The Global VC

How to Nail Your SaaS Trial: The proven six-step formula shaped from years of experience

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Guest Author

Guest Author






The following guest blog post is adapted from the Nail Your SaaS Trial ebook, written by Autopilot’s CMO, Guy Marion.

When your investors, advisors, and community ask how your product is coming along, you want to tantalize them with stellar activation rates, rampant word of mouth growth, and tweets raving about the onboarding experience.



Not luke-warm or confused feedback that your product has “great potential” if only they knew where to start.



After spending years launching, optimizing, and studying SaaS trials, I’ve found there’s a formula for creating a high-performing onboarding experience—one that is educational, accelerates time-to-product success, and sets the right tone for your customer’s experience ahead.

Now it’s yours.

Step 1. Define trial conversion goals

What are you trying to accomplish with your trial, and how will you know if your SaaS trial nailed it? Activation rate, cohort-based conversion rate, and average revenue per user (ARPU) are the three most important metrics you need to track.  

Activation rate is the % of trialists who successfully accomplish key events in your app—and therefore reach “Aha!” moments. This might include adding a tracking pixel, inviting a new user, or integrating a 3rd party app (see Step 2 below). Activated trialists are amongst your most valuable users.

Conversion rate is the percentage of new trialists who convert into paying customers, which you should assess on a cohort basis, attributing the sale back to the trial create date. Some benchmarks I’ve seen for raw (not qualified) trial signup to paid conversion rates:

  • Standard: 7% to 10%  
  • Better: 10% to 15%  
  • Best: Over 15%

You’re getting into Zendesk territory if you’re hitting over 15%. But it takes a long time for companies to rev up to that, if they ever even get there.

Average Sales Price – ASP (often used interchangeably with Average Revenue Per User – ARPU): this is the average revenue each new customer pays, and is simply the new revenue divided by the number of new customer purchases within a given time period.  

Step 2. Pinpoint the key behaviors that correlate with success

Nail down the activities that users need to perform if they are serious about solving their problem using your SaaS app. Here are a few common ways to define activated trials…

  • Completing one or multiple actions: Sharing a file, inviting a user, adding a pixel, or publishing a journey, for example.
  • Crossing usage thresholds: Number of projects created, photos uploaded, code committed. This will vary depending on what your product does.
  • Login frequency or duration: User has logged in more than 10 times, or been in-session for more than x minutes, in the last 7 / 14 / 30 days.
  • Outside-of-product events: Account configuration with a tech specialist, quick start call with an account manager, user training with your customer success manager, etc.

Pro Tip: Trigger automated messages or engage based on usage, as seen below in the case of SaaS app Hint Health.  


Step 3. Map out your activation nudges

Free trialists like feeling welcomed—getting the red carpet treatment while learning how to solve their problem using your product. They even appreciate gentle reminders to pay, so they don’t risk interrupting their account activity.

So how do you do this tactfully and appropriately?


Nudging people at the right time can help them overcome hurdles or “stuck in the mud” moments, make decisions, and move closer to buying.


We’ll walk through numerous real-life examples in Step 5.

Step 4. Build your SaaS trial journey

This is where it gets fun—structure your messages and actions into a cohesive trial experience using an engagement or marketing automation app to target, time, and personalize your messaging. Whichever platform you use, you’ll want to choose from the three most common types of SaaS trials to get started fast.

Option #1: Time-based

This is a series of emails (and/or in-app messages) dripped through the course of a free trial. It’s an easy place to start if you’re beginning from scratch, helps you get baseline conversion data fast, and can be quickly updated.

Option #2: Usage-based

In a usage-based model, you target your messages and timing based on users achieving (or not achieving) the key in-app events outlined in Step 3 above. This is typically used by freemium apps that rely on upgrading free users into paid users. Doing so can cut on-boarding times by as much as half.  


Option #3: Time and usage-based

This type of trial combines time and usage to create a personalized free trial journey for every user. By combining the best of the usage-based freemium approach with the “clock is ticking” free trial window, this approach is more complicated and takes a bit more time to develop content for, but drives higher engagement and conversion rates.


