Engaging new users: Free samples

Originally published at kryshiggins.com in 2015

There are 3 overarching best practices when it comes to engaging and educating new users:

  1. Guided interaction
  2. Free samples
  3. Personal focus

In the first part of this series, I shared how guided interaction introduces users to the authentic context of your product with just the right amount of education to ensure they find success. Today, we investigate how the 2nd of the 3 pillars of better onboarding, the use of free samples, gets those new customers using your product in the first place.

Trust all of what you try, half of what you see and none of what you hear

When I first arrived in California, I was desperate. I had just graduated into a poor job market, and through some miracle had lined up an apartment and a job interview. But the apartment was 40 minutes away from the interview location. The interview was in 5 days. I needed a car, and I needed it fast.

Via Craigslist I found a car for sale within my area and very meager price range. I met the owner outside a shopping mall to take a look at the car. Being quite one-minded about my situation (I did mention I was desperate) I didn’t heed some obvious red flags, like how the owner said she was in a rush and didn’t have time to do a test drive, or that she was selling the car because she was leaving the country. I naively accepted just a quick visual inspection, handed over a cashier’s check for roughly $3K, 90% of my savings, and took ownership of a car that later earned itself the nickname “Pontiac Grand Scam.”

Yeah, that car got me to my interview, and managed a few other trips. But not without its miseries. Within the first week, I had to replace the Grand Scam’s brake rotors. Then the cooling system began to go, followed by the heater core, followed by the gasket (yep, “blowing a gasket” is definitely a catastrophic event). While the Grand Scam taught me a lot about car parts, it was also a nagging reminder never to buy something on blind trust. I did a LOT of vetting before getting my next vehicle.

Today’s consumers are eager to avoid expensive, embarrassing mistakes like the Grand Scam. They have learned not to trust in what a company promises, but in their own ability to try before they buy. It’s why test drives are such a big part of the car buying experience. It’s why most stores would never expect a customer to buy something sight unseen.

Yet, this is exactly what you’re expecting users to do if you force them to sign up, register or create an account to use your digital product. Instead of a new user spending their first moments falling in love with your product, they’re spending that time worried about whether you can be trusted with their information. Information is a form of currency, and with forced signup you’re asking users to pay up front.

Forced signup is an antipattern

While well established products may be able to get away with requiring accounts, most don’t have the luxury of a trusting user base. In one study done by Janrain on website users, forcing registration too early was seeing more than 80% of users to abandon the product or to register using false information. So even if you get a large number of users to go through a forced signup flow, there’s no guarantee that they are valid registrations.

When forced to sign up too early, those that do create an account may do it with fake credentials. In this case, someone who was legitimately trying to create a new account found that someone else had used his email to create a fake account under the name “Boobs.” Maybe funny for us, but probably not for this guy.

But people are more likely to sign up and provide honest personal information if they just knew how it would be used. And the best way to help users understand this is not by telling them, but letting them experience part of your value proposition for themselves with the use of free samples.

Try before you buy

Free samples have been used by marketers for decades. They establish trust. They set a positive tone. And they can also trigger a concept known as reciprocity.

Reciprocity is a perceived social contract in which people feel obligated to return favors. In the 1970s professor Phil Kunz decided to do an informal test of reciprocity. He sent 578 Christmas cards to strangers he randomly selected from an address book. He received 117 cards back from people who had no idea who he was (some even included long notes and photos of family members and pets)

Another study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology illustrated how reciprocity could result in positive financial effects. In this study, researchers tested the effects that mints had in increasing tips left by restaurant patrons. A group of diners were given mints with their checks at the end of a meal, and they were compared against a control group where no mints were given. Those that received mints with their checks gave more in tips, about a 3% upside compared to the control group.

Free samples as design pattern

Digital product designers can initiate reciprocity and build trust with customers through free samples. The free sample pattern is about giving new users the ability to experience a portion of a product’s value proposition so that they’ll personally invested by the time signup is prompted. A free sample pattern doesn’t mean you can’t ask a user to create an account. It just means you ask for that conversion after delivering value.

