Emphasizing My Web App’s Free Trial Improved Its Sign Up Rate By 25%

Preceden, a web-based timeline maker that I run, is free to try but costs $39 once to upgrade to a pro account, which let’s you add an unlimited number of events to your timelines.

Conveying this limitation to visitors has always been a bit tricky. The more I emphasize the cost, the lower the conversion rate is. However, you don’t want to hide the cost completely, as that’s both dishonest and would lead to a lot of people signing up that have no intention of ever paying for it.

In the past, the Pricing and Signup page looked like this:

You’ve got your sign up form on the left with the pricing details on the right hand side of the page. To me, it’s clear that you can sign up, try it for free, and upgrade if you want, but my perspective is so biased because I built the service. What’s really important is whether or not it is clear to folks visiting the page.

On a whim, I decided to test a variation of this page with one simple modification. Instead of “Sign Up“, the header would say “Sign Up Now For Free“:

After a few weeks of testing, the results are in and they are nothing short of spectacular:

Per ABingo: “The best alternative you have is: [sign_up_now_for_free], which had 505 conversions from 1365 participants (37.00%). The other alternative was [sign_up], which had 385 conversions from 1305 participants (29.50%). This difference is 99.9% likely to be statistically significant, which means you can be extremely confident that it is the result of your alternatives actually mattering, rather than being due to random chance.”

In other words, 25% more people signed up when the headline read “Sign Up Now For Free” vs just “Sign Up”.

I’ve been running a lot of A/B tests on both Preceden and Lean Domain Search, but most do not result in a statistically significant change. This small change resulted in the second largest improvement to Preceden’s conversion funnel ever (first was some homepage variations I tested last year). Not bad.

Two final thoughts:

  1. Adding the word “Now” to the second headline may have impacted the results. A better variation to test would have been “Sign Up For Free” so that the impact of “Now” and “For Free” was not combined into a single metric.
  2. The pricing details have not changed, so why does this make such a difference? People weren’t reading the pricing information, right? But what if they still aren’t? What if more people are signing up now because they think the service is free? A better conversion event would be how many actually upgraded to a paid account, but because that number is relatively low (~4% of people who sign up) it would have taken a longer to get statistically significant results.

Preceden A/B Test Results: Apparently Folks Don’t Like Gradients

I’ve been running an A/B test on Preceden, my web-based timeline maker, for the last week to test the impact of gradient bars on the sign up rate.

Half the people saw solid color bars:

And half the people had a slight gradient fade added to them:

I measured the number of unique visitors who saw a timeline and considered it a conversion when the person signed up for an account. Note that the participant figures include anyone who viewed a timeline including existing users, people viewing someone else’s timeline, etc (ie, not just new users visiting the homepage). Because I’m just comparing the relative results, it doesn’t matter that the numbers include existing users, etc.

Users with non-CSS3 compliant browsers were also included in both test groups, but their browsers only rendered the fall-back solid color version. Since these people were evenly distributed between both test groups, it should not have an impact on the relative results.

I expected the gradient timelines to blow the solid colors out of the water, but the opposite was true (no = solids, yes = gradients):

The results per A/Bingo:

The best alternative you have is: [no], which had 102 conversions from 4166 participants (2.45%). The other alternative was [yes], which had 71 conversions from 4229 participants (1.68%). This difference is 99% likely to be statistically significant, which means you can be very confident that it is the result of your alternatives actually mattering, rather than being due to random chance. However, this statistical test can’t measure how likely the currently observed magnitude of the difference is to be accurate or not. It only says “better”, not “better by so much”.

Why did solid colors outperform gradients when (at least to me) gradients look much better?

My guess is that on average, the gradients look gaudy. People want simple timelines. Gradients are not simple.

If that is indeed the reason, it reaffirms what most of my previous A/B tests have taught me. Simple wins.

But I don’t know. Maybe I missed something. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Why I’m Building Simple Tools to Help Market My Web App

I’ve been making huge pushes lately on Preceden, a web-based timeline maker that I launched just over two years ago.

Today I’m trying something new as part of Preceden’s overall marketing strategy and I’d like to share my thought process because I think other web developers might benefit from it too.


