How to roll out a free tier that converts

Letting customers use your SaaS product for free with a self-serve onboarding flow is a great way to reduce friction in the buying process. It’s also a cheap and easy way to qualify leads: prospects who sign up for the free tier and use the product are clear upsell opportunities. Here’s a step-by-step path to launching a successful free onboarding motion. 

1. Identify a value metric

A value metric is a trackable measure of the value your product provides to your customers. In many cases, this is a quantifiable use of some feature of the product: an LLM-based image generator’s metric might be how many images a customer has generated. In other cases, it’s based on ongoing access that’s not quantized: streaming services often grant access to their entire catalog rather than charging based on consumption. Sometimes it’s based on a count of the users who gain access to the product: seat-based pricing has been around for decades, pre-dating SaaS as a buzzword. 

For your first free tier, I recommend identifying a single metric. This reduces the time it will take to deliver the free tier both because it’s technically simpler than using several factors and because it’s easier to develop internal consensus with the rest of your team. 

Stage can’t tell you what your value metric is, but we can make it fast and easy to change which metric you’re using in your free trial. Using Stage, switching metrics is as easy as a few clicks in our configuration UI, without going back to engineering to change your codebase. 

2. Gate access based on the value metric

Choose a limited amount of value you’re willing to give away for free! You’ll need to allow the customer to derive enough value from the product to decide it’s worth subscribing for the long term, but not so much that you end up cannibalizing a share of the market that would be willing to pay for what you’re giving away for free. 

Examine existing usage patterns

If you’ve already got paying customers, great! See how much they’re using the feature that corresponds most closely to your value metric, and set the free tier’s limit just under the amount that current customers tend to use. If most of your paying customers purchase three or more seats in a collaboration-based product, let the free customers have two seats. If most paying customers use your marketing tool to send fifty emails, let free customers send thirty or forty.

If all your customers are already on a free tier and you’d like to monetize them, even better. Look at their usage patterns and see how much the 80th percentile is consuming - that top quintile of your userbase is most likely to purchase the software when prompted to by your new usage limit. 

If you have no users yet, it’s reasonable to guess what the limit should be - just make sure you can quickly and easily adjust it later. 

In any case, Stage can help with this both by surfacing your customers’ usage patterns and by allowing you to quickly adjust the free tier’s usage limits going forward (again, without requiring engineering re-work!)

Use a paywall to encourage self-serve upgrades

Once a free-tier customer has reached the limit of their value metric, disable the UI field which corresponds to it, and provide a message telling them why. This could be a banner message or a warning close to the UI element, but in either case, it should contain a link to your self-serve upgrade flow to allow the customer to immediately subscribe to a paid tier and resume using the software normally. 

If possible, refrain from using a “contact sales” paywall to drive upgrades from the free tier. Customers are likely to upgrade immediately if you give them a seamless means to do so - they’re less likely to upgrade if they have to wait through a sales process. Furthermore, they’ve already been using the free version of the software, so they don’t likely require a high-touch sales-led education. 

With Stage, checking feature access is easy, and when a customer doesn’t have access to a given feature, we provide the reason. This makes it easier to compose dynamic paywall messaging, or simply refrain from showing the UI element if it’s not relevant. We also provide an out-of-the-box self-serve solution via our managed Stripe integration to make your upgrade path seamless. 

3. Iterate

The most important thing isn’t getting it perfectly right the first time. Perfectionism leads to analysis paralysis, which can lead to never rolling out a free tier at all, leaving potential customers on the table. The most important thing is being able to iterate toward an increasingly-powerful combination of customer education (by letting them enjoy the product) and incentive to upgrade (by paywalling them once they’re willing to subscribe). 

Without Stage, iteration can be difficult. Hard-coding conditional logic around your value metric and around the circumstances when customers encounter the paywall means that every iteration is about as expensive as the initial rollout. With Stage, iteration is trivial: you can switch value metrics for your free tier and the associated limits in seconds, empowering you to adjust until your free tier is an unstoppable freight train of conversion and revenue. 

4. Bonus: Free trials

Time-based trials can be dangerous, depending on your product. If you provide time-sensitive information, a customer might sign up for a time-based free trial and get all the information they need. Media companies, especially streamers like Netflix, risk churning customers at the end of every free trial period, especially if those customers are there for a single bingeable show. 

However, if your product is especially sticky, and especially if it’s not amenable to limiting a value metric in some way, a time-based free trial can be a means by which to provide the same exhibition of the software’s value as a free tier. Stage allows you to configure a free trial for any tier of your product simply by checking a single box and providing the duration in days. 

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