Asking customers for a credit card number, even when they sign up for a free trial is not outrageous. It’s standard business and it’s time we accept that. Here’s why and, more specifically, why it’s the perfect example of the Getting Real way of life.
First of all, let me reiterate what I said yesterday: I am not a Fluxiom user and I am not affiliated with Wollzelle in any way. Yet, I am slightly ticked when I hear comments criticizing a business for requesting a credit card number when users sign up for a free 30 day trial.
Most commenters underline the fact asking for a credit card number outright negates the 30 day trial. Nothing however could be further from the truth: after all, a “30 day trial” is a period during which you can confirm you wish to use an application you are already interested in. Since you are already “opting in” to the application and to dealing with the company operating it, it makes a lot of sense you will want to “opt out” by canceling — should something seem wrong to you — or simply keep sailing without having to ever worry about your registration again.
In that light, not asking for a credit card number first thing would mean users need to register, or “opt in” twice. This, in my book, doesn’t quite fit with the current credos of “always simpler” or “less is more”. Of course, you could be sent a message after 25 days asking you to punch in your number or your account could prompt you for the magic numerals during your first login after the trial has expired. But what if you, the account owner, are not here to react to the prompt? What if you are enjoying a romantic week-end in Paris, safe in the thought your company’s assets are now fluidly managed? How many more parameters would it require the application keep track of? Would it really be more convenient to be bugged twice than once?
A good example of this is 37Signals’ Campfire service. Their sign up form is based on one ground rule “When you sign up for Campfire you start off on the free plan.”. Whenever a client of mine signs up for an SSL-enabled plan, he needs to log onto the Campfire site, create a new free account (ie an SSL-less one) with a dummy password, generate a good one, then log in again, go to the Account settings, upgrade the plan and change the password again. Doable? Certainly. Easier than a pop-up menu in the login form? I doubt it.
Of course, one could say it boils down to a matter of trust. Why does this company not trust me to provide them with a card number in a timely fashion? More importantly even, why would I entrust them with my credit card number before even getting acquainted with them?
This argument, of course, does not stand the test of use. Fluxiom, since it is the application prompting all this discourse, is an asset manager. In other words, anyone hitting the sign up form is about to entrust a third-party company with their own company’s assets. Aren’t these worth a lot more than a credit card number? While American Express may offer fraud protection and reverse charges made on your card, leaked data cannot be “un-leaked” by any means.
Also, in the context of a free trial, a credit card number can act as a GUID (Globally Unique Identifier), preventing people from signing up for free accounts every 30 days. Why? Because we can all generate an infinite number of email addresses with little time and no money whatsoever. But we cannot whip up credit cards at will, or at least not legally. Some people may own a dozen of them but that still puts a limit on the damage that can be done.
Going back to the Getting Real philosophy, one could say asking for a credit card number significantly raises the barrier for entry. I would reply it is a good thing. As the old saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out” and this especially holds true for a content management system. Of course, in the context of web applications, one could add “Garbage in, garbage everywhere”. Any customer who wants to make use of a CMS needs to commit to it for a certain time and people failing to do so will only spread false information on the application or will never appreciate it to its full extent — a tragic fact of commercial life is that free goods are taken for granted and never fully appreciated. If I create a free Fluxiom account and throw in a cheese sandwich recipe, a Word file with meeting notes and a shoestring, I will not have anything to tell about the service but I will place added burden on the application’s servers, databases, support department, etc. The more free accounts there are on a service the more chances there are I can log in with user name “test” and password “test123”. As a system operator, I would never want that. Go to many Mac shops in Europe where sales people need to perform demos on the machines but do not have time to spend setting them up. I bet at least one of the computers there will have a user name of “demo” and a password of “apple123” — it’s probably the one with the Flurry screen saver and the Ripples Moss desktop picture.
One can of course criticize Fluxiom’s revenue model. I, personally, have nothing to say about it, except a cursory look did not raise any red flags that I can think of. Open a service, offer paid accounts. Classic. In many ways, more reasonable than envisioning to support a service with Ether calling and Yahoo ads — at least at first sight. In fact, most of the criticism I have heard on Fluxiom so far has little to do with the actual application but is more closely related to the public’s view of what its business model should be. It seems we want risk, we want Web 2.0, we want impossible business plans relying on the continued support of investors or, at the very least, big claims about the breakthrough financial structure of the companies we deal with.
And here I was thinking deep down, we wanted a better Internet…