There’s a conversation at Contextures regarding Tableau software. One aspect of that conversation, the trial period, interests me and I want to comment on it here. I’ll be picking on Tableau, but it applies to quite a few software packages.
Thirty days seems to be the most common trial period for software. I think that is a reasonable number, depending on the type of software. Reasonable though it may be, it is the absolute minimum I will accept. Tableau and others offer 10, 14, or 15 day trials. Even fewer packages offer more than 30 days. Fogbugz, for example, offers 45 days. Certainly there is no one size fits all. It depends on the type of software.
One-off: This is software that most customers will use very infrequently. I burn probably one CD per year. If I needed CD burning software, I could probably use a trial and never buy the software. Other people may use CDs as an offsite backup and therefore use CD burning software every day. For me, the trial could be one day or one year and it wouldn’t matter. For others the 30 day minimum trial is appropriate.
Regular use: This is software that you use every day or on some periodic schedule. Tableau would fit into this category as would most Excel add-ins like Power Utility Pak. I won’t even discuss less than 30 day trials, so let’s compare 30 days with some larger number, like 90 days. I may be able to determine if I like an add-in in 30 days, but what is the cost to the software vendor for offering 90 days? If we assume that the sales are exactly the same, he will lose 60 days of interest on the price of the product. Can I go out on a limb and assume that a longer trial will mean more sales?
I think there are two factors at play here. First, the longer trial will reduce a barrier and cause more people to try it. “I have quarterly reports this week and I’m on vacation next week. Maybe I’ll hold off on downloading that trial.” With a 30 day trial, you run the risk of this potential customer forgetting about you, re-Googling, and finding your competitor. With a 90 day trial, this user feels like he has unlimited time to try it and won’t hesitate to download it. Second, potential customers who use your product longer will discover more features and more of them will convert to paying customers. Neither of these points is valid if your software sucks. If your product is bad, you need to pressure people into buying rashly. And the longer they use your product, the more bugs they’ll find. But I’m not talking to sucky software developers, only the good ones.
Lock-in: This is software that stores your data. It’s not necessarily that you can’t get your data out, it’s just that it’s more convenient to use the product that stored the data than to switch. Outlook, Quickbooks, and Fogbugz are examples of this type of software. Vendors should offer a minimum of 90 days on these types of products. In addition to more trials and higher conversion rates as mentioned above, the more data you store the more likely you’ll continue to use the product. I have 1.5GB of email in Outlook. If another email client is going to get me to change, it can’t just be better than Outlook. It has to be better to the degree that it overcomes either moving my existing email or living with having email existing in two different places. If I use Quickbooks for six months, how compelling would Peachtree have to be to get me to move all that data?
I’m sure there are situations where an extended trial period would costs sales. Development tools come to mind. If I have a six week bespoke software project and you sell a development tool that will help me with it, but that will not be very useful thereafter, a long trial would cost you a sale. Hopefully you know your market well enough to avoid those situations.
Maybe these trial misers are trying to create some feeling of scarcity around their product. If you offer a trial for you product, or you just have an opinion on the subject, leave a comment.