If you're considering whether you should offer a free trial lesson to new students or not, this guide is for you. We will explain how this seemingly simple decision can have a big impact on the success of your business. Deciding whether to offer free trial lessons or not is a decision that needs to be taken seriously.
The Power of FREE
Let's start with looking at why many tutors do offer free trial lessons. The main reason is that people are far more likely to take action with something free compared to something that comes along with a price tag.
To understand why FREE is so powerful, we need only have a quick look at Apple's App Store. Well over 90% of apps are FREE to download. App developers know that if they release a free version of their app, they will achieve far more downloads compared to a paid version. At the same time, the majority of revenue from apps are from free apps (eg: in-app purchases or upgrades). So releasing a free app can actually be far more profitable in the end. The basic idea is that the user is enticed into downloading a free app, then over time they're persuaded to make in-app purchases or upgrades.
Bringing this example back to tutoring, the basic idea behind offering a free trial lesson is that you can persuade more potential students to give you a chance. If you can get a person into a free trial lesson, the chances are high that you will be able to persuade them to stay on as a student. Many tutors offer free trial lessons because it encourages more people to take action and book in a lesson.
If we summarize the pros to offering free trial lessons, the main pros would be:
- Easier to persuade people to sign up for a lesson
- People are more likely to book in a free initial lesson compared to a paid initial lesson
- 'Free first lesson' is easy to promote
For some tutors, these benefits will outweigh the below problems with offering free trial lessons. For most tutors, offering a free trial lesson can be a big mistake. Let's now look at the dark side to free trial lessons.
Say Hello To The 'Tire Kickers'
Offering free trial lessons is a powerful way to get potential students to take action, but there are some types of people you don't want to take action. If you haven't heard the phrase 'tire kickers' before, you will quickly learn what it means if you start offering free trial lessons.
A tire kicker is a person who is indecisive about making a decision to the point where they won't make a decision. They usually like the idea of getting a tutor, but find a whole range of reasons why they can't book in lessons. They will make excuses such as your price being too high, they don't have a budget for lessons right now, and on and on. Every tutor will come across tire kickers at some point and you will quickly learn it's almost impossible to convince a tire kicker to take action.
Offering free trial lessons brings out the tire kickers. They see the word 'FREE' and immediately book in a free lesson. You think that's great because you've convinced them to take action, but the truth is they have no intention to stay with you and start paying for lessons. They might sound like they're really keen and will tell you they will 'definitely continue lessons', but you won't hear from them again after the free lesson. If you call them up, they will have plenty of excuses why they can't continue lessons. 'Sorry, I really want to continue lessons, but it's a bad time for me now'.
Tire kickers are happy to take you up on free lessons, but as soon as it comes time to pay, they will find excuses why they can't continue.
There's one proven way to discourage tire kickers: charge for lessons from the very start. Charging for the first lesson weeds out the tire kickers. They may still call/email you and try to negotiate rates or try to get a free lesson, but if you stick to your rate and don't give in, they will give up. It might sound strange to turn a potential student away, but tire kickers aren't worth your time.
Key lesson: free trial lessons encourage 'tire kickers'. Unfortunately those people won't stay on as students. They won't pay for lessons and will waste your time.
The only way you can prevent tire kickers from wasting your time is to charge for your lessons right from the beginning.
Free Trials Devalue You As a Tutor
While tire kickers are an annoying side effect to offering free trial lessons, they're not that much of an issue. The real issue is how free lessons devalue you as a tutor.
Imagine the next time you needed a haircut. You go to a local hairdresser you haven't been to before and ask for a free trial cut. How do you think the hairdresser will respond? As another example, imagine your hot water service breaks down so you call a plumber. Seeing as it's the first time you've called this plumber, you ask for a free service. How do you think the plumber will respond?
The reason you don't ask for free haircuts or ask a plumber to work for free is because you value their service. If you want a good job done you will pay for it.
As a tutor, you can actually damage your credibility by offering free lessons. In a way, a free trial lessons says to potential students 'the time it takes me to prepare and give you a lesson isn't valuable - it's not worth paying for'. Of course you don't actually say that to students, but the message is still there! Compare this to charging for your first lesson. The message that sends to potential students is 'the time it takes me to prepare and give you a lesson is valuable - it's worth paying for'.
This is very similar to why you shouldn't price your lessons too low. As we explain in our article on how much to charge for tutoring, setting a low rate gives students the impression that your lessons aren't valuable. Your lessons are seen as low quality just like products you would see in a bargain bin. Free trial lessons achieve a similar impression, although not as bad. First impressions count and you don't want your new student to start seeing your lessons as low value.
Key lesson: free trial lessons devalue you and your lessons. The message a free lesson sends to potential students is 'my time isn't worth money'.
That's not the best way to start a relationship with a student. You want the student (or parents) to value your time and effort right from the beginning.
Free Trials Encourages Lazy Marketing
This is an issue caused by free trial lessons that almost always flies under the radar. Offering free trials can significantly cost you by encouraging lazy marketing.
When you charge for your first lesson, it makes you work a bit harder. You really need to make a compelling case to persuade a potential student to sign up. It forces you to focus on your marketing and send out the right message to potential students.
When you offer a free trial lesson, it gives you a false sense of security. All you need to do is slap 'free trial lesson' to some posters and flyers and it will feel like you're doing a good job. Because we're used to seeing FREE plastered all over the place, we mistakenly think that all we need to do when it comes to marketing is do the same thing. Instead of learning marketing principles and seeking out the best methods, you feel complacent. When you stop receiving responses from potential students, you send out some more flyers or update your status on social media to 'promote' your free lessons.
