The vast majority of publishers now use discounted trials and promotional offers as cornerstones of their subscriber acquisition strategies, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon for one key reason: They continue to prove an effective growth driver for sustainable subscription businesses.
As their subscription efforts mature, it’s become clear that some publishers have leaned too heavily on discounting and other aggressive promotional tactics to offset weaknesses in their underlying content and product offerings, and that their subscription businesses might be living on borrowed time as a result. But while some publishers have relied on trials and discounts as a crutch, others are using them responsibly and effectively to power sustainable subscriber and revenue growth.
In an ideal world, no publisher with a valuable and highly differentiated subscription product would offer it at a reduced price. But in practice discounted trials and promotions continue to prove a powerful and effective way to build meaningful and lucrative long-term relationships with subscribers. There’s a reason they continue to be employed by the world’s most successful publishers, and their use does not necessarily call into question the health of a publisher’s underlying subscription business, despite what some might suggest.
When consulting with publishers and media companies at Toolkits, we encounter a number of recurring questions, assumptions and misconceptions related to the use of discounts, trials and introductory offers. We advise clients to consider the following in mind when evaluating whether discounted trials are right for them:
Trial offers are a marketing tactic, not a business model
Trials and introductory offers are marketing tactics and should have little bearing on the viability of publishers’ underlying subscription products or business models. Although some publishers might use them to boost raw subscriber numbers and pad vanity metrics (often to attract the attention of investors, advertisers, their peers or the press), any responsible publisher should evaluate trial subscribers based on their collective lifetime value, and take into account variables such as conversion and retention rates to establish whether trials benefit their businesses. While they might get a bad rap in some circles, it’s entirely possible for publishers to sell discounted trials and optimize to revenue if they’re looking at the right metrics.
Trial offers do drive incremental conversions
The vast majority of publishers see an increase in conversions when offering trials and promotions compared with when they don’t, largely due to:
Lower barriers to entry: Trials and promotions provide an effective on-ramp for new subscribers, and a low-risk opportunity to sample a product without committing to a full-price subscription. In our experience, publishers invariably see an uptick in conversions after introducing a trial or intro offer.
Attention from broader audiences: Trials can prove effective for reaching beyond a publisher’s most engaged audience segments to reach those that may be less certain of the value they will derive from a product and therefore less likely to pay a full sticker price without experiencing it first.
(Again – any conversion increases should be weighed carefully against subscriber lifetime value and retention rates to gauge whether trial offers provide a net benefit for any particular publisher’s business.)
Audiences increasingly expect trial offers
Since they’re now commonplace across the market, publishers have effectively trained audiences to expect trials and discounts when beginning a paying relationship. Publishers that don’t offer them are simply making life difficult for themselves in most instances, although some may opt to avoid trials and offers in an attempt to differentiate themselves from competition or to communicate more “premium” positioning regardless.
Trial users are not subscribers
Any publisher offering trials should be able to clearly segment and analyze the behavior of trial subscribers in order to accurately quantify the impact they have on their businesses. For the majority of publishers, trial users should not be considered “subscribers” until they graduate beyond their trial period – at least not internally.
The benefit of trials is that they provide a powerful additional step in publishers’ conversion funnels, and that’s a healthy way for many publishers to approach them. Selling starts when a trial begins, and new trial subscribers should always be greeted with robust onboarding campaigns and experiences designed to drive engagement and promote retention beyond an initial trial.
Trials are more relevant for some audiences than others
Trial offers may be less relevant or effective for some audiences than others, and publishers must experiment to understand if they’re a good fit for their needs. They’re often less relevant or effective professional audiences, for example, where access to certain content and information is a business necessity and/or where the subscriber isn’t footing the bill themselves. For consumer-facing publishers, trial efficacy also varies largely based on the nature of their content, and the value it delivers to subscribers. News publishers might see waves of trial signups around major news events that repeatedly churn at a high rate, for example.