Largely unexplored, a free service trial may be defined as an offer to the consumer to experience, at no monetary cost, all or part of a core, augmented or facilitating service from a provider that the consumer does not currently use. Free service trials are worth studying for two reasons. First they are one of the important examples of inequitable exchange between supplier and purchaser – one that is likely to lead to a sense of obligation among those who adopt the trial offer. Second, they are a very common promotional device. This paper proposes that free service trials are more problematic than tangible product trials. The value of what is offered may be limited by time, the scope of trial, or because only a partial, facilitating or augmented service is offered. Judgments about the perceived value of the complete service in its paid form will also contribute to the evaluation of the trial offer. In deciding whether they accept the trial, the paper proposes that consumers make attributions about the motives of the service trial provider and the consumer’s consequent obligations if they accept it. Obligations are likely to be felt more acutely where the trial is interpersonal (e.g. a facial massage) rather than impersonal (e.g. anti-virus service). Such evaluations are also likely to be affected by past experience with the service category, consumer skepticism and personal norms of reciprocity. A program of research is proposed which would systematically examine the consumers’ evaluations of free trial offers.
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