As I noted above, Preceden is a web app let’s you create simple, multilayered timelines.

For example, here’s a screenshot showing the timeline of the events leading up to the crash of the Costa Cordia (you play around with the actual timeline here: Costa Concordia Timeline.)

Preceden is popular with students, teachers, researches, and genealogy buffs, to name a few groups.

Marketing 1.0

I love building tools, but I don’t love marketing them. By marketing I mean things other than building that contribute to getting new people to your site.

Marketing, however, is a huge huge HUGE piece of the puzzle and if you neglect it you’re going to be missing out on a tremendous amount of value. As Rob Walling notes in Start Small Stay Small: A Developers Guide to Launching a Startup, “Market comes first, marketing second, aesthetics third, and functionality a distant fourth.” In terms of how I’ve worked in the past, I almost reverse it: function first, aesthetics second, market third, and marketing a distance fourth. And I’ve learned the hard way how wrong I am.

Preceden has grown steadily with little effort on my part thanks to two things:

1) Word of mouth. People like it. They tell each other. On blogs, in class, etc.

2) Content generation. When people create timelines on Preceden, they can keep them private or, like the Costa Concordia example above, share them. The shared timelines get indexed by Google and over time the number of Google queries that Preceden ranks for has steadily grown:

So I started thinking about it: how else can I get more people to the site?

Marketing 2.0

There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement with respect to making Preceden easier to share (word of mouth) and SEO (content generation), but today I’m trying something new out that I think will be a big win.

Here’s the idea: Build free time-related tools on Preceden that attract the type of people who might convert into paying Preceden users.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Google Adwords Tool tells me that upwards of 800K people search for date to date calculator per month:

The top result for date to date calculator is from DateAndTime.com:

The DateAndTime.com date calculator is garbage:

In my eyes, the things it does poorly are:

  • Different fields for the month/day/year
  • It asks me whether I want to include the end date in the calculation (why not just show me both results?)
  • If you want to include the time in the calculation, you have to go to another calculator that is even more complicated than this one
  • When you submit the data, it takes you to a different page with the results (why no Ajax?):

I spent today building a better version of this.

Here’s the result:

You can play with it here: Date to Date Calculator.

You can use the date picker to pick a date or enter one manually (optionally including a time) and it will Ajaximagically show you the result:


  • The page title and the H1 are “Date to Date Calculator” (go go SEO)
  • The start and end dates support a wide variety of formats (and I didn’t have to do any extra work for this because I had already written the necessary modules for Preceden itself)
  • The results are fetched via Ajax and rendered below the inputs
  • Below the calculator are a Facebook like button (which points to Preceden.com) and FAQs to answer folk’s questions
  • And if you enter a date as the end date, it shows you the results including and not including that date:

Basically, I built a better mousetrap. And I hope people find it and like it better than the existing tools and some of them convert to paid Preceden users.

And there’s a lot more tools I can add to Preceden’s new Calendar Calculators page down the road too: Add and subtract from a date/time, countdown timer, etc.

How much of a difference will these tools make to my bottom line? Subscribe to this blog or follow me on Twitter @mhmazur to find out :)

One final note: As software developers, I think a lot of us tend to get caught up on solving complicated technical problems. Lean Designs, an HTML5-based web design tool that I’ve also been working on, is just one example. While these pursuits may be intellectually rewarding, let’s not forget that there are thousands of simple, real world problems that we could eliminate if we only applied ourselves to them. More than 800,000 people search for date to date calculators each month. Think about that. It’s mind-blowing.

Update: As Simon points out below, the 800K number is for broad match. The number of people who search exactly for “date to date calculator” is closer to 2,900. I decided to change the page from “Date To Date Calculator” to “Date Duration Calculator” which I think is more meaningful.

March Madness: Preceden Gets Some Love, jMockups’s Grind Continues

In keeping up with my monthly progress reports, here’s an overview of what went down in March. (See also: January, February)


One of my goals in March was to spend more time working on Preceden. I normally devote most of my free time to jMockups, but am trying to improve how I balance the two, given that Preceden actually turns a profit. I spent about 15% of my 120 hours online working on Preceden during March (up from about 5%), which is a big step in the right direction.

