Exclude from Your Trial?
Should you include access to everything inside your membership during the trial? Or should you limit what people can see before they become paying members?
Again, this comes back to the specifics of your membership. If someone could easily breeze through all 10 modules of your core training within their trial period, it might be wise to limit access to only the first module of your course.
Maybe you have a thriving community you don't want to get bogged down with uncommitted, free trial members. In this instance, you could restrict access to your community during the trial and only open the doors when someone becomes a full-fledged member.
3. How Long Should Your Trial Be?
When it comes to membership trials, this is probably the question we hear the most! How much time is enough? And how much is not enough?
A metric to consider when determining the length of your trial is what we like to call “time to value.” Meaning, how long does it normally take for someone to experience the benefits of your membership.
Could someone have a breakthrough after just 3 days inside your membership? Maybe that's the perfect time for you. Or maybe you have a more complex offer with lots to explore. In that case, you might want to experiment with lengthening your trial. You could start with 7 days and poll your members afterwards to see if that was too much time or just enough.
4. Do Your Competitors Offer a Trial?
What about your competition? Do they offer a trial?
If so, you'll want to figure out a way to make your trial more enticing, more valuable, and more rewarding. If your competitors don't offer a trial, creating one could be a great way to set your business apart.
The key here is to come up with a unique offer that positions your membership in a positive light. You're willing to take on all the risk, let people in for free, and help them decide if your membership is right for them. Can your competitors say the same? When you come up with a no-brainer trial offer, you can feature it prominently as a unique differentiator in your marketing.
5. How Will You Measure the Success of Your Trial?
So, you've decided a trial is right for your business. You've devised a great offer that someone would have to be silly to say no to. And you're ready to launch it to the world. Not so fast… Before you launch your membership trial, you'll want to ensure you have a way to measure whether or not it's a success.
Sure, more signups are great. But how does that impact the long-term profitability of your business? Do trial members stick around for more or less time than those who purchase straightaway? Do they refer more people to your business?
Make sure you have a way to track critical metrics like engagement, retention, and churn rates of trial members vs. non-trial members. Another great metric to keep an eye on is your Lifetime Customer Value. You can get all of these metrics – and many more – from the MemberMouse advanced reporting suite. With these numbers in hand, you'll know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether your trial is helping or hurting your membership business.
6. What Happens After the Trial is Over?
Once someone hits the end of your membership trial period, what happens? How will you encourage them to convert into a full-fledged member?
If you restrict access to your content or community as part of the trial, you can ask people to upgrade so that they'll unlock everything included in your membership.
What's great about this strategy is that you don't even have to wait until the trial period is over! You can use MemberMouse SmartTags™ to dynamically display upgrade offers throughout your private member's area. That way if someone decides your membership is right for them on the second day of their trial, they can upgrade right away and unlock full access.
On the flip side, what will happen for people who don't convert into paying members? Maybe they liked your membership, but now isn't the right time for them to fully commit. We recommend tagging these people in your email service provider — like ActiveCampaign, Drip, or ConvertKit – so that you can follow up with them at a later date. That way you can send them promotional emails about your membership in the future.
Pro Tip: for bonus points, you can ask your members in your cancellation or feedback survey when would be a good time to follow up with them. Then you can send that data to your email service provider and mute all promotional emails sent to them until that date. Pretty fancy, eh?
7. How Will You Handle Support During the Trial?
As we mentioned above, offering a free or paid trial can lead to increased support requests. Before you share your trial with the world, make sure you and your team have the ability to respond to any messages that come in from trial members. A friendly, helpful, and timely response from your or your team could be the reason someone sticks with or abandons your membership.
Remember, this is your chance to make an amazing first impression!
4 Simple Alternatives to a Membership Trial
What if you've decided a free or paid membership trial isn't right for your business?
What other options do you have?
Here's a quick list of things you could do instead of offering a trial:
1. Create a free membership walkthrough / “behind the scenes” video that gives people a sneak peek of what they get when they sign up.
2. Free content that's similar to what you offer inside your membership so that people get a taste of your teaching style.
3. If you have the bandwidth, enrollment discovery calls are a great way to help people decide whether your membership is right for them.
4. A time-sensitive “guest pass” that gives someone access to a workshop recording or webinar replay until a certain date.
Real-Life Examples of Trial Memberships
YouTube Premium offers a 1-month trial membership
Note: Fly By Jing doesn’t offer a free trial, but members earn instant savings!
Here’s Brain.fm’s 3-day free trial. Ready to upgrade your focus?
No matter how many times we get a free trial email from Audible, we always seem to sign up again
Onnit is a supplement company that gives you a 15-day free trial of their products – just pay for shipping
How many people have told you, “You gotta watch Ted Lasso!” AppleTV makes it easy with their 7-day free trial membership
Ancestry gives you a 14-day free trial to discover your roots
Ready to shake off the cobwebs of winter? CorePower Yoga offers a free week’s membership so you can spring into side plank
How To Set Up A Free or Paid Membership Trial
Creating a free or paid membership trial with MemberMouse is a breeze!
1. In your MemberMouse Dashboard, go to your Product Settings and hit the green “create a product” button.
2. Name your product, associate it with a membership level or bundle, and set the price
4. Click the Trial toggle button and choose the trial price (leave as $0.00 for a free trial)
5. Determine the length of the trial and if you want to only allow one trial per member
6. Finalize your product settings
And you're done!
If you do want to limit access to certain content or areas of your membership during a trial, you'll simply need to create a new membership level or bundle with the correct access. Then when the trial period ends, if someone upgrades their membership, you can simply switch them over to the membership level or bundle with total access.
Final Thoughts on Trial Memberships
There you have it!
At this point, you should know whether or not offering a trial membership is right for your business.
Trials are a powerful marketing strategy. When used correctly, they can dramatically boost the number of people who sign up for your membership.
All that's left for you to do is determine how long your trial membership will be, whether it'll be free or paid, and what you want to include in the trial period.
If you have any questions at all about trial memberships, please leave us a comment below!
We'll be happy to answer them for you and point your towards any additional resources that'll get you on your way.
Over the past 6 years, Matt Brown has worked closely with some of the world's most successful membership and online course entrepreneurs. He's seen first hand what works – and what doesn't – when it comes to starting, building, and growing online businesses. On top of that, Matt was responsible for screening all the guests we've had on the Subscription Entrepreneur podcast. This allowed him to hear the best membership marketing and growth strategies from top authors and experts. Now, he shares everything he learns with you here on the MemberMouse blog. Subscribe today so you can discover cutting-edge strategies that can help you grow your membership, subscription, and online course business.