I spend a great deal of my time talking with founders and sales managers about the best way to win those all-important first customers.

Getting people to buy a new product can be really tough. There is an inbuilt inertia in every marketplace. To some the word “new” can mean exciting, novel, fresh, easier and more cost-effective and to others it can  mean risky, uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

We all know the product growth lifecycle model, and we all know that even if we get those elusive first 100 clients (early adopters) that there is a chasm (see Geoffrey Moore Crossing the Chasm!) that often swallows up the unsuspecting and over-optimistic business.

We all know the product growth lifecycle model, and we all know that even if we get those elusive first 100 clients (early adopters) that there is a chasm (see Geoffrey Moore Crossing the Chasm!) that often swallows up the unsuspecting and over-optimistic business.

The logic, however attractive, does not always stand up.

If a customer really values something and they get a chance to have a bit more of it for free in return for their loyalty, they feel like they have won.

For example, for many years now, I have been somewhat disappointed with my health insurance. I value having it (I’m a self-employed man with 3 kids) but I resent the year on year increases with no additional value.  I was offered a cheaper solutions with greater flexibility by other suppliers, and I thought about switching but somehow never quite got round to it. I was too busy to see it through (I imagined long boring meetings and piles of paperwork were involved), and worried about the possible hidden restrictions, In short I was just about familiar and comfortable enough with my big brand supplier not to let my irritation at rising prices push me to look elsewhere.

Then a sales representative for another company came to see me.  He understood my reluctance to change, but also took it seriously. He made a good case for switching, did a thorough comparison of my existing supplier’s offering with that of the company that he represented. He then said that he understood how difficult it was to break with an existing supplier so as an incentive he offered me two months free cover if I were to switch. Interestingly he never once used the word “free”. He always talked about “additional cover, 14 months for the price of 12.”

On reflection I realised that I didn’t by health co*ver that day because it was free. I bought it because I believed it was the right product for my family at the time. The offer months free cover just made it easier for me to break my habit.

The key is that I already valued the product and I just needed a push. (The two months free equated easily to the £300 I would have spent over the same period). Free meant something.

Compare this with the “try this for free offers” pitched by so many start ups – there the “free” offer is on something for which I have no real need(as yet). I might try it, I might even like it, but because I have paid nothing for it (and for those of you selling software, I haven’t even had to expend more that a mouse click’s worth of energy to receive it,) I have nothing invested. My commitment levels are low and I associate the value of the product with the price I paid for it.

Now there are exceptions. If your product is a 12 foot multi-uddered seven shades of purple cow (Thanks Seth Godin!), you might get people to invest time and effort in trialling the product, thus realising its value. But if this is the case, why are you giving it away for free?

That’s not to say that free offers don’t work, they do, but they work best when the client understands that they are getting something of value for which they don’t have to pay, rather than just getting something for free.

So if you want to get traction, think carefully about what you mean by the term. If you just want to find a few individual people to try your product, that’s one thing. If you want to recruit members of your tribe who will genuinely appreciate your product and who will recommend it to all and sundry, then you need a strategy.

  1. Only offer free trials to those who will really benefit from your product right now. People who may have a use or need for your product at some unspecified time in the future will not value it, nor will they blog or tweet anything meaningful about it – make sure they have a problem – now.
  2. Make sure that the person trialling the product or having it for free is someone who has the power to buy (or is a significant recommender).
  3. Enter into an agreement. If someone gets something for free, it is without value. If someone trades their time and input to receive a product they need for free, it is worth at least the value that they put on their time and effort. If you want to give someone a product for free think about……..
    • Talking to them beforehand about why they may want the product. Make sure that they have a problem that needs solving right now.
    • Ask them to agree to a number of conversations to assess their impressions of the product (allowing you to pick up valuable feedback and PR quotes)
    • Ask them to recommend the product (so long as they are happy with it) to colleagues and peers.
    • Ask them to be the basis of a case study (you can arrange for it to be written).
    • Ask them to provide insight as to the best way to ? the benefits of the product. 100 new tribe members may be worth 100 free licenses. In fact we need a new word for no cost, but traded against other?