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20 Tips to Grow Your Subscription Business

Key Takeaways from SubSummit 2021

  • The SUBTA Team
  • Sep 29, 2021
  • 19 minute read

SubSummit 2021 was last week and the overall consensus is… WOW! 

“It was the perfect combination of education, networking and fun,” said Attendee Michael Sturba. “From the knowledge-packed talks to the incredible connections to the wonderful friendships, we’re all leaving with so much,” said SubSummit Ambassador Rai Cornell. “I’m still taking it all in and reflecting on all that I learned from industry experts,” said Doctor Eboni Bell, a SubSummit 2021 speaker. “This was truly life changing!”

If you missed this year’s event — or if you’re simply looking for a way to synthesize all of the gems of information the speakers dropped — we’ve got you covered. 

Here are the 20 most valuable takeaways from this year’s speakers at SubSummit 2021!

1. The World Is Hybrid

Straight out of the gate, SubSummit 2021 kicked off this year’s festivities by showing us all what’s really possible in our covid era of communication and collaboration. 

Soon after Tien Tzuo of Zuora delivered the opening session on The Future of the Subscription Economy, Paul Chambers took the stage with a panel of eight guests — half in-person and half streaming live over Zoom. 

This year, we had nearly 550 in-person attendees and close to 310 virtual. We’re all craving human interaction, but for the sake of safety, health preferences, and (in)ability to travel, virtual-event attendance is here to stay. 

SUBTA is committed to a hybrid model now and into the future — and SubSummit 2021 illustrated how we can make a hybrid model work without losing audience-favorite features like live Q&A sessions. Consider how you can bring the hybrid model to life with your communities to accommodate health and safety, accessibility, and travel needs.

2. The Future of Subscription Is Bright

This year’s theme, “Shaping the Future,” was thoughtfully chosen by SUBTA CEO and Co-Founder, Paul Chambers. True to Chambers’ vision, the event revealed overwhelming statistics showing us all that the subscription commerce economy has no plans to slow down. 

From 2019 to 2020, the subscription economy grew 90%, according to Ruoting Sun of Recharge. From 2020 to 2021, that growth hit 100%.

Better yet, these trends are not limited to North America; they’re evidenced all over the world. “No matter the size or stage of your journey,” Sun said, “the future is bright!”

Another panelist, Igor Krasnykh of TechnWeb, Inc. (dba PowerSync) left us all reeling with hopes and dreams as he dropped a mammoth prediction. “Subscription fever started last year and it’s here to stay. Our projections indicate the subscription economy will reach $1.5 trillion by 2025.”

3. Gaps Still Exist. Fill Them!

Despite this incredible growth, SubSummit 2021 also showed us that there are still some gaps in the market — and consumers are eager for us to fill them! 

According to Jeremy King of Attest, these gaps are constantly forming and re-forming. However, based on recent research King conducted, there are two markets that consumers are begging for more options in: alcohol and cannabis. 

While the logistics and legality of a cannabis-inspired subscription may be on hold in certain states for now, alcohol subscriptions have boundless potential. Wine subscriptions have been the most popular in recent years, but consumers want more variety, more niche experiences, and more opportunities to create memories while hosting social gatherings inspired by such subscriptions.

4. Niches Are Oh So Nice

SubSummit 2021 also gathered some of the most hyper-niche subscription boxes, including a box just for female dentists, a hand-dyed yarn box, and a box exclusively catering to guinea pigs and guinea pig owners! 

Nicole Jenney, Owner of GPigBox, advised niche box owners to “Listen to your customers. Ask what they need, then deliver.” When you niche down, you’re able to find your ideal customers easier, speak to them more effectively, and build a stronger community.

The profit is certainly in the passion, as Dave Beasley, Head of Marketing at Allstate, illustrated in his session, “Are Memberships the Future of Loyalty Programs?”

According to Beasley, memberships are most successful when people are passionate. Dave Cobban (UNBRKBLE), Beasley’s co-panelist, added that high-arousal industries have unlimited potential. Ask yourself what people are fired up about — whether it’s running, rock climbing, or collecting a menagerie of certain types of pets (like guinea pigs, for example).