Here are a few examples of free samples in product onboarding today.

Twitter recently redesigned their website’s homepage. Before the redesign, a user needed to have a Twitter account to read any tweets. Now Twitter lets new users browse as much content as they’d like, prompting them only to sign up when they try to reply or create their own content.

Twitter’s website allows content browsing before signing up for an account

SoundCloud similarly invites a new user to listen to songs and recordings as much as they want. This app prompts the user to create an account if they want to favorite a song, share it with others, or upload their own content.

Soundcloud let you listen for free

Another way to give new users a free sample is to allow them to create drafts of user-generated content. For example, Wealthfront, an investment website, doesn’t ask new users to register before it will start creating an investment portfolio. Instead, it invites new users to answer a few simple questions and generates a first draft of an investment portfolio. This gives those new users a sense for the type of funds Wealthfront can manage. After the user reviews their draft portfolio (which they can also manually tweak), there is a call to action at the bottom allowing them to move forward with the allocations.

Wealthfront’s investment portfolio draft

Bonsai is a website that allows people to create freelance contracts. New users are encouraged to create a full draft of one freelance contract to test out the flow. Once they’ve created it, they can send it to a colleague or even the Bonsai team for a signature. This gives them a sense for the end-to-end process before being prompted to sign up.

Bonsai engaged new users by allowing them to create sample freelance contracts

Forcing users to create an account during checkout will mean many abandoned carts. If you don’t believe this, just read Jared Spool’s “The $300 Million Button” which outlines how a large ecommerce company saved $3M by removing the requirement to sign up. It’s an oldie but a goodie.

Guest checkout is a form of free sample

Ecommerce companies should give the new user the option to purchase items as a guest. When they’ve successfully completed their purchase, then you can tell them to create an account to receive additional benefits, order tracking and more.

Finally, limited-time trials are another way to get users experiencing your product before you ask them to create an account. The New York Times mobile app implements a limited-time trial by allowing users to read up to 10 articles subscription-free per month.

The New York Times had a 10-free-articles-a-month model

Remember the tenets of the free sample pattern when creating a limited-time trial. Free samples are about giving the user access to some part of your value proposition without needing an account. Too many companies tout a free trial, but then still ask a user to sign up to get it. Is it really free, given that information is a form of currency?

Earlier I showed examples of the “limited functionality” free sample. This is when all users get a baseline experience sans account, but more proprietary features require a subscription. This type of sample has become a common business model for mobile gaming, commonly called “Freemium” or “Pay2Play.” Freemium games are free to download and the publisher makes money through in-game purchases.

Unfortunately some game publishers misuse this model. Some freemium games make it almost impossible for a player to progress without purchasing upgrades, which gives the advantage to players with disposable income. Another abuse is how some games have implemented misleading prompts for paid upgrades so that some players, especially children, don’t realize a transaction is involved.

Both of these abuses can turn the well-intentioned free sample pattern into a dark pattern. To implement limited-functionality free samples in a positive, trust-building manner, make sure you’re giving the user value before asking them to subscribe; ensure it’s clear why sign-up is beneficial; and clearly articulate any terms of service or compensation required of the user.

Measure on retention, not just conversion

One of biggest reasons that so many sites and apps force users to sign up is because they judge success by how many new user registrations they get. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat superficial metric. A company can have a high number of signups but low engagement, and sustained engagement is where most companies make money. Work with your team to determine the best free sample for your business model. Set up an A/B test to measure your free sample model against any existing forced signup model. And make sure that you measure success not just on number of signups generated, but on retention of users over time. This article provides a good breakdown of how you might measure retention using cohort analysis.

Build trust with your new users by giving them a free sample of your digital product’s value proposition. Prompt for conversion after delivering on value and you ensure that the resulting registered users will be more committed to your product’s offerings.

In my last post in this series, I’ll be sharing how a personal focus, the last pillar of good onboarding, can drive engagement with new users.

Originally published at www.kryshiggins.com.

I'm a lead UX designer and I connect the dots between systems, products, and the humans that use them.