This might not seem like a big issue, but it is. We see it every day with tutors. It's not a coincidence that tutors who promote their free trial lessons often are the ones who complain about the struggle to find new and hold on to new students.
Key lesson: free trial lessons can make you complacent with your marketing. The most successful tutors push themselves to really learn marketing principles and constantly improve their strategy. We barely see that drive and persistence when a tutor offers free trial lessons.
There is a cost to FREE
Let's say you charge $30 a lesson. If you offer a free trial lesson, that lesson just cost you $30. Of course you didn't pay $30 out of your pocket for the lesson, but you're still down $30.
While that sound sound straight forward, the fact is that because you're not spending that $30, it doesn't hurt as much. We surveyed tutors a while ago and asked them if they would be happy spending $30 on advertising to gain one new student ($30 was the average rate charged by the tutors we surveyed). About 40% of tutors said they would not spend that much on advertising for one new student. In a later question we asked whether they would be happy offering a free trial lesson to gain one new student. This time over 80% of tutors were happy to offer the free trial.
In both of the above scenarios, the tutors end up in the exact same situation. In both scenarios the tutors were down $30 to gain a new student. But the tutors felt very differently about the two scenarios. While there are other factors involved, the point is that offering a free trial lesson throws your senses off. Losing $30 in a free trial lesson doesn't feel the same as spending $30 in advertising. This can lead to poor business decisions.
After reading the above details it should come as no surprise that we don't recommend offering a free trial lesson as a marketing strategy. While there are benefits to offering free trial lessons, we don't believe they outweigh the costs.
When you decide what is right for you and your tutoring business, remember the cost in offering a free first lesson. If you charge $50 per lesson, then your cost in this strategy is $50 for every potential student. Compare that cost to other options such as advertising. Would that $50 be better spent elsewhere to try and attract new students?
As a simplified example, if you can attract three new students out of every $50 you spend on advertising, then it would be foolish to offer free trial lessons. Why give away free lessons when you could spend the same money with a method that achieves better results?
To find out how all of this happens in the real world, check out our case study below. We spent $100 running ads to test whether a free trial lesson would bring in more students or not. Even we were surprised with the results!
If you check other websites you will see many differing opinions on whether to offer free trial lessons or not. The difference is that we actually run tests and experiments to find out what actually works.
We ran a test on Facebook Ads, which is a paid form of online advertising and we spent $50 on each ad. The goal of the test is to find out whether a tutor would be better off advertising a free trial lesson or not.
In one ad, we made it clear that students would receive a free trial lessons with no commitment to continue lessons. The other ad didn't offer a free trial.
You can see the two Facebook Ads we ran below:
You can see the only difference between the two ads is the mention of a free trial.
Both ads contained the same basic message and lead to two separate webpages. So whenever a potential student clicked on the 'free trial lesson' ad, they would see a website that would invite them to book in a free trial lesson. When somebody clicked the other ad, they would see the exact same website with the only difference being that no free trial was offered. The person was invited to book in a lesson and they would be charged at the first lesson. This is called an A/B split test as it helps us identify whether free trials result in better results or not.
If you had to guess, how do you think the ads performed? Which do you think ended up more profitable?
Here were the results after spending $50 on each ad:
The 'free trial' ad attracted 27 clicks and resulted in 19 student inquiries. Out of those 19 inquiries, 12 free trial lessons were booked in. After those 12 free trials, 4 students returned for a paid lesson.
This means after spending $50 on the ad and 12 hours worth of free lessons, the tutor gained 4 new students.
Seeing as the tutor valued her time at $50 per hour, the total cost of running this ad was $650 ($50 ad + $600 worth of free lessons) to gain 4 students. So the cost per new student was $162.50.
The 'no free trial' ad attracted 17 clicks and resulted in 9 student inquiries. Out of those 9 inquiries, 6 lessons were booked in and paid for.
The total cost of this ad was $50 to gain 6 students. So the cost per new student was $8.33.
Not too comfortable with all the numbers? Let's compare the performance of the ads:
- The 'free trial' ad generated more clicks, more inquiries and more first lessons booked in
- Out of 19 inquiries and 12 free trial lessons, only 4 students returned to pay for a lesson
- Many of the potential students from the free trial lesson ad were clearly tire kickers and had no interest in paying for lessons. Three students wouldn't even return a phone call or email after the free trial
- Many of the inquiries from both ads didn't end up in booked lessons as the tutor's available times didn't work with some potential students
- The free trial ad was 19.5x more expensive (per student) than the other ad!
While both ads were clearly profitable on paper, the free trial ad was horribly expensive when you consider the tutor's time. Spending 12 hours giving lessons to end up with 4 paying students was shocking to us. Considering we've run experiments like this in the past we had an idea the results would be like this, but this time it was terrible.
It should be crystal clear from this test why advertising free trials isn't a good marketing approach. Would you pay $162.50 to gain a new student or pay $8.33? If you currently offer free trials, the chances are you're paying way too much (in your time and missed income) as a result.
That's the real cost in pursuing marketing strategies that haven't been properly tested.
Have a Question?
If you currently offer free trial lessons and want to change strategy, or you are having trouble attracting students, we can help. Head over to the Q&A section to see if somebody else has already asked your question and if not, ask us and we'll help you out.