TrialPay--Free Stuff With Some Strings

Illustration by Harry Campbell.
Illustration: Harry Campbell
I am forever amazed--and often amused--by the way digital technology has reshaped marketing. Case in point: a new service called TrialPay, where you receive certain products free if you agree to participate in a trial offer for yet another product or service. You can choose the trial from a long list, and at least some of the trial offers are free or inexpensive (signing up for a credit card, say, or paying for shipping and handling of a cosmetics sample).

Bottom line, you could save money. But at what cost?

To find out, I looked at some products that I could use TrialPay to buy, along with the offers available to get those products. The first thing I noticed was that, though the products I could get for free by using TrialPay came from reputable merchants, none ranked as must-haves; they were all things I might enjoy but could easily live without. Examples: The New York Times Crossword Puzzles (which I already subscribe to); premium versions of McAfee Site Advisor (software that helps you steer clear of toxic Web sites--a basic version is free); the universal chat client Trillian (again, a basic version is free); a desktop weather-tracking app called Weather Bug; and Corel Photo Album Deluxe 6, which, according to the TrialPay offer page, normally costs $49.

An Inflated Price?

When I went to the Corel site, however, I saw that Photo Album Deluxe 6's nominal price was indeed $49, but that Corel had discounted it to only $29 (or $19 if I were upgrading from a previous version). This made me feel that TrialPay was trying to artificially inflate my perceived savings.

Clicking on the TrialPay button as an alternative to paying for the Corel software guided me to pages for viewing the offers. I encountered several dozen, organized by category. Under the Most Popular tab, I could sign up for a CitiBank or Discover credit card, enroll in BlockBuster's video service (a Netflix competitor), or try out Stamps.com for four weeks (this came with $5 worth of free postage).

Other offers involved making a purchase. For example, G By Guess (an online clothing store) required me to buy something for $50 (before taxes and/or handling charges)--significantly more than the cost of the Corel software I would be getting free. Still others entailed receiving paid services such as Gamefly's $8.95 monthly rentals.

Some limitations applied. I wasn't eligible for many offers from well-known sites that I already use (eBay, Rhapsody, and so on)--they're only for new customers.

Clearly, TrialPay offers are legit and may be useful to some buyers. But overall, I felt the service encourages people to get products they don't really need by trying out other products they don't really need.

I would rather pay for things I find valuable. I've given donations to the developer of Paint.net (a free image editor) and paid for the premium version of Trillian, as I believe they've earned my support.

If a product isn't useful enough for me to pay hard cash for, then it's not worth exposing myself to pitches for something else--or signing up for a trial service that in a worst-case scenario may prove difficult to cancel That's a higher price in aggravation than I'm willing to pay for almost any freebie.

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