As Jeremy King of Attest recommends, “Carve a niche. Grow it. Grow from it.”

5. Get Creative With Product-Sourcing Partnerships

If you’ve been following the sub-com news, you likely heard about the merger of two titans and competitors in the beauty industry: BoxyCharm — a 2021 Cube Awards winner — and IPSY. While Alessandra Sales, VP of Growth at IPSY, graced the stage in person, Yosef Martin, Founder of BoxyCharm, joined the session live via Zoom.

One of the (many) gems the now-collaborative duo dropped was regarding sourcing products for your boxes. When partnering with brands and trying to get goods at low costs, Martin recommended, suggest that your product-providing partner tally up the cost of goods in the “Marketing” column rather than the “Products for Sale” column on their balance sheets. Doing so often lowers financial barriers to lowering the cost of the products you want to buy for your box. 

Sales and Martin also suggested foregoing big-brand names and, instead, going after smaller, boutique items that want exposure. They’ll see your box as a vehicle to get in front of more customers and will be more grateful for the partnership opportunity.

6. Your Brand Is A Team & People Want to Belong

The strength and longevity of your subscription business rely on the people involved, not just the products or services you deliver. Jay Myers of Bold Commerce reminded us of that.

“People want to be a member of a brand, like a member of a sports team.” Subscriptions can leverage this desire for belonging by creating non-traditional-access subscriptions to products, similar to Fabletics’ membership-based shopping experience, rather than a subscription box with pre-determined apparel items. 

Yosef Martin of BoxyCharm hammered this point home. “Customers want an identity.” BoxyCharm’s subscribers are called “Charmers,” and they take great pride and find great reward in belonging to that community.

7. Be Careful With Your Content 

One of the biggest jaw-droppers came on Day 2 when Jeremy King of Attest hosted his talk on “What Consumers Want: Real Consumer Gaps, Needs and Expectations for D2C in 2022.” 

While most subscription brands are eager to do unboxing videos or get their boxes featured on unboxing shows, King blindsided us all when his research revealed that… Customers don’t actually care about unboxing videos. 

Mind blown, right? But King’s research brings up an important point: We are creating content for our own needs and desires and we are failing to listen to what our audience members want. 

As you’re planning your content for 2022, do diligent audience investigation to figure out what your subscriber base is actually craving. Create the content that they want, not just what you think they want or what you want for your brand.

8. The Lifecycle Journey Trumps the Customer Journey

Many companies in the subscription industry are familiar with the phrase “the customer journey.” It’s the process of mapping out how a customer will find your product, enter your subscription, and experience your suite of products and offers while they’re a subscriber. 

But according to Eric Chan, Head of Partnerships at Chargebee, rather than a customer journey, subscription brands should focus on a lifecycle journey. Consider what experiences your customers are traversing as they go through life. Introduce content and services that help with that life cycle.

A prime example is the subscription box Louis & Lea. The company’s tagline is “From baby bump to baby’s first birthday.” Louis & Lea has done a stellar job of mapping out the lifecycle that expecting and new mothers go through, then curating a subscription experience to align with that life journey.

9. Be More Careful With Your Team

Yes, your customers are arguably the most important people that make your subscription business a success. However, at SubSummit 2021, Yosef Martin of BoxyCharm reminded us that it’s not just the customers who make or break a business — it’s also the team. 

According to Martin, the biggest mistake he made while growing BoxyCharm to the category king it is today was, “Hiring the wrong people and keeping them for too long. It’s all about people, not just your subscribers, but also your team.”

Remember that as you’re building a community around your subscription brand, you’re also building one within.

10. Don’t Assume Customers Are Afraid of Commitment

One of the most common questions new and growing subscription businesses have is around the optimal length of a subscription. Should you offer a month-to-month option? A three-month commitment? A six-month? A 12-month? 

Jeremy King of Attest answered this for us all at SubSummit 2021 when he revealed real opinions from real consumers. 

According to King’s research, customers see more value in a 12-month commitment with two months free than they do a shorter commitment with potentially larger monetary savings! 