Preceden had 16,845 visitors during March (including embedded timelines) that generated 78,925 pageviews. There were 35 upgrades to the pro account, which generated $895 in revenue (up from $522 in January and $580 in February). However, I spent $540 in order acquiring 11 of those customers while experimenting with Google AdWords. After subtracting the hosting fees and AdWords expenses, I wound up with a profit of about $285.

While I’m disappointed that AdWords did not yield a positive ROI, I’m glad I took the time to do it. I’ve had it in my head that AdWords would be an easy road to four figure profits and as long as I believed that, I wasn’t terribly motivated to work on it (sounds stupid, I know). With the knowledge that it won’t be as easy as I once believed, I’m forced to get back into the game.


While I continue to make a lot of good progress with jMockups, traction remains elusive. The trough of sorrow is aptly named. :)

jMockups had 9,914 visitors during March that generated 19,922 pageviews. 6,812 of those visitors were a result of posting about the launch of the new specifications tool on HackerNews.

Paid signups skyrocketed from 1 to 2 during March, yielding $38 in revenue. Subtract about $200 in monthly expenses, and I’m still out a bit each month.

On a much more positive note, I received an acquisition offer for jMockups towards the end of the month. The company a good fit, but I think I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with jMockups and it would therefore be a huge mistake to sell right now, regardless of the price. Plus, if I were to sell it, I’d start building something new almost immediately, so what would be the point of moving on as long as I’m still passionate about it?

Blog Posts

On the jMockups Blog:

The New jMockups Mockup Editor (Mar 4)

Improving the Website to Mockup Converter (Mar 8)

Share Your Website Design to Help Others Get Started with Theirs (Mar 11)

jMockups Introduces Mockup Templates to Make Web Design Easier (Mar 12)

jMockups Can Now Automatically Create Detailed Specs of Your website Mockups (Mar 20)

The Customers Have Spoken: We Want to Export Our Mockups to HTML/CSS (Mar 21)

Baby Steps Towards Mockup to HTML (Mar 28)

New Default Design for jMockups Image Elements (Mar 29)

Ajaxified Mockup Deletion (Mar 30)

On this blog:

February in Review: Life Tracking, Major jMockups Updates, and Preceden’s Best Month Yet (Mar 4)

How to Calculate Your AdWords ROI for a Freemium, One Time Purchase Web App (Mar 5)

AdWords: Week 1 Results (Mar 13)

A/B Testing Preceden’s Homepage – Round 1: 37% Improvement (Mar 13)

Preceden’s 15 Days @ $30/day AdWords Results (Mar 29)

The signal-to-noise ratio on some of these is a lower than I’d like, but these hey-here’s-what-I’m-doing posts are usually pretty quick to write and at least they get something out there (a strategy I’d recommend to anyone who wants to blog but doesn’t know what to write about).

Also, in an effort to get more involved in the local startup scene, I’ve started attending the monthly Lean Startup Circle Boston and Boston BizSpark meetups. If you attend either, drop me a note so we can hook up at the meeting.


Preceden’s 15 Days @ $30/Day AdWords Results

About two weeks ago I posted the results of one week of $10/day AdWords advertising for my web app, Preceden.

In a nutshell, I spent $72.16 and made $87, for a profit of $14.84, which works out to be a 21% ROI.

With the positive results, I upped my daily advertising limit up to $30 and let it ride.


Over the 15 days the campaign ran, I spent $453.07 which resulted in 3,186 visitors to the site.

Out of those 3,186 visitors, 415 signed up for an account (about 13%). Out of those 415 who signed up for an account, 8 upgraded to Preceden Pro (1.9%) for $29 resulting in $232 in revenue. Overall conversion rate was 0.25%.

$232/$453.07 – 1 = -49% ROI


What happened?

Google Analytics tells me that the AdWords visitors were 80% more likely to sign up for an account and 60% more likely to upgrade. This makes intuitive sense because visitors who found the site via AdWords were looking specifically for a timeline tool. The overall site average is a lot lower because it also includes folks viewing embedded timelines, for example, who aren’t specifically searching for a timeline tool.

