Product & Growth Tips

Why convert? Paid users tell their stories

Christopher Gillespie

Can product teams ever have too much candid user feedback? We don’t think so.

If they don’t dig deeper than occasional interviews with adoring power users, PMs can start to view their product through rose-colored glasses. Everything seems great and then, suddenly, users that have claimed to love the product, churn, leaving product teams struggling to figure out why.

As it turns out, when consumers aren’t being flattered with interviews by product teams, most live by a strict utilitarian ethos. In a world of seemingly limitless choices and boundless free alternatives, it takes a lot to convince them to part with hard-earned money.

To draw users past the paywall, some apps rely on loyalty. Others on clever pricing models. To get a sense of how users feel about each approach, we used thick-data— the ethnographic user stories which aren’t heard often enough. We asked a handful of individuals in New York, “What app do you use most, and do you pay for it?”

Here is what six of them said.

1. Some users will pay for a personal connection

“I. Am. Obsessed. With. Her. I use all her products.” – Celeste, Graduate Student

My favorite app is called TeuxDeux—it’s a to-do list. I started paying for it 3-4 years in, which is when it became paid, and I was so obsessed by that point that I would never have used another to-do app. I use it at least 10-15 times per day. Everything in my life lives here. It’s my default.

Why do I love it? It was designed by a woman who founded a free monthly breakfast series I attended. I. Am. Obsessed. With. Her. I use all her products. TeuxDeux is $3 per month and I didn’t hesitate. It was a no-brainer. When she sends receipts, she even adds a personal touch.

I pay upfront for the entire year. Partly, it was for the discount, but really, I had such a good experience paying month-to-month for the extra features, and I came to depend on them.

2. Consumers pay for good content, but reluctantly

“Considering I wanted to pay nothing, it was too much, but clearly, I thought it was reasonable enough to do it.” – Eve, Brand Marketer

I’m probably the most boring app user ever. Spotify is my number one and I pay because the commercials got to me. I didn’t want to listen to them anymore, and I used it enough that it was worth it. The price was fine, but considering I wanted to pay nothing, it still felt like too much. But I did it anyway. 

Otherwise, I mostly use apps for daily functions, like Lyft, Audible, or Soulcycle. I wouldn’t pay for a membership – I just buy goods and services through them. I do pay monthly for Netflix too. Again, I’d rather pay nothing, but it was the show House of Cards that convinced me to sign up. Before that, I was using someone else’s account.

When it comes to notifications, none of the apps can really bother me because I turn them all off. Besides email, – I get a sh*t ton of emails. But I turn off push notifications, and I really appreciate when apps just don’t ask me to pay.

3. Shared identity can drive adoption

“There’s Slack, which I use a ton because I’m in tech.” – Josh, UX Designer

I don’t pay for most apps. There’s Slack, which I use a ton because I’m in tech. I got used to it at work which made it easy to start using it at home. I live in a house with 10 people, so I really need it, and I don’t think it’s ever asked for money.

When I pay for things, it’s because there’s no other way. I pay for Spotify—that’s just a cost of living. I have my partner and my dad on my account. Oh, and there’s Sketch and Flinto, which I need for design work. I paid for both of those myself on my personal computer even though they came loaded on my work laptop because I use them heavily.

If it’s possible, I find free alternatives. There is a lifting app called Strong that I use 4-5 days per week. It’s for fitness programming and does exactly what I need it to do. I found it after using this other lifting app that wanted $19.99, which was ridiculous.

4. Users will pay, but their loyalty goes to the apps that don’t ask

“They really rub the fact that you don’t have premium in your face.” – John, Engineer

I pay for OkCupid. You don’t have to pay, but I pay because I get more information that way. On the paid version, you can see who likes you and if somebody read your message There are also fewer ads and generally, I’m willing to pay for ad-free experiences. It depends on the platform though.

I converted on OkCupid because they really rub the fact that you don’t have premium in your face. They notify you every time you get ‘liked’ but only show you a blurred list. That wears on you. You know they have information, but they don’t share it.

Then I also use free apps, like Citymapper. Love it. It started as a project that won a prize and then turned into a company. It’s the ultimate transit map: It combines all modes of transit in New York, but also most major cities. It has offline maps, subway maps, and you can ‘favorite’ certain lines and locations. And it has never asked me to pay, and there are no ads. It’s perfect. 

5. Friction prevents impulse buys

“I’ll buy it, but if I get blocked because I forgot my iTunes password, I’ll give up.” – Ian, Engineer, Artist

If there is a one-time use app and I want it, I’ll buy it. But if I get blocked because I forgot my iTunes password, I’ll give up. There was this app Plotograph that I saw a lot of other visual artists using it and I thought I’d try it too, but I couldn’t remember my password and it wasn’t worth the effort to me to reset it.

In terms of total usage, I’m on social media a lot. I usually bounce between Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, my email, and text. If I’m alone, I’ll bounce between them 20 times per minute and I’ll probably hit each one five times. Photography is what got me hooked on Facebook. Once you post content that’s good enough to get some likes, that keeps you coming back. When I got connected to communities there, that drastically boosted my interactions.

All in all, I don’t pay for a lot. Usually, there’s a free version of something that’s good enough—like the iPhone news widget or iMovie. I do think it’s amazing how much work people put in for free apps, and how amazing some of the free functionality can be. The freemium model really crushes everything and I think people should get paid for their apps. But at the same time, when they try to make money by putting too many ads on in the app, I’ve stopped using them.  

6. Users who love products will pay for them

“I got hooked and was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I pay for this?’” – Lira, Data Scientist

I use Queue, the O’Reilly Safari mobile app. They’re a brand that I trust and have a strong relationship with. The app gives you the vast majority of their publications, plus 2-3 other publishers. Plus, they do incredible tech conferences and immediately post the talks with very high-quality audio and video.

I began using it after I went to an O’Reilly conference. I had read their books here and there, but at the conference, I got a 90-day free trial. I got hooked and was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I pay for this?’ I was paying for the books anyway.

My company reimburses me for the cost of Queue, but I don’t always fill out the expense report. I think I’d pay anyway. It’s totally reasonable—it’s the cost of one book per month, and things change so frequently. I’d say my usage has only increased over time. Initially, I used it to solve very specific problems—I was trying to learn capacity planning for multi-tenant cloud environments. But now, because I touch every layer of the stack, I have to know everything and I rely on the app because it allows me to jump around between books.

Is it better to be loved or clever?

In a marketplace awash with free alternatives and high-performing free versions, the default expectation of most users seems to be that nearly all things are free. Some apps manage to win their users’ love. Others manage to earn their dollars. It’s a rare app, like Teux-Deux or O’Reilly Queue, that manages to do both. What makes them unique? You’ll have to check them out to see for yourself.

Want to build an app that’s both loved and profitable? Let Mixpanel be your guide.

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