When structuring your plans, be sure to include a long-term commitment with a few months of “free” membership included. According to Patrick Campbell of ProfitWell, long-term plans retain at a higher rate, too. ProfitWell’s research shows that quarterly and annual plans have a 250-800% higher customer lifetime value (LTV).

11. Make the “Yes!” a No-Brainer

On Day 1 of SubSummit 2021, Dave Cobban of UNBRKBLE, Dave Beasley of Allstate, and Adam Levinter of Scriberbase joined forces to bring us “Are Memberships the Future of Loyalty Programs?” in a hybrid session. 

One of the (many) “Aha!” moments Cobban and the other speakers granted audience members was around making your membership price a “no-brainer.” You have to lower resistance to your membership price-point by showing the value of the products you’re offering in comparison to the monthly subscription price, Cobban said. 

Case in point: the furniture subscription company Fernish is doing this brilliantly. On its website, you’ll see illustrations of how customers can pay “$342 for a Cheney Console, which retails for $900.” When you juxtapose the value beside the price customers will pay, saying “Yes!” to clicking your “Subscribe Now” button becomes more logic than emotion, almost as if customers would be silly not to subscribe.

12. Make Payments Easier with Multiple Options

According to Igor Krasnykh of TechnWeb, Inc. (dba PowerSync), as well as Patrick Campbell and John Arcanti of ProfitWell, one of the greatest threats to subscription businesses are failed transactions. 

However, according to Krasnykh, a close second is the threat of only offering one payment method. Krasnykh recommends that all subscription brands work towards integrating with digital wallets to allow customers access to multiple payment methods.

To hammer home this point, Jonathan Blanco’s session on “NFTs for Brands: Sell More Digital Products & Built Loyalty” opened our eyes to the possibility of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to drive revenue for subscription brands… But only if you’re willing to work with cryptocurrency. 

Whether you want to go down the NFT rabbit hole or not, offering multiple forms of payment is one relatively easy way to open up the doors for more consumers to pay you for your subscription product or service.

While we’re on the topic of payments, let’s talk about what was revealed to be the biggest elephant in the room for subscription brands: payment failures. 

According to Patrick Campbell, Co-Founder and CEO of ProfitWell, in his talk, “Retention and Revenue Automation Lessons from 24.1k Subscription Companies,” payment failures are the largest bucket of lost customers.

In fact, payment failures account for 33 to 38% of lost revenue, according to ProfitWell’s examination of over 24,000 brands.

How do you avoid payment failures and recover that lost revenue? Campbell offered audience members five pure-gold tips: 

  1. Track credit card expiration dates and alert consumers of their pending expiration. Most credit card companies send out new cards months ahead of card expirations, so they should have a new number available before the charge fails. 
  2. Tie your dunning emails to your offer value. Remind them of what they’ll lose out on if their payment fails. 
  3. Retry credit cards at 12:01 AM Pacific Standard Time on the 1st and the 15th of the month. This is after the most common times for automatic payments, which will help recover funds lost due to credit limits. 
  4. Use plain-text emails rather than branded ones. Short, simple, plain-text emails that are sent from a person (like “Sally, Customer Experience Agent”) get 50% more engagement than branded emails or emails sent from a department. 
  5. Treat payment failures as cancelations and lock people out if you’re unable to charge their card after multiple attempts. Too many subscriptions are letting customers who haven’t paid due to card failures continue to access their content.

By leveraging these tips, you can recover up to 80 out of every 100 customers lost due to payment failures, says Campbell.

13. It’s All About Instant Gratification

We all know it, but we don’t talk about it — humans are gluttons for instant gratification. At SubSummit 2021, Nicole Baqai, Senior Partner Manager at Gorgias, explained just how important it is to respond to potential customers as soon as humanly possible — and even faster when you use not-so-human tech. 

According to Baqai, you can improve your conversion rate by 28% if you get back to a subscriber’s query in 10 minutes or less. And, Baqai says, that number goes up even higher when you offer omni-channel methods of communication. 