Step 5. Create your emails and in-app messages

Now it’s time to scrape the best customer messaging from your prior email and hustling experiments, sit down, and write the content for your emails and in-app messages. Download our ebook for plenty of examples—here I’ll summarize a few.

1. Welcome emails. Sent immediately after a user signs up for a free trial to encourage them to log in, and to make them feel welcomed to your service. Inject humor, a friendly face, or simply direct access to key account information.


Asana takes a clear, prescriptive approach in its welcome email—watch a video, take these actions.


Susan Su uses this StudySoup example in the ultimate email playbook, which I highly recommend. It’s email marketing wisdom in a capsule.


2. Usage tips. Send these after one to two sessions to drive usage and help your user be successful. Target this email or in-app message and personalize the content to help your user achieve the next key event, as outlined above.

Give actionable best practices, or invite abandoned users back in, like in this Dropbox email.


Instapage uses Headsup to invite new users to a group demo of its SaaS service. Since launching this in-app message, the company has seen a 30% increase in attendance rate for its weekly demo webinar, leading to increased product usage.


3. Sales touches. Sent within 24 hours to schedule a sales or success meeting, if needed. Use a text-based email and Calendly to eliminate the hassle of scheduling, and enable a single rep to serve a high volume of customers in a 1:Many manners.


4. Usage review. Sent halfway through the trial to give users a bird’s eye view of their progress and suggest areas to explore further


Zendesk takes the usage review email to a whole other level by including aggregated data to benchmark your performance against relevant peer groups:


5. Expiry warnings. Sent with one week left in the trial to remind users to buy. Be helpful and confident, not pushy and salesy.

Basecamp pings users 5 days before their 45-day trial expires.


6. Feedback emails. Sent post-trial if the user didn’t convert to paid. Include a link to a survey that helps gather info to make your product better. Use a thankful tone.

Feedback text-based email from Autopilot. Here’s the feedback survey we send at the end of our trial experience at Autopilot, which gets high response rates and offers a trove of actionable insights.


For example, we find that 27% of expired trialists don’t buy because they’re still evaluating their options, providing us an automated opportunity to offer a call with sales, or to nudge them back into product. It’s a win-win.

Step 6. Measure your SaaS trial with these metrics & iterate

Metrics reveal if your trial is actually working or not. Beyond the three goals outlined in Step 1, here are the key performance indicators you’ll want to track:

Leads, customers, and revenue: Measure your performance and share the impact of your killer SaaS trial with your team by creating a dashboard that automatically tracks leads, acquisitions, and revenue.

Your conversion funnel: Use Mixpanel, Heap, or Kissmetrics to track your trial signups, activations, and conversion. Develop an activation to conversion funnel comprised of 1-3 specific events to see where users drop out, and where your event-based opportunities lie.


Open rates and clickthrough rates: Your marketing automation system will offer insights into the individual emails and in-app messages. Open, click, and unsubscribe rates vary dramatically based on the level of personalization and usage-based segmentation you’re doing. Low open rates are 1-5%. High open rates are 30%-50%.

MRR trends and insights: Did your new SaaS trial increase your MRR? How did subscription growth change three months before and after you implemented your new SaaS trial?

Nail your SaaS trial

To recap, here are the 6 steps to wow SaaS users with an amazing on-boarding experience:

  1. Set your high-level conversion goals
  2. Pinpoint the key behaviors that show value
  3. Choose your nudges that help users take the next step
  4. Build your SaaS trial journey
  5. Create your emails and in-app messages
  6. Measure everything and iterate

You now have everything you need to turn free trialists into paying customers. I’m excited to see what you build, and your results!



Autopilot is visual marketing software for automating customer journeys. With native integrations to Salesforce, Twilio, Segment, Slack and Zapier and the ability to connect to over 700 purpose-built tools, we empower marketers to nurture relationships and grow high-paying customers using email, web, SMS, and direct mail channels. Check out Autopilot’s website and follow them on Twitter, Linkedin, or Facebook.

Guest Author

Guest Author