Putting the ‘mium’ in Freemium

and getting away with it.

Dror Bren
6 min readSep 1, 2013

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Freemium is your friend

Freemium is a pretty cool concept when you think about it.
A startup comes up with a cool app, wants it to spread, and hands it out for free. When the users want an edge in the game they’ve downloaded, or a few more features in the app they’ve installed they pay a small amount or subscribe.

Everyone wins in theory, and that’s what made this model for apps and games so popular in the past few years.

The result for ‘Freemium’ search in Google Trends

The thing is, that when done the wrong way the freemium model can be the worst thing that happened to your company since stale wonderbread.

DO’s and DON’Ts

Lets say that you’ve created the next amazing productivity app, and you wish to give it away for free to gain popularity and build your user base. ‘Free’ is a great, important marketing tool. So now everyone can use the awesome free version of your app, spread the word out, and some users will be willing to pay for extra features that will be available in the premium version only, that will generate profit. Sounds legit so far.

The tricky part is in how you pull the startegy off. Which features do you charge for? What’s the payment plan? How you transition your users to the premium model? and so on. Here are a couple of tips to help make these decisions when facing them.

1.Give basic features for free

Don’t
Lets take Evernote as an example. Evernote is one of the leading note taking apps available today, working with a freemium business model.
Think about what a pain it would be if syncing your notes between devices a paid feature. This is almost a must-have for most users. Making this feature a paid one would probably send a lot of users running away to find a competitor that offers the same feature for free.
Do
Instead, Evernote made the free version great in its own right, and made the premium version targeted for business users, with better collaboration, bigger storage and higher security features.
Do the same, and think about your pro market segments and the their needs. Good premium features might include:support, customization, pro tools, awesome nice to haves or features that might benefit a business.
Do your homework and give the people what they need.

Evernote free contains all of the features needed in a note taking app

2. Let the user know what’s free and what’s premium

Don’t
Make sure the user knows which features are premium and which are free. One of the most annoying things a user can come across while using a product is a premium feature in disguise. Lets say that you have a search feature in your app, that is a premium feature, but is designed to look exactly like the rest of the page. The free user would want to use it, she’ll type in the desired search, click the search button, and instead of getting to the results page, she’ll get a ‘this is a premium feature’ message. Most frustrating. She’s wasted time and can’t get the results she wanted. A frustrated user isn't a paying one.
Do
Make sure the premium features appearance is differentiated by color, type, or behavior from the rest of the app. This way the user will be aware of them, but wouldn't try to use them and get frustrated.

When searching for matches in OkCupid, premium search options are differentiated from free ones by highlighting them in pink

3. Don’t shove the premium features in the users’ face

Don’t
Got cool premium features in your app? Awesome!
Want your users to know about them? Great!
It’s well understood that you need some users to go premium. The regular conversion rate of free to premium is around 2%, and it’s well worth trying to push for 4%.
But by making the call to action of going pro too prominent and nagging, you will harm the experience of the free product. That will push away some of the free users. Though free users don’t contribute to your revenue, some of them will eventually go pro, and some will spread the word around about your product.
Do
Go subtle. Let them users know about your premium feature in a suave, nonchalant manner. You don’t need to have a huge banner or popup notifying your users that they can go premium every time they log into the app.
If they to use the free version, that’s cool. Don’t let the premium option get in the way of the flow. Once you've made sure the users have seen the premium option of your app, and are aware of its benefits, let them hide the notification of it completely, and even hide the premium features themselves. Bring it up once in a while, or let the users know of new premium features, but don’t let that get in the way of them enjoying the free experience of the cool app you've given them.

When entering feedly as a free user, a top bar shows the option of upgrading to pro. Once the user minimizes it, it stays hidden

4. Don’t take free features and make them Premium

Don’t
Many Freemium products start out as free ones, and later on, once the user base has been built the premium features are added. No matter what — NEVER take free features away from EXISTING users and make them premium.
Do
Create new exciting features. And don’t just add premium features. Think of it this way — for each premium feature you add, create an additional free feature. This way your free users will feel rewarded for sticking around, and the premium users will get both the free and premium features with each upgrade.
If you’ve made a huge mistake and need to make a free feature premium, do it for new users. It sucks a little, but can be understood under certain circumstances.

Dropbox for business adds features specifically targeted for professional users

5. Give multiple premium payment options

Don’t
Most Freemium products offer two paths: Free and paid apps.
The free app is, well… free. And the paid app is usually either paid for in advance, or subscribed to for a small monthly fee. This creates a situation where many free users don’t take the premium option as it’s not tailored to their needs.
Do
Create a few payment options. Think of how many payment options users get for Kickstarter projects — options that range from a sticker or a T-shirt for a small contribution to a personal foot massage from the project’s founder for a big one.
Give your users the gift of choosing how invested they want to be in your product. Give them the option to buy certain features, join a subscription, or just pay a single time payment just to get rid of the ads.Be generous. This day and age, a paying user is a privilege. Make sure you surprise and delight them constantly. Be open to feedback. Promote requested features. If you’re taking money in order to push forward features, make sure you’re pushing forward the right ones.

In Paper app, the users can purchase premium brushes individually to assemble their own personal art tools collection

Be Generous

All in all, the Freemium model is one of the best possible solutions to get paid for hard earned work invested in apps. When done properly, the premium option feels like a luxurious boost the user can choose to use all the time, or just if needed. It can motivate, create traction and build trust with your user base.
The key element in doing so, is generosity. Make sure you care about your users, both free and premium. Keep them surprised and delighted both a free and premium users. Invest in the product, invest in developing features both free and premium users will enjoy.

Generosity creates loyalty, empathy and connection.
That’s the most important thing you could ask for.

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Dror Bren

Product creator, bicycle rider, cat lover