The term omni-channel means being present and readily available on just about every platform online. Think: Email, Facebook Messenger, website chat, Instagram DMs, TikTok, Twitter, phone, SMS — literally everywhere. 

Beyond being omni-present and able to respond within 10 minutes, Baqai also advises subscription companies to: 

  1. Understand what customers are actually asking. Be careful about using scripts or pre-determined chat responses that may not address the real problem or question a customer is coming to you with. 
  2. Request and anticipate regular feedback. See where you can do better and take each opportunity as a chance to grow your subscriber base. 
  3. Be omni-channel and, more importantly, respond everywhere. No one likes to send a question to a company and wait four days for a response. 

While appealing to your customers’ need for instant gratification can seem daunting, there are tech tools (find some here) to help you stay on top of queries and get that impressive conversion boost.

14. Customers Like to Be Involved

Simran Dua, CEO of My Subscription Addiction (MSA), reminded us that subscribers are people, not just numbers on a spreadsheet. “Customers are allowing you space in their homes and heads. Respect that.” When it comes to making changes within your subscription — whether that’s price increases, delivery schedules, or product features — it’s critical to communicate the what and the why of any and all changes.

Furthermore, customers don’t like to just be told that things are changing. As Jamie Levy, Head of Engagement at Shopify, said in her talk, “Community Is Oversold — Don’t Buy Into It!,” there are many more ways to build a community than to get customers to pay for it. For example, if you’re going to make changes to your subscription, involve your customers in the decision-making process. 

Letting them know you’re considering making a certain change gives them behind-the-scenes transparency, which builds trust. Making the decision conversational and collaborative means that customers are likely to feel like they’re agreeing to the change rather than having it forced upon them. Plus, they’re more likely to anticipate and stick around for the change because they’re invested, thereby increasing LTV.

15. Cancelations Should Be Easy & Learning Opportunities

We won’t sugar-coat it, folks… There was a bit of drama at SubSummit 2021. Like when Patrick Campbell and John Arcanti of ProfitWell tore into Blue Apron and pointed out all the lessons we can learn from the famous food subscription’s cancellation process. 

Blue Apron (now) has a notoriously difficult cancellation process. Campbell and Arcanti make a habit — and a show! — of subscribing to brands and then trying to cancel so that they can review the process and offer lessons and insights to their audience on ProfitWell’s channels. 

Here’s what they discovered about Blue Apron’s cancellation flow. First, the cancel button is hidden deep within the user profile settings. Second, if a customer reaches out to customer service for help, the customer service agent simply sends the customer a link to a help article that explains how to cancel… which the customer then has to read and follow on their own. 

The result is that the customer feels held hostage, unsupported, and no matter how great their experience was with the actual food delivery and quality, they now have a bad taste in their mouths because of the way Blue Apron ended things.

Rather than making it hard for your customers to cancel, make the cancellation process easy while offering a few points of resistance along the way. For example, Greg Alvo of Ordergroove recommends creating an emotional barrier to exit rather than a mechanical one. Remind the customer of what they’re giving up. 

Also, be sure to use each cancellation as a learning opportunity. Rather than making it hard to cancel, Alvo says, ask yourself if your product is right. Why do your customers want to leave? Ask them in the cancellation flow with one or two short questions. 

Lastly, Campbell recommends trying to recapture them by providing a salvage offer, a maintenance offer, a pause offer, a freemium tier, or — if they say no to all of those options — simply wish them well and let them know you’ll be there with open arms if they ever want to come back.

16. Choose Your Tech With Scalability In Mind

Most subscription businesses share a very important goal: GROW. So, how do you do that? According to Tien Tzuo, Founder and CEO of Zuora, your technology stack needs to support the growth and scale of your business. 

AJ Ulloa of Bold Commerce and Joe Barneson of Sitka Salmon shared examples of how their technology stack has helped Sitka Salmon double in subscriber size during covid. 

According to Barneson, CTO of Sitka Salmon, the fresh-fish delivery service relied on tech to scale, improve its customer experience, and handle and facilitate the growth of so many new subscribers. 

