When designing the marketing strategy of your software product, you should consider offering a free edition. This article tries to help you with this decision by presenting the pros and cons and our experiences with the free version of our first product, called
Arguments Against a Free Edition
Because the cons are probably more important than the pros and maybe not so obvious I decided to list them first. So here we go.
- Time and Effort
Offering a free edition of your software product can be a time-consuming task. Since the free edition usually differs from the commercial edition, you need to create and maintain an additional version. Simple, you might think, just add some defines here and there, compile two different versions and you’re done.
Wrong! What doesn’t sound like much effort in the first place can get out of control very quickly. There are a lot more aspects to consider than just removing some of the features. You need to adjust and maintain your build system for two different versions. You need to create an additional setup program and documentation. And finally you need a lot of time for an extra test phase.
And even if the free edition is technically identical to the full version and only differs in the licensing scheme you probably still need to invest more extra time than you might be willing to. Just think of giving support. Even if you officially don’t give support for the free version, users send you feature requests, ask for help with the installation or try to find out when the next version is going to be released.
Sure, you could just ignore those requests or reply that you don’t give support for the free edition, but since you never know if a user of the free version wants to purchase the full version in the future, you are better off answering their questions. Put short, one problem with a free edition is that you to need to invest a lot of time for users who probably never buy your product.
- Losing Potential Customers
Another problem with a free edition is that you might lose potential customers. This can be the case if they are not missing any crucial features and are not restricted by the licensing scheme. It’s obvious that there’s no reason to purchase the full version then. You simply end up giving your product away for free to people who might have bought the full version otherwise.
So there should always be a reason for your potential customers to upgrade from the free to the full version. Think about restricting the licensing scheme to non-commercial use only or about removing more advanced features which are really needed by your target market, but are not so important for non-paying users. Put short, the formula of success for offering a free edition:
- Integrate as many features as needed to attract potential customers and other users but not more.
- Omit more advanced features or restrict the licensing scheme so that your potential customers need to purchase the full version to make real use of your product.
Of course, finding the right licensing scheme or balance of features can be hard. One way to find a tradeoff is to always keep several reasons to upgrade. If you think there are too few or even no reasons to upgrade to the full version, then remove some of the features in the free edition or restrict the license. But be careful about taking this too far. There should still be enough reasons to use your free edition. Otherwise offering such an edition is a waste of time.
Arguments For a Free Edition
This chapter lists the pros of a free edition. They are probably more interesting than the cons because they are the actual reason to offer a free edition.
This point is obvious. By providing a free edition of your software product, the marketing is much simpler and more efficient than having no such offering. You can add your product to freeware sites, recommend your product to users who currently only look for freeware products and so on. So, one major advantage of free software is that it usually spreads much faster than some
trial or demo versions. People simply like getting high-quality software for free.
To summarize, you reach more people. More people know about you and your product. And if they like it they will tell their friends, family and co-workers. That’s the desired word of mouth effect. And once your free edition has a large user base, your full version becomes more known, too. The trick is here to think of users of the free edition as evangelists and future customers of your full version.
- Less Piracy
This point is arguable. Does a free edition of your product reduce piracy of the full version? Well, maybe, maybe not. This heavily depends on the particular piece of software and the functionality of the free edition. However, I think when people can get an edition for free, they might be more inclined to use this version instead of pirating the full version.
As noted above, you reach more people. Reaching more people will usually result in having more users. And this in turn results in getting more feedback – feedback which can be enormous important to you. Besides usual feature requests or less frequent thankyous, these users might report bugs or quirks that make your product unusable for them. Take these reports serious, they might be an indicator that there’s something wrong with your product.
This point is strongly connected to the Time and Effort aspect mentioned previously. On the one hand you need to invest a lot of time with giving support to non-paying users, but on the other hand the feedback is invaluable and usually a good starting point to improve your software product. For further reading on this topic, please refer to How to Maintain and Improve Your Software Product.
A Case Study: SmartInspect Personal
If you are a regular reader of this site you certainly know about SmartInspect. If not, you can take a look at its product description to learn more. SmartInspect comes in two versions: The main version, called SmartInspect Professional, and a free feature-reduced edition for non-commercial use, called
SmartInspect Personal. This chapter explains why we decided to offer the free edition.
When we thought about our marketing strategy, we had the idea of creating a free version. Besides offering a logging solution to open-source and hobby programmers, we wanted to reach those users who are currently not willing to spend money for a logging tool but probably upgrade to the full version some day in the future. Furthermore, we thought the more people use and like the Personal edition, the more will know and purchase the Professional version.
So we decided to do it. To be honest, we almost ignored the Time and Effort aspect back then. Instead, we set a high value on finding a good balance of features and designing a suitable licensing scheme. I won’t go into the details here, but once we decided which features to remove, we stripped them off and took all the necessary steps to maintain the additional version, like adjusting the build system and creating an extra setup program. In the particular case of the Console, stripping of features meant adding lots of defines to the regular version to avoid two different code bases.
Update: We have decided to discontinue SmartInspect Personal in the meantime. Read why.
One last point to consider. If you decide to offer a free edition of your product, don’t make the mistake of requiring a registration on your website in order to download the setup file. Either make a registration optional or omit it completely. Otherwise most of the positive aspects of offering a free edition would be gone since your download rate will normally decrease down to 20% or even less. The same is true for demo or trial versions.
Most people, including me, are usually not willing to register just for trying a piece of software. One can argue that those who don’t want to register are not very interested in your product anyway, but the chance of convincing them is definitely lost. Put short, make the download as simple as possible to reach a maximum of users.
As usual, if you like to tell me how wrong I am or if you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me at