Engaging new users: Free samples

In the first part of this series, I shared how guided interaction introduces users to the authentic context of your product with just the right amount of education to ensure they find success.  Today, we investigate how the 2nd of the 3 pillars of better onboarding, the use of free samples, gets those new customers using your product in the first place.

There are 3 overarching best practices when it comes to engaging and educating new users:

  1. Guided interaction
  2. Free samples
  3. Personal focus

Trust all of what you try, half of what you see and none of what you hear

When I first moved to California after graduating from college, I realised how much I needed a car to get around. With a job interview coming up, I was desperate for a vehicle of my own.

After an online search, I found a used Pontiac Grand Am for sale within my very meager price range. I met the owner outside a shopping mall the next day, and, because I was so hyper-focused on getting a set of wheels to transport me to the interview, I didn’t heed some obvious red flags. Red flags like: how the owner didn’t want to waste time with a test drive, or that they were selling because they had to leave the country. I naively accepted a quick visual inspection, handed over a cashier’s check for roughly 90% of my savings, and took ownership of the car.

Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, that car caused me problems.  One after another, parts failed. A highlight was when white, sweet smoke spilled out from the interior AC vents after a part in the cooling system failed, right when I was running late for a meeting at work. That car earned the nickname “The Grand Scam” and was a constant reminder never to buy something without trying it first.  

Many people want to avoid expensive, embarrassing mistakes like the Grand Scam. They’ve learned not to trust in what a company promises, but in their own ability to try before they buy. It’s why test drives are such a big part of the car buying experience.  It’s why most stores would never expect a customer to buy something sight unseen. Yet, this is exactly what you’re expecting users to do if you force them to sign up, register or create an account to use your digital product.

Instead of a new user spending their first moments falling in love with your product, they’re spending that time worried about whether you can be trusted with their information. Information is a form of currency, and with forced signup you’re asking users to pay up front.

Forced signup is an antipattern

Forced Signup Negative

While well-established products may be able to get away with requiring accounts, most don’t have the luxury of a trusting user base.  Forcing registration too early can cause more than 80% of users to abandon the product or to register using false information. So even if you get a large number of users to go through a forced signup flow, there’s no guarantee that they’re valid registrations.

Fake registration example
When forced to sign up too early, those that do create an account may do it with fake credentials. In this case, someone who was legitimately trying to create a new account found that someone else had used his email to create a fake account. Maybe funny for the person who created the fake account, but not for the true owner of the email address.

But people are more likely to sign up and provide honest personal information if they just knew how it would be used.  And the best way to help users understand this is not by telling them, but letting them experience part of your value proposition for themselves with the use of free samples.

Free Samples Positive

Try before you buy

Free samples have been used by marketers for decades. They establish trust. They set a positive tone. And they can also trigger a concept known as reciprocity.

Reciprocity is a perceived social contract in which people feel obligated to return favors. In the 1970s professor Phil Kunz decided to do an informal test of reciprocity. He sent 578 Christmas cards to strangers he randomly selected from an address book.  He received 117 cards back from people who had no idea who he was, but included long notes and photos of family members and pets.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology illustrated how reciprocity could result in positive financial effects.  In this study, researchers tested the effects that mints had in increasing tips left by restaurant patrons. A group of diners were given mints with their checks at the end of a meal, and they were compared against a control group where no mints were given. Those that received mints with their checks gave more in tips, about a 3% upside compared to the control group.

Free samples as design pattern

Free Sample

Digital product designers can initiate reciprocity and build trust with customers through free samples. The free sample pattern is about giving new users the ability to experience a portion of a product’s value proposition so that they’ll personally invested by the time signup is prompted.  A free sample pattern doesn’t mean you can’t ask a user to create an account.  It just means you ask for that conversion after delivering value.

Here are a few examples of free samples in products.

Note: Examples are from the timeframe of the post, and may not be current.

Limited Functionality

Twitter recently redesigned their website’s homepage. Before the redesign, a user needed to have a Twitter account to read any tweets.  Now Twitter lets new users browse as much content as they’d like, prompting them only to sign up when they try to reply or create their own content.


SoundCloud similarly invites a new user to listen to songs and recordings as much as they want. This app prompts the user to create an account if they want to favorite a song, share it with others, or upload their own content.



Another way to give new users a free sample is to allow them to create drafts of user-generated content.  For example, Wealthfront, an investment website, doesn’t ask new users to register before it will start creating an investment portfolio.  Instead, it invites new users to answer a few simple questions and generates a first draft of an investment portfolio. This gives those new users a sense for the type of funds Wealthfront can manage. After the user reviews their draft portfolio (which they can also manually tweak), there is a call to action at the bottom allowing them to move forward with the allocations.


Bonsai is a website that allows people to create freelance contracts. New users are encouraged to create a full draft of one freelance contract to test out the flow. Once they’ve created it, they can send it to a colleague or even the Bonsai team for a signature. This gives them a sense for the end-to-end process before being prompted to sign up.


Guest checkout

Forcing users to create an account during checkout will mean many abandoned carts. If you don’t believe this, just read Jared Spool’s “The $300 Million Button” which outlines how a large ecommerce company saved $3M by removing the requirement to sign up.  It’s an oldie but a goodie.

Guest Checkout

Ecommerce companies should give the new user the option to purchase items as a guest.  When they’ve successfully completed their purchase, then you can tell them to create an account to receive additional benefits, order tracking and more.

Limited-time trials

Finally, limited-time trials are another way to get users experiencing your product before you ask them to create an account. The New York Times mobile app implements a limited-time trial by allowing users to read up to 10 articles subscription-free per month.

New York Times free sample

Remember the tenets of the free sample pattern when creating a limited-time trial.  Free samples are about giving the user access to some part of your value proposition without needing an account.  Too many companies tout a free trial, but then still ask a user to sign up to get it. Netflix’s mobile app, for example, asks a user to sign up in for their free trial before they can see what content will be available to them.


A note about freemium models

Earlier I showed examples of the “limited functionality” free sample. This is when all users get a baseline experience sans account, but more proprietary features require a subscription. This type of sample has become a common business model for mobile gaming, commonly called “Freemium” or “Pay2Play.” Freemium games are free to download and the publisher makes money through in-game purchases.

Unfortunately some game publishers misuse this model.  Some freemium games make it almost impossible for a player to progress without purchasing upgrades, which gives the advantage to players with disposable income. Another abuse is how some games have implemented misleading prompts for paid upgrades so that some players, especially children, don’t realize a transaction is involved.

Both of these abuses can turn the well-intentioned free sample pattern into a dark pattern.  To implement limited-functionality free samples in a positive, trust-building manner, make sure you’re giving the user value before asking them to subscribe; ensure it’s clear why sign-up is beneficial; and clearly articulate any terms of service or compensation required of the user.

Measure on retention, not just conversion

One of biggest reasons that so many sites and apps force users to sign up is because they judge success by how many new user registrations they get. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat superficial metric. A company can have a high number of signups but low engagement, and sustained engagement is where most companies make money. Work with your team to determine the best free sample for your business model. Set up an A/B test to measure your free sample model against any existing forced signup model.  And make sure that you measure success not just on number of signups generated, but on retention of users over time. This article provides a good breakdown of how you might measure retention using cohort analysis.

Build trust with your new users by giving them a free sample of your digital product’s value proposition.  Prompt for conversion after delivering on value and you ensure that the resulting registered users will be more committed to your product’s offerings.

In my last post in this series, I’ll be sharing how a personal focus, the last pillar of good onboarding, can drive engagement with new users.