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Does anyone have experience, analytics or similar on the impact of taking payment details at the start of a free trial period for a product?

It's one of the things I hate the most about trialing products. If I want to continue after the trial, I would be more than happy to provide payment details. Why on earth would I want to provide them beforehand and run the risk of forgetting about my account and getting billed instantly after my trial period runs out?

In my opinion the result is a poor user experience yet a number of large companies seem to feature this method.

For example, I was recently stung by Google Adwords - I received a free £50 credit voucher in the post so thought "Hey great, I've always meant to give it a try" so I entered my payment details on sign up only intending to use the voucher and see if I saw any return on the £50 of adverts - and if so, if it was viable to continue the program. Two months later and I've been seamlessly billed for hundreds of pounds without so much as an email invoice/notification/anything...

I'm considering trialling SeoMOZ's PRO toolset to see if I find anything of real value there but I'm immediately put off by them wanting my payment details before starting my trial.

All I can assume is that this will hurt the amount of people wanting to trial their software immensely? The silly thing is, both Google Adwords and seoMOZ could easily prevent users from signing up for repeat trial accounts and using their services for free as it's on a per-website basis. One trial per website, simple.

I guess they're either extremely confident people will want to continue after their trial (unlikely thought process) or want to make sure people actually have the potential to continue after using their services for free (by authorizing payment details).

Are there any other reasons for recording payment details at the start of a free trial rather than at the end?

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I always get a negative vibe about companies that do this. It seems to create distrust, because there is almost a layer of deceit. –  jberger Jan 19 '12 at 15:40
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No - it is a cynical money making practice, that seriously puts me off products that I might otherwise take. Yes it is poor UX, but then it makes money for nothing, so who cares.... –  Schroedingers Cat Jan 19 '12 at 15:49
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That is what I meant by a cynical marketing tactic. Lots of people are put off, but they make money out of those who aren't. There are many people in business who assume that if they are making money then everything must be OK. The fact that serious investment in good quality UX might make them more money eventually, does not always balance off against the immediate costs. I worked for one client whose site was hideous, but they were making millions so they didn't mind. They could have made a lot more, but that woudl require immediate investment. –  Schroedingers Cat Jan 19 '12 at 16:49
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"Why on earth would I want to provide them beforehand and run the risk of forgetting about my account and getting billed instantly after my trial period runs out" - because they won't give you the free trial otherwise? As for why they want you to do that... well, that bit should be obvious. –  Random832 Jan 19 '12 at 17:20
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@Random832 - Obviously. It didn't work though, did it? I'm not trialling seoMOZ partly because I'm not entirely convinced their tools are worth $99/month to me (so the free trial would have been in their favour for me to have here!) and because using this poor technique of monetising people's mistakes doesn't make them appealing to me as a brand. –  Anonymous Jan 19 '12 at 17:37

4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

If a trial required me to enter these details before beginning the trial, I turn the other way and would not use the product at all. There is no good reason to gather these details in advance other than to increase the chance that the user will forget about the trial and get an automatic bill. I have all too often installed trial software and forgotten about it or only used it once or twice. That's fine as long as it is not to bill me automatically.

This is a Dark Pattern known as Forced Continuity, in which "the user is not given an adequate reminder, nor are they given an easy and rapid way of cancelling the automatic renewal."

As stated on Death of Forced Continiuty:

Forced continuity is one of the most controversial topics in Internet Marketing today... Some call it "sneaky"...others call it "under-handed", but most accept it as a viable, and insanely profitable business model. (Including me...well...until a few months ago.) As someone who has made many, many MILLIONS of dollars from forced continuity, I'm probably the last person you'd expect to write this report.

There is no need to cause extra stress or cognitive load on the user by making them remember that they will be billed after the trial. This also takes away their sense of control. Instead you should empower your users. If they truly enjoy your product, they will pay.

