Everything from music streaming services to healthy sweets are being marketed through free trials and there’s a reason why it's such an effective marketing tactic.

It allows your customers to ‘own’ your brand without initially paying for it, and because once they have a brand they value it more highly, they are more likely to continue using your product.

Humans are creatures of habit and comfort, making it highly unlikely that we will give up on what we perceive to be a benefit to us once it has become an established part of our everyday lives. Just as the majority of us are unlikely to eschew the benefits of modern society for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle or even go back from smartphones to flip phones, some brands and their products have managed to make themselves indispensable in our lives. 

With the right product and the right kind of trial, barring a negative experience by your customers, the removal of your product from their life could end up feeling like an opportunity cost too high to risk. 

However, there are reasons for caution when considering running free trials. When executed badly, they can end up harming your brand. As reported by The Money Advice Service, four in ten Brits continue to pay for a subscription they’re not using, costing us collectively £338m a month

While for the short term this ensures cashflow for these companies, it’s not helping them to build long-term brand loyalty and advocacy amongst their customers. Instead your brand might end up as a source of stress, affecting your brand affinity negatively. For this article, we will go through some of the brands that have not only made trials a key part of their marketing strategy, but have managed to firmly engrain themselves in our lives through it.

Instant gratification through extended trial

The healthy snack subscription service Graze has successfully used free trials to build its service and expand its offering into a ecommerce platform. Rather uniquely, they also seem to have managed to keep opportunists at bay, stopping customers from ordering one box and then swiftly cancelling the service. 

Graze has done this by offering both the first and fifth boxes of snacks for free. Looking at this from a consumer behaviour point of view, this is successful because of the perceived instant gratification from receiving both immediate and tangible future reward.

This increases the likelihood of Graze's products becoming an established part of its customers' lives and a benefit they would rather not be without. 

Showing your value through sudden deprivation

Swedish streaming company Spotify has been instrumental in driving the music industry away from physical ownership into the instant access of music. With over 100m active users and now 50m of those choosing to pay for the privilege, Spotify’s strategy of providing a 30-day free trial of its Premium paid tier seems to be working.

Those that choose to either not continue past the trial or outright cancel the service then revert back to only being able to access a limited freemium model. This tactic is especially effective since it effectively becomes a deprivation exercise. By removing a newly found benefit from your customers’ lives, you have a chance at making them understand what they miss the most.

Speak to your customers’ aversion to risk

Other brands such as a online mattress company Eve and its multitude of competitors are using another type of tactic to incentivise trial and purchase. Eve is so sure of the quality of its mattresses that the company is willing to bet you won’t return the mattress after sleeping on it 100 times.  

While this might not be as successful for digital, immaterial goods, this is especially effective when pushing trial of physical products. Once accustomed to an everyday product such as a mattress, not many are willing to go through the hassle and risk of both returning and buying a new mattress.

Pursuing a free trial as a sales tactic has great potential to both drive sales and build long-term brand affinity among your target customers. However, planning and implementation is important to make sure you stay away from opportunists only looking for a free deal. The best way of ensuring this and keeping your new customers past the end of your trial is by tapping into and using your customers' behaviours to your own benefit.

To read more about Brand Commerce and how behavioural science can help drive sales and build brand affinity, see our previous articles on how to navigate through online indecision and how to use your brand’s key feature to stand apart from your competition.

Michael Sandstrom

Published 27 March, 2017 by Michael Sandstrom

Michael Sandstrom was formerly a Strategic Planner at KHWS, the Brand Commerce agency, and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him via LinkedIn.

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Comments (2)


Matt Lovell, Head of Customer Data, Insight & Analytics at Eurostar International Ltd.

Great article. I think the other thing that differentiates people who've done this well in different industries is also offering a range of options by appreciating that the customer's buy in to a brand is not always the same.

Alongside Graze the likes of Gousto and Simply Cook do this well by allowing you to commit to weekly, fortnightly or monthly deliveries plus the simply option of pausing your subscription for a period of time if it's not convenient. This is really neat as it avoids the risk of the customer simply opting out and instead retains the relationship even if they're not ready to fully commit at any stage.

Offering a free trial or discount to remove the barrier to entry can be a great way to first engage customers but the secondary aspect here is how do you retain them and keep their consideration for the brand even if their purse strings become a little tight or they don't feel they can commit as fully as they once have.

over 1 year ago


Sohail Khan, Founder at Spongey

This is a great article, highlighting the different ways in which the incentive of a free trial can certainly influence consumers into interacting with a brand they perhaps otherwise may not. From experience large and bulky items such as a mattress may work better when combining a free trial with other elements which reduce the barrier to entry such as 0% finance. At www.spongey.co.uk this is what we have tried to do, and it certainly does work but requires continuous refinement to stand out in an increasingly crowded market.

about 1 year ago

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