The Up-Sell

I don’t mean to single out a single business here. The flaw I’m pointing out is shared by many sites but this post was inspired by a recent visit to TripIt. In general it’s a great service. It’s well thought out, allowing you to enter all your details with a minimum of effort; just forwarding your email confirmation to them is a masterstroke.

However. (You knew that was coming.) However, many links on the main page are non-functional, by which I mean they push you straight through to their paid-for service sign-up form.

The “tricky” part is that before you press them it is difficult to know which links actually work and which ones just ask for money.

There are a number of other tricks that some sites have. Another favourite is the interstitial screen, forcing you to view adverts before you can do what you actually want to do.

But it’s not just that I find it obnoxious. I don’t have data but I do have a nice anecdote that shows that it doesn’t really work.

During the boom I helped build a website. The launch went pretty well but the client decided that they wanted to push a secondary product, one with great margins but where customers really needed to be vetted. (I don’t want to get into specifics but it was a financial product.) The marketing people said that a pop-up would be the right thing to do.

We balked at the idea. At the time, pop-ups were the scourge of the Internet. They were used on all the least reputable sites. Technically adept users closed them without looking; the less fortunate were conned into either filling their screen with pointless adverts or visiting website they had no interest in. Pop-up blockers were a few years away.

In short, we felt that at best there was a reputational risk. Unfortunately we couldn’t come up with numbers to show that it was financially a bad idea, plus it was actually pretty cheap to implement. So they asked us to go ahead with it, over our objections.

As I recall it didn’t last very long.

After go-live there was a substantial up-tick in the number of people applying for this secondary product. However, there was actually a drop in the number of people who were accepted. That’s to say that it attracted exactly the wrong kind of person, which is bad enough, but there was also a cost associated with each rejected application.

Moving back to 2009, I think the problem with pushing your paid products too hard is that you actually make your free version less appealing. And, frankly, if your free version is a pain to use I’m certainly not going to pay for the full version just to make the evil bits go away.

To be clear, I have nothing against the so-called “freemium” business model. It can work really well. Flickr, for example, seems to have the balance about right: the site is useful even if you don’t pay for it with the extras useful for regular users. And paying LWN readers can get their content a week ahead of other people.

In short, if your paid extras are genuinely useful you don’t need to be obnoxious, you don’t need lots of “dead” links or interstitial adverts. And making your free version painful is most certainly not the answer.