Streamers Are Using Extended Free Trials in an Effort to Hook Housebound Viewers

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As Americans began sheltering in place in mid-March and were eager for new entertainment options following the cancellation of live sports, Sir Patrick Stewart came to their rescue.

On March 24, the day before the Season 1 finale of his new CBS All Access series Star Trek: Picard, Stewart announced on Instagram that the streaming service was offering a 30-day free trial, up from its normal seven-day window. The surprise offer drove a double-digit increase in new subscriptions and resulted in CBS All Access’ highest single-day March sign-ups in its five-and-a-half year history.

That monthlong freebie is a tactic that streamers large and small are dangling as people around the country remain indoors and out of public areas due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Streamers and premium channels—including AMC Networks’ streaming services, Epix and Showtime—extended weeklong trials into monthlong offers, while other services, including Amazon and HBO, have opted to make some programming available entirely free. It’s partially a gesture of goodwill as people are stuck at home, but those trials also offer another purpose: to get people hooked on a service’s exclusive programming and convert them into paying customers.

“It’s smart marketing,” said Marc DeBevoise, chief digital officer at ViacomCBS, who oversees CBS All Access as CEO and president at CBS Interactive. “If we can get out an awareness drive for our service, which is not one of the big three just yet, garnering some of that mind share at this moment is a smart move.”

Once they get viewers onto the platform, even if they aren’t paying customers yet, streamers have an upper hand.

a sidebar of what trials different streamers are offering

“We will have better conversion and retention, even if we’re going from one week to one month,” DeBevoise added. “We garner more users if they get to see what’s in the service first. Getting people into the service is key because once they get into it, they get to see how much is there.”

At premium cable channel Showtime, another ViacomCBS property, an extended free trial period coincided with the returns of two of the service’s most popular franchises: Billions and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. Showtime has seen a 167% surge in free trial sign-ups in the last month, with viewership up across the board.

To capitalize, the marketing campaign for each show is designed to convert viewers into paid subscribers.

“Offering free access today is an example of a modest act of goodness being good for business,” said Michael Engleman, Showtime’s chief marketing officer. “In success, we’ll build relationships and customers over the long haul.”

To keep trial accounts sticking around, the service is focusing on targeting the right programming to new accounts and marketing toward them in and out of the platform.

“From a marketing perspective, the key is understanding taste,” Engleman said. “The more precise we are in delivering the right message about the right show to the right person, the more success we’ll have.”

Upcoming streaming services are also looking to capitalize on the promotional opportunities freebies represent. While a recent move to make 500 hours of HBO programming entirely free wasn’t explicitly tied to the May 27 debut of WarnerMedia streamer HBO Max, it was still on the mind of WarnerMedia Entertainment CMO Chris Spadaccini, who said the promotion was a “great sampling opportunity” that will benefit a broader marketing push.

As TV viewership is up across the board, the lockdown is offering a rare chance for streamers to break through a crowded market. The question on some buyers’ minds is why aren’t even more streaming services, like Disney+ and Apple TV+, offering extended free trials as well?

“It’s a brilliant tactic,” said Catherine Sullivan, chief investment officer for North America at Omnicom. “You lure them in with a little bit of amazing content, and once you bring them into the tent and let them take a look, you know they are going to want to stay.”

This story first appeared in the May 4, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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