The difference is… visitors from AdWords cost money. About 13 cents on average. Despite their higher conversion rates at each step, not enough are upgrading for it to be profitable.  In order to break even, I would have had to have a 3.6% upgrade rate, which is almost twice what it was.

I saw a presentation earlier this week by David Skok, a VC at Matrix Partners, at the monthly Lean Startup Circle Boston Meetup in Cambridge. In it, he emphasized the importance of measuring your Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) with respect to the the average customer’s Lifetime Value (LTV).

In Preceden’s AdWords case, the CAC is $453.07/8 = $56.63 and the LTV is $29. A poor ratio indeed.

Moving Forward

The good news is that for the last seven months, Preceden has grown organically without any outbound marketing efforts and has something like a 90% profit margin after taking into consideration the server costs.

Rather than throw more money at AdWords, I’m going to take that money and invest it in article writers via oDesk. Consider this: for $3-$4/hour, you can hire someone to write articles or blog posts. For the sake of simplicity, say it costs on average $10 for a single article. For the same $453, I could have had 45 fairly decent articles on the site about how to make specific types of timelines with Preceden (Civil War, World History, the War in Iraq, etc etc).

How many additional visitors would find those 45 articles via organic search? And how many of them will upgrade? I don’t know. But it will be interesting to find out.

A/B Testing Preceden’s Homepage – Round 1: 37% Improvement

Preceden’s homepage can currently be divided into four sections (see below):

1) The splash screen (Make an amazing timeline with Preceden, Quote, Sign Up)

2) Example

3) Features

4) Featured On

I’ve been running an A/B test to determine the impact of the splash screen design and the features.

Here are the results along with their corresponding conversions rates. The conversion rates reflect the % of people that make it to the sign up page. (In future tests I’m going to measure the % that actually sign up, which is probably a better indication of a successful conversion.)

Note that I’m stopping this A/B test before Google Website Optimizer has reported a statistically significant result, but I’m eager to try additional variations and don’t want to wait any longer. So take these results with a grain of salt.


Conversion rate: 17.2%

Combination 1: New splash screen

Conversion rate: 19.2% (11.4% improvement)

Combination 2: Original splash screen, no features

Conversion rate: 23.7% (37.3% improvement)

Combination 3: New splash screen, no features

Conversion rate: 18.3% (5.95% improvement)


Page Sections


The results were 180 degrees from what I expected. I’d have bet money that:

a) The sexier splash screen and call to action had a higher conversion rate. In fact, it decreased the conversion rate by 8.3%.

b) The shiny list of features would have had a higher conversion rate. In fact, not including the features increased the conversion rate by 15.1%.

The best result was with the original splash screen and without the list of features, which yielded a 37% higher conversion rate. Why? My theory is that in both cases, the landing page was simpler and people generally prefer simpler over more complex. Makes you appreciate why everything Google designs is dead-simple.

More to follow…

AdWords: Week 1 Results

Last Sunday I started advertising Preceden via Google AdWords. I’ve played around with it before, but never seriously.

I wrote a few ads, picked a bunch of timeline-maker keywords to target, set my daily budget to $3 (and a day or two later $10) and flipped the switch.

Week 1 Results

Impressions: 18,439

Clicks: 564 (3.06%)

Visitors: 548

CPC: $0.13

Cost = $72.16

Sign Ups: 3

Revenue: $87

Profit: $14.84 (21% ROI)


The variance of this whole process is extremely high. 3/548 is a 0.54% conversion rate. Good, bad… I don’t know. It seems bad, but I don’t really have a lot to compare it to.

The good news is that the campaign made money. Not much, but something. Had 2 people upgraded instead of 3, it would have lost money (-20% ROI). Had one additional person signed up, the return would be exceptional (61% ROI). This whole thing makes you appreciate how small improvements to your site, which in turn might convince a few more people to upgrade, can make a huge difference to your bottom line.

Next steps: Refine A/B tests, bump daily budget to $30, and see what happens.

Here are the keyword details: