Published On: April 18, 2017By
LMS Sandbox: How do free trials and prototypes help learning systems buyers make better choices - Independent analyst John Leh explains

Why does everything about the LMS market seem so complex?  To find the best learning technology fit, we must sort through various learning platform types, license models, functionality, integration capacity, implementation services (or lack of) and overall costs.

Complexity is the price we pay for the benefits of disruptive innovation caused by hundreds of new learning platforms entering the space since the rise of cloud computing over the past decade.

In this environment, no one can afford to make an LMS buying decision without understanding what’s “inside” a learning platform.

Educating yourself can take time, effort and money.  But I’d like to help by shining a light on the LMS sandbox — another aspect of LMS purchasing that has changed dramatically with the dawn of the cloud.

The LMS Sandbox: Blessing or Curse?

An LMS sandbox is a hands-on demo environment for prospective customers who want to try before they buy.  From a buyer’s perspective, “sandbox” can mean many things…

“Give me direct access to the LMS so I can poke around.”
Or, “Let me implement a formal testing plan for our selection team.”
Or even, “I’m looking for a paid proof-of-concept.”

Meanwhile, from a seller’s perspective, an LMS sandbox is either encouraged, discouraged or endured — depending on a seller’s business model, technology approach and appetite for service.

To understand LMS sandbox pros and cons, it’s important to first understand the two distinct paths or “buying cycles” involved in choosing an LMS:

  • Traditional LMS Buying Cycle

This familiar approach to software evaluation has been around for decades.  Most organizations still rely on it to minimize risk, reduce purchasing costs and evaluate solutions in a systematic, defensible manner. It follows this linear path:

1) Requirements Definition
2) Vendor Identification
3) Discovery
4) Preliminary Demonstrations
5) Vendor Qualification
6) Request for Proposal (RFP)
7) Private Pricing Review
8) Use Case Demonstrations
9) Reference Gathering
10) Sandbox Analysis
11) Decision/Contract Negotiations

  • Instant “Free Trial” LMS Buying Cycle

Invented with the birth of the cloud, the “free trial” compresses the traditional buying cycle.  Reaching out via marketing communications and social media, learning platform vendors drive potential buyers to their public website, where they can preview pricing and sign-up for immediate access to a “free trial” sandbox.

Often, even without submitting a credit card, prospects can set-up and use a full-featured “trial” learning environment.  They find out how the LMS works through on-demand video tutorials, digital documentation and online customer support.

When the trial expires (typically in 2-4 weeks), those who choose to move forward pay for future access.  These “free trial” options are designed to simplify the purchasing process while simultaneously illustrating the simplicity of the LMS.

As you can see, sandbox access can be offered at the beginning or end of the buying cycle, depending on the type of LMS you’re considering.  But here’s the catch.  If you’re like many buyers today, you probably want to evaluate both LMS types at the same time — which can be maddening.  To make the most of your LMS sandbox experience, take a closer look at both models.

LMS Sandbox Models: What’s Inside?

1) The Traditional LMS Sandbox

The “traditional LMS” is a loose term associated with learning platforms that require a mandatory, formal setup/implementation process.  Most traditional LMS sellers hate sandbox evaluations because they’re subjective, they tend to require a lot of work, and a bad experience can quickly kill a sales opportunity.

These vendors usually delay sandbox access as long as possible – until only 1-2 vendors are left standing or (ideally) when time runs out and a buyer decides to skip the time-hogging sandbox altogether.

Why Sandboxes Keep Traditional LMS Vendors Up at Night

Traditional LMSs are often sought by larger, more sophisticated organizations that recognize the significant scope of their purchase and the need for a vendor to act as a deployment partner.  With this kind of scale and cost, traditional LMS vendors need a strong, active sales team to develop a trusted relationship and seal the deal.

Each customer will ultimately invest in its own unique LMS branding, configuration and training elements.  This means that “out-of-the-box” a traditional LMS tends to be basic “vanilla” — all options are turned on but they lack supporting data, content and context that would bring it to life for a buyer.

Of course, nobody wants to buy a vanilla, expensive, hard-to-use LMS.  Therefore, sales teams often pre-configure these “sales sites” to show their solution in the best light for each new prospective client. But this requires tradeoffs.

Vendors conduct many, many demos that never lead to sandbox reviews or sales and it’s too time and cost intensive to create a separate sales demo site for each prospect, so the same site is reconfigured or “reset” before each new demo.

Obviously, this kind of controlled and revenue critical “sales demo site” isn’t suitable for prospects to use as an LMS sandbox. Instead, the vendor must create, brand and configure a separate standalone LMS sandbox at significant cost or risk letting a prospect reject the basic “vanilla” out-of-the-box environment.

Clearly, for the traditional LMS, a sandbox is a true catch-22.  Buyers want a full-featured implementation, but before they invest in that solution they want hands-on access to a working prototype.

If the vendor complies and the evaluation goes poorly, the vendor pays the price.  Reminding underwhelmed prospects that this is “an unconfigured site and is not intended for untrained administration” usually falls on deaf ears.

No wonder traditional LMS sellers hate sandbox requests!  To make things worse, new pure SaaS, multitenant cloud LMS vendors have flipped the buying cycle, so their instant free trials are available at any time.