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You summed up my view/frustrations nicely. Now to find out why they do it... :-) Surely the profit from increasing the trial conversion rate (which in turn increases the customer conversion rate - all whilst promoting a positive user experience) is greater than that of the profits made on accidental payments? :-/ –  Anonymous Jan 19 '12 at 16:02
    
@Anonymous Edited my answer a bit. –  Matt Rockwell Jan 19 '12 at 16:25
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signup.netflix.com too. Went for a trail, encountered forced sign-up and promptly left. I think it's a very risky strategy and would love to see some data supporting the practice. –  colmcq Apr 22 '12 at 17:39
    
You're tapping into the fallacy of assuming that because you don't like something, everyone else doesn't like it either. It's obviously not the case—a lot of services require a credit card upfront and do just fine. The only thing that can tell you for sure what works best in a specific use case is A/B testing it. –  thomasfuchs Dec 4 at 14:44
    
@thomasfuchs That's fine, but it is still considered a dark pattern. –  Matt Rockwell Dec 4 at 15:33

This has nothing to do with how you feel about this. It has everything to do with what works better for your business. I run a SaaS myself, and we require a credit card upfront to enter our 30-day free trial.

For some services, no credit card upfront works really well. For example, business to business software where an employee tries it out and then goes to convince management to pay for it.

For other services, checking credit cards upfront (usually a test charge of $1 which is immediately voided) actually results in higher conversion rates, and as bonus you don't get junk accounts that cost you time (support) and money (hosting costs, etc.). The end result is a lower cost of customer acquisition. Again, this won't work for all SaaS, only for some, depending on the target market.

Here's a good article of someone who actually tried both things in his B2B SaaS. There's actually a middle ground approach you can take, which, in Brennan's case, worked well for his business: http://planscope.io/blog/why-im-going-back-to-capturing-credit-cards-upfront/

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Well said Thomas. That said though, are there ways to design the CC frontload process to improve the overall user experience? –  Erics Dec 27 '13 at 15:49
    
@Erics As with every UX "problem", of course there's ways to improve this: 1. Reduce number of fields (Stripe's CC form is pretty great for example). 2. Determine CC type from number, make it copy/pastable. 3. Make sure errors are communicated immediately, do checksum checks on client, etc. 4. Be sure to test cross-browser, for autofill–try it with Safari 7, 1Password and so on. You should also communicate very clearly what happens (that there's no charge yet, etc), and that people will get a mail before the trial ends etc. Otoh, don't write lengthy copy about WHY you want CC upfront. –  thomasfuchs Jan 5 at 16:02

This is called negative-option billing. It requires the user to opt-out at the end of a trial period. This is common in some industries - cell phone service, record clubs, subscription video sites, and yearly credit card fees. The supplier will benefit when people are too busy (or forgetful) to cancel. Providing an under utilized service makes the supplier more money than providing additional capacity for that service.

This is about business practices more than it is UX. It has a fundamentally negative impact on many other areas of the business, including the user experience. As with the examples above, negative option billing is frequently used by services who occupy a relatively large part of the market - where alternatives are limited.

Caveat emptor.

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I disagree - This has everything to do with user experience. I'm a user, and I've had a poor experience due to the design of their system (in my examples) and am very unlikely to use certain services because of it. –  Anonymous Jan 19 '12 at 15:34
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Bad business practices that have a major impact on the UX. –  Matt Rockwell Jan 19 '12 at 15:50

Don't forget ... negative option billing isn't always a dark pattern.

Some use it as age (or residency) verification. Others claim to use it as verification when verification is unnecessary, and others use both.

Some examples: Netflix uses pre-authorization to ensure the videos have been licensed for broadcast in your region. The bill will come if you don't cancel, though.

Audible (amazon, really) uses it to reduce abuse on "1st one is free" (since they let you keep the book after the trial). Like netflix, the bill will come.

Google uses pre-authorization for google music to ensure, again, that licensing has been cleared. No charges recurring (or unexpected) charges are made.

Unfortunately, this practice will restrict access to users who choose not to hold a credit card. Telephone verification is an option for some (google uses it), but it is one of the few reliable (or perceived as reliable) ways to perform due diligence for license clearning.

For other services, though? Not a chance. Unless I need to leave a deposit, I'm not leaving a card number.

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