Rethinking the Product Demo for Product Led Growth

July 25, 2019

Full disclosure: I started out my software career as a pre-sales engineer. Call me biased, but what other job inside a software company allows you to exercise so many skills at one time? Part show person, part geek, part industry expert, part teacher!

I love the pre-sales role and the demo. A B2B software buyer’s early product experience is arguably the most critical part of any software sales cycle. But as the way in which software buyers want to buy continues to evolve, and vendors adapt to changing buyer demands and market conditions, the role of pre-sales and the demo must inevitably change.

The opportunities to speak with buyers, complete a discovery call and show them a demo are shrinking. A recent Gartner study of 750 B2B software buyers points to them spending only 17% of their entire buying journey meeting with vendors. If you assume that buyers will check out at least three products, that means that less than 6% of all the time they spend on different buying activities is spent speaking with individual vendors. A similar study from Forrester Research reports that 68% of buyers prefer to research online on their own. If every buyer wants to experience your product before making a purchasing decision, and they spend 94% of their available time buying independently, how can vendors provide them with a satisfactory product experience?

Pre-sales resources are at a premium. Go to any pre-sales engineer meetup or get-together and chances are that every pre-sales manager there will mention that they’re hiring. A quick search on LinkedIn will pull up more than 10,000 open reqs for pre-sales engineers in the US alone.

Pre-sales engineers – and in-person demos are also expensive. ProfitWell’s research points to B2B CAC costs rising steadily over the past five years. This is a concern for many of the CEOs and heads of sales I speak with, whether it’s enterprise software companies moving into SMB markets or companies with low-ticket, high-volume sales models. They’re looking for ways to scale traditional pre-sales resources and demo processes, that satisfy the demands for more and earlier product experiences from today’s autonomous buyer.

The Free Trial – The “other” demo?

The product trial is not a new concept. What is new is using trials as the default way to offer an early product experience – what OpenView has coined as product led. In most cases, software companies adopting this approach offer no demo options. The demo is replaced by the product trial. Buyers get an immersive product experience by using the product, versus someone showing it to them.

OpenView’s research points to the impressive conversion rates of companies that have adopted this approach. It’s also worth noting that this model is not for everyone.

I’m a big fan of product led and think product trials are great – if you’re selling a product that is relatively easy and uncomplicated, to a very knowledgeable buyer, and your organization is built around servicing a trial customer. Or, to put it another way, if your products are bought rather than sold.

Remember, customers are trying to make an informed buying decision in the shortest time possible. Is your process optimized to help buyers quickly experience your product’s “aha” moment? Or are you expecting in-trial customers to complete what amounts to an implementation process before they can begin to see the value of the product?

3 Reasons for Poor Trial Conversion

There are many reasons for low trial conversion rates, including the following:

First, every software buyer wants to see and experience the product before they buy. If there’s no demo option, buyers are forced to start a trial, simply to see the product. The trial becomes a poor substitute for the demo.

Second, buyers want to validate that the product’s functionality will address their needs and deliver the value they’re expecting. If the trial is the first time that the buyer is seeing the product in action, they’re wasting too much time figuring out what the product can do, versus if and how it can do it. Particularly for more complex products, buyers can’t afford the investment of time to evaluate products this way.

Third, most companies are still organized around customer acquisition and selling, not customer success which is required for successful trial conversions. The inability to quickly help in-trial buyers understand and experience functionality that’s relevant to them, results in too many buyers becoming frustrated and giving up.

3 Ways a Product Led Strategy can Improve Trial Conversion Rates

Thankfully, there are ways to scale your pre-sales team and leverage your product demo today that allow any company to start becoming product led and drive higher trial conversion rates. Here are three suggestions:

  1. Use your product to drive buyer enablement and help the autonomous buyer learn about your product wherever and whenever they want to. Make your demo interactive and available to your buyers directly from your website and through your digital marketing. This will allow multiple buyers within the same company to experience their individual “aha” moments and become immersed in the product on their own time. Use the analytics from the buyer’s interaction with your online demo to gain visibility into where buyers are in their buying journey.
  2. If you’ve already moved to a product led model and are offering product trials, but not experiencing the conversion rates you had hoped for, consider providing access to a high-quality, professional demo that buyers can access before they commit to a trial. You no longer have the typical expenses of in-person discovery and demos, but your buyers benefit from experiencing your product through a great demo before they begin their trial. Offering buyers this type of demo results in more buyers self-qualifying themselves for trials. And assuming the demo is correctly structured, buyers engage with the trial in a more informed and prepared manner. The demo has already answered the buyer’s “can the software do….” questions, allowing the trial to answer their “how does your software do….” needs. As a result, this approach improves trial conversion rates.
  3. Most B2B software buyers are looking for solutions that provide multiple benefits, and have their individual list of questions they want answered before they’ll consider buying your product. Use the demo to provide answers to those questions, again before or during the trial. This will let the buyer understand the breadth of value your product offers. Trials are limiting in helping buyers quickly understand the breadth of value they will gain. As one of our customers told me about a recent software trial experience: “we were able to go an inch wide and a mile deep, instead of a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Final Thoughts

As the way we make buying decisions as consumers continues to infiltrate the way we buy at work, we need to consider when and how the demo fits into our customer acquisition processes. Using our products to deliver relevant product experiences early and often in the buyer’s journey not only enables buyers to buy more easily, but helps us sell more effectively.