By listening to the struggles and needs of its tech support and customer service teams, Sitka Salmon changed its workflows and processes to accommodate the ever-evolving demands of a growing customer base. A flexible technology stack allowed the company to make sure everyone was able to deliver on great products and great customer service.

17. Leverage AI to Create Genuine Connections

Artificial intelligence (AI) is cutting-edge technology that many brands seem to either eagerly embrace or shun due to a lack of understanding. However, Greg Alvo of Ordergroove says you don’t need to be afraid of AI. 

In his panel discussion, “Picking the Perfect Platform — Visions of the Future,” Alvo explained how AI and machine learning can make the experience more personalized for your customers, without making it feel dehumanized. 

Customers are trusting you with their wallets and their experience, Alvo said. AI enables you to predict churn points and enhance the experience at those points to lower churn.

Alvo’s co-panelist, Jesus Luzardo, VP and Global Head of Growth at Vindicia, suggests that AI can go beyond creating a personalized experience and can even allow you to create an individualized experience, re-engage lost customers, and recharge failed payments, all in one.

18. Be Careful Not to Over-Integrate

With the recent merger of BoxyCharm and IPSY, many of us in the subscription world anticipated that the two companies would unite to form one company. But — as Yosef Martin of BoxyCharm and Alessandra Sales of IPSY shared — the two giants have decided to stay separate in many important areas. 

“We were careful not to over-integrate,” said Alessandra Sales of IPSY. If you’re considering or planning a merger or partnership, notice what each side is doing well and keep those strengths separate. Not everything needs to be combined, Sales advised.

Martin went on to support Sales’ advice and added that, “A merger doesn’t always mean you have to kill one or both brands.” If consumers are tied to the brands, keep them. Do what’s best for your audience and community.

19. Sneak Peeks Are the New Win-Back Strategy

According to Sarah McCredie of Recurly, “It’s 5 to 25x more costly to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing customer.” So what happens when you do (inevitably) lose customers? 

Well, it’s all about your win-back strategy. According to Yosef Martin of BoxyCharm, sneak peeks are one of the most powerful win-back strategies the beauty brand has leveraged to get customers to come back. 

When you give lost subscribers a peek at what’s in upcoming boxes, it often sparks their desire to be a part of that box and to receive those specific products. In fact, Martin says, it’s often enough to get them to recommit to your brand.

20. This Year’s TOP Takeaway: It’s All About Surprise & Delight

And finally, we’ve made it to SubSummit 2021’s most important takeaway from the event! While each and every session and each and every speaker offered immense value in their unique fields of expertise, there was a resounding theme amongst many of the talks… 

It’s all about the “surprise and delight” factor! In fact, this surprise and delight experience is arguably what makes subscriptions so wonderfully addictive and joyful for subscribers to receive. So, how do you create that surprise and delight factor in each box? 

According to Dave Cobban of UNBRKBLE, too often, companies get caught up in gamification, like adding a points-based system to breed loyalty. However, gamification distracts people from the brand itself, Cobban said in his panel discussion at SubSummit 2021. 

Instead, focus on surprising and delighting customers without their anticipation of a reward. For example, BarkBox — a 2021 Cube Awards winner — has done this very well by asking pet parents for their dogs’ birthdays on sign-up, then surprising and delighting them with bonus goodies when their pet’s birthday rolls around. 

It’s a small bit of information pet parents often forget that they offered up, and the brand takes that opportunity to give customers an extra little something for that special occasion. 

As Jesus Luzardo of Vindicia said at this year’s event, “The fatigue is not on the subscription model. It’s on the product or offering. Focus on the experience and they’ll come back.” Unanimously, this year’s SubSummit 2021 speakers and experts agree: the best way to get people back is to remind them of the amazing, surprising, and delightful experiences they had while a member of your subscription.

As we all head into the rush of the holiday season, be sure to take these lessons from our SubSummit 2021 speakers to heart. As Tien Tzuo of Zuora poetically said in the first session of the event, “We can learn so much from each other.”

Looking for more ways to grow your brand? Discover the latest trends on how subscription businesses can expand by attending SubSummit!