2) Inside the “Free Trial” Cloud LMS Sandbox

The LMS market has changed dramatically since the introduction of cloud-based solutions.  In less than 10 years, hundreds of new vendors have emerged.  Along the way, they have redefined learning platforms — underlying technology, licensing models, the buying process, implementation timeframes, overall costs — and yes, even sandboxes.

Why “Free Trial” Sandboxes Work

Most new LMS vendors offer a multi-tenant SaaS solution where all customer implementations run on the same core infrastructure.  Each customer has its own private configuration, content and users — completely separate from the others.

This enables potential buyers to start a free trial, create a unique domain (sandbox) and determine if the solution is appropriate for their business needs.  Since this free trial is intended to convert shoppers into buyers, it usually looks attractive, functions smoothly and has plenty of instructions to provide helpful context.

SaaS LMS solutions typically provide video tutorials, user guides, knowledge base data and multiple levels of support to help potential buyers learn and use the system.  If it all works, a prospect converts into a paying customer at the end of trial period.  If not, the vendor hasn’t lost much, because relatively little was invested in that particular opportunity anyway.

The new “self-serve” mentality (self-qualify, self-sell, self-configure) works great for first-time buyers or those with very straightforward needs and limited content/users.  However, it falls apart for second/third/fourth generation buyers who have complex requirements, data migrations, custom integrations, multilingual and/or large deployments.

If you really want to complicate your understanding, know that free trial LMSs grow up eventually, get sales staff and then support both models, so there is plenty of mixed model confusion!

6 Ways to Make Friends With Your LMS Sandbox

LMS buyers find sandboxes attractive for various reasons.  Some truly know they need to verify the look, feel and functionality of the learning environment, some think they need a preview and still others are told by executives that a sandbox is mandatory.

Regardless, the goals of any sandbox evaluation should be to get into the LMS, test some (but not all) tasks, and get a feel for a system’s intuitiveness and ease of use on behalf of those who will interact with it.

For large purchasing groups, a sandbox trial also helps gain buy-in and ensures that everyone’s voice is heard.

How can you make the most of a sandbox experience?  Here are 6 LMS sandbox tips for both buyers and sellers:

1) Determine if you need a traditional LMS or an instant free trial solution

If this isn’t your first LMS or you have complex requirements or your organization depends on an LMS as a business advantage, it’s wise to lean toward a traditional LMS solution that will provide the active support you need throughout the evaluation process.

2) Define goals and measurable success criteria

What is the scope of the sandbox? What features/functions should you test?  Who needs to test these elements?  How will you know success when you see it?   How will you know failure?  If the reason for a sandbox/trial site isn’t obvious, it is likely to go unused.

3) Run the sandbox like a project

Establish a timeline to review prospective solutions — including a kickoff session, a check-in call and a final debrief with each vendor.  Formally schedule time for individual team members to review each solution and specify the capabilities you want them to assess.

4) Focus on no more than 1-2 vendors

Instead of using the sandbox to qualify vendors, save it only for qualified vendors you are seriously considering.  You can narrow the field in advance by researching independent buying guides, defining your requirements, conducting vendor demonstrations and requesting proposals.

5) Give time to vendors who want to educate you

If a traditional LMS vendor requests time to introduce you to their sandbox, accept the offer.  Many buyers balk at investing time for a personalized sandbox tour but this is the sign of a caring, strategically-minded partner.

6) Establish a rating system

For every feature and function you want to test, establish a simple 1-5 rating scale with comments for every reviewer to use.  This standardizes assessments across systems and provides comparable data you can use to make a reliable decision.


There’s a certain mystique to LMS sandboxes — or maybe just a lot of misunderstanding.  Perhaps that’s why I have never seen an LMS sandbox “how to” guide (until now).

LMS buyers deserve to know they aren’t investing in vaporware, and cloud-based LMS vendors have responded by offering upfront sandbox access.  But these SaaS solutions typically have limited functionality that appeals mostly to entry-level buyers.

Traditional LMS vendors are wary of the risk and extra work that comes when sandboxes are inserted into the LMS evaluation process.  Like it or leave it, a poor sandbox experience can be a fatal (and all too easy) error for traditional LMS sellers.

Ultimately, buyers have the power to determine the value of an LMS sandbox review process.  If you know what you want to accomplish — and why — your sandbox experience can be a powerful way to inform your purchasing decision, regardless of whether you’re focused on traditional or “free trial” LMS solutions.

Thanks for reading!

Want more LMS buying insights? Check this webinar replay:

LMS Evaluation: Expert’s Guide to Making Better Learning Tech Choices

What’s the fastest path between you and an LMS that will elevate your learning programs? How can you navigate the field of 700 LMS vendors?

Learn from two industry experts who will share their combined experiences learned from +40 years, +2000 sales opportunities and +$100,000,000 worth of selling and buying LMS solutions.

You’ll learn:

  • Why 2017 is an LMS buyer’s market
  • How to guarantee your LMS project gets funded
  • How to structure your LMS evaluation process for better results
  • Which factors matter most and why
  • What to consider if you already have an LMS in place
  • What kind of business impact you should expect

Replay the webinar now!


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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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