Subscriptions are out, refills are in.

Daniel Brain on 2022-08-25

Everything these days is a subscription. And honestly, on reflection, subscriptions are complete horseshit.

I mean — paying for a monthly service is not a bad thing per se. It makes a decent amount of sense when it’s an actual on-demand service you’re paying to access, like Netflix or Spotify, or a consumable product. It makes slightly less sense when you have to create a subscription to get an Audible-esque monthly credit, which you then trade for something you want… but sure, I guess I understand.

Where subscriptions evolve into something forged from pure evil, is at the moment when you decide skip a month — or god forbid, cancel.

This is a point where so many businesses have made the happy discovery that they have no qualms throwing ethics out of the window. They’re delighted to trick, force, or frustrate you to continue paying them monthly dividends for something you have no further need for.

Some of them will make you literally call them up to cancel. Others will hide the cancel button deep within your user profile behind a login, a captcha, and a questionnaire. Others will do frankly unbelievable shit like this:

Posted on /r/mildlyinfuriating on reddit today. This completely beggars belief.

Yes, recurring revenue is important for any business. That’s fine! But is it so important that they’re willing to literally trick people into paying for something they no longer want or need?

The net result of this is a huge chilling effect. Customers who would historically be completely willing to sign up for a subscription, have now developed a completely justifiable auto-immune defense against anything that even vaguely smells like one.

Some retailers have even shot back by making it harder to even figure out that you’re actually signing up for a subscription in the first place. You go in thinking you’re making a one-time purchase, but unless you read the fine-print, you’re actually agreeing to receive a new shipment every month.

Shameful shit.

How do we fix it?

At OneText, we’ve made it our mission to build ways of doing SMS-based commerce, but for humans. In my last article, I talked about how we’ve started to solve that problem with great conversational messaging as an antidote to spammy billboard-style messages. Now I’m going to talk about how we collectively fix subscriptions.

As always: please steal any of these ideas, and help make buying stuff online just a little bit more human and friendly.

Subscriptions are out

Let’s just abandon the idea of subscriptions entirely. They’ve been milked to death and their reputation is all but destroyed.

Refills are in

Let’s start again with something totally new: refills. Here are the four golden rules:

1. Always give options up-front

Selling something? Great. Want to offer repeat purchases? Great.

Give both options.

2. Give warning

Always give at least 24 hours of notice that a refill is coming up. Don’t make it a surprise when your product is delivered to someone who doesn’t necessarily want it any more.

3. Make it easy to skip or cancel!

This is the crucial part. Always give the opportunity to skip. Don’t hide away from it. Don’t trick people into paying for something if they don’t want it this month. Just be honest with them.

4. Sell the refill later

Why force a subscription on a first-time customer who’s never tried your product, and hasn’t built up any trust in your brand?

Better to give them a chance to try it first, then give them a great offer on an automatic refill. If your product is amazing, it will sell itself.

Does it work?

We’ve been testing all of this at OneText, and yes, it works. Email me if you don’t believe me.

Swathes of people who were completely unwilling to set up a subscription, are more than happy to agree to do refills. We don’t have to guess why; they come out and tell us directly. It’s because:

Does this result in slightly more people skipping their repeat purchases every month? Sure. Because you’re no longer forcing them.

The upside is worth it though. You end up with way more people willing to try out an automatic refill in the first place — coupled with an exponentially larger amount of trust in your business.

And that kind of trust is fucking important.