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Fender Hits the Right Note with Free Trial Offer

After much of the world went into lockdown in March 2020 as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Ethan Kaplan knew his company needed to step up.

His company? Fender. And more specifically, Fender Play, the digital side of the classic guitar company, which creates educational content that helps people learn how to play Fender guitars. 

“You have 7.5 billion people in the world going through the same crisis,” says Kaplan, GM, Fender Digital. “But just because it’s terrible doesn’t mean that we can’t try to do something that can help people get through it.”

The good news was that Fender Play was already positioned to make an impact. Since 2016, the online subscription service has provided individual lessons across multiple instruments, genres, and skill levels which have proven very popular with Fender customers. 

Amidst lockdown, the idea was that people needed an activity they could do at home that was rewarding and that would relieve stress. Fender’s solution: playing a musical instrument. While the company has offered 30-day and 14-day free trials in the past, in response to the lockdowns they launched a 90-day free trial program called Fender Play Through. 

Due to the lockdowns, Fender was expecting increased demand, and planned for 100,000 new subscribers to sign up. They blew through that number the first day. 

As the lockdowns continued, the number of subscribers kept rising. By the end of August 2020, the Play Through program had brought in 1 million new subscribers. And, due to overwhelming demand, Fender has decided to extend the program through the end of 2020

And many of those new subscribers are turning into new customers for Fender. As Fender CEO Andy Mooney told the New York Times

It will be the biggest year of sales volume in Fender history, record days of double-digit growth, e-commerce sales and beginner gear sales. I never would have thought we would be where we are today if you asked me back in March.

Ethan Kaplan, GM, Fender Digital

Scaling their systems up to respond to the demand was no problem for Fender because their infrastructure was built for it. The first 100,000 new subscribers had no impact on their systems, which gave them time to scale up to handle additional growth. Their subscription management platform had been specifically designed and tested to accommodate the additional demands on customer service and video delivery that would be required by rapid growth.  

From a customer perspective, Fender Play began providing additional original content, which became available seven days a week, including live programming through Instagram, Facebook, and remote sessions on Zoom. Topics included gear rundowns and special lessons for kids, and, most recently, some Billie Eilish ukulele tutorials. “Music is a solace and a therapeutic,” says Kaplan. “It reduces anxiety and it’s good for the brain.”

With so much of their digital success driven by video content, Fender made an investment in production quality a priority from the beginning. Their state-of-the-art production studio in Los Angeles produces an evergreen content library of over 3000 videos that is organized around curriculums and teaching. With so many additional subscribers, the company is now looking at different ways to organize the content to keep people engaged longer and enhance discoverability.

All that interaction with the content has paid dividends in terms of data, though it comes with challenges. The ebbs and flows of user volume, trial starts, and usage patterns changed dramatically during the pandemic. “With so many people at home, both kids and adults, guitars are being dragged out of closets and from under beds—people want to play and learn,” says Kaplan.  

This massive new cohort of data has given Fender lots of new customer behaviors to mine for insights.

The company’s push for direct customer relationships during the pandemic has also been a win for their retail partners. With lockdowns and retail closures, Fender’s independent and national dealer network faced headwinds. The goal of Fender Play has always been to help retailers adapt to digitalization and subscription business models. Reinforcing the brand via the online community is a win-win for retailers, who are going to be in that much better shape with all the additional usage of Fender products during the pandemic. Ultimately, if Fender Play helps sell more Fender products, retailers will benefit. 

In terms of subscription business KPIs—time to first lesson, lesson completion ratios, overall engagement—all the metrics are pointing up. Fender Play has had more than 200% increase in engagement on social channels, with over 10% growth in terms of the numbers signing up through that channel. 

Now, Fender is in the process of converting the free trials into paying subscribers.

“Our customers’ relationship with our products and with our service has undergone the biggest fundamental shift in four weeks that I’ve ever seen,” says Kaplan.


Overall, the experience of 2020 has confirmed Fender’s initial strategy to go digital.

While some product companies focus on connected devices, Fender’s instinct was not to tinker with the product that had made them successful for 75 years. Instead, they wrapped the product in a complementary digital service. 

“We make great guitars, they’re affordable, they sound great out of the box, they’re easy to play.” says Kaplan. “We’ve just made it easier for people to evolve with the instruments.”

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