Is Trial Software an Effective Marketing Tool?

There are people who believe that offering free trials is not the best way to market software. Rather, sitting with a prospective customer, face-to-face or over the web, is the best way to do it. Then there are others, the vast majority, who believe otherwise. Although I belong to the majority, I do believe that there are some cases when a trial may not be the best way to go about marketing a software. This issue is not as simple as it appears to be.

The key is to understand two things: (1) the software product, and (2) the target audience. Companies whose software products which are highly specialized, and hence not easy to understand and use, will almost always need to have personal interaction with a prospective customer. In such cases, due to the nature of the product, the target audience is usually small and it becomes feasible for a company to give personal attention to each prospective customer.

For a product which is designed to be used by the masses, personal attention to each and every prospective customer becomes impossible. In such cases, it is wise for a company to use its limited resources efficiently. I believe the best approach is to give personal attention to major accounts, big companies that have the need and purchasing power for a large number of licenses, and offer free trial software targeted to the rest. This way you get the best of both worlds. I know it sounds unfair, but trying to give personal attention to everyone just does not make good business sense.

Take SpaceClaim for example, a company which till recently did not offer a free trial of their software. Their marketing strategy revolves around their belief that there are approximately 5 million people involved in 3D product design and only 1/5th of them are exposed to existing CAD software. Their product is targeted at the remaining 4/5th. How exactly SpaceClaim intended to give personal attention to the 4 million people is beyond the limits of my comprehension.

What is often forgotten is the cost of giving personal attention. My NetMeeting Webinar with SpaceClaim lasted more than an hour with two people giving the demo, a guy from marketing and an applications engineer. There is a cost to all of this which eventually gets added to the price of the product. The more you spend on personalising the experience, the more unafforable your product becomes.

A common argument for having personal interaction is that the prospective customer’s questions will be answered immediately. Lets analyze this a little. I have had many such personal briefings over the web. When I ask a question to the person giving the demo, the reply has often been, “I don’t know. I will get back to you on this.” Later, he consults someone in the company and sends me an email with the replies to my questions. This cannot be very different from me downloading a trial, playing around with it and contacting the company’s support helpdesk with my questions. At SYCODE, we get numerous emails everyday from people who have tried our software and need clarifications. We reply to them the very same day, sometimes instantly. And since they can try our software with their data and at their own time, their questions are much more thought out and sensible.

And then, of course, there are people like me who will just not spend a dime, unless they have checked and cross-checked whether the software works as desired, and that too with their data. Nothing short of a free trial will make them dish out the dough. I am not sure whether these kind of people form a majority, but they are certainly a big group.