Off Brand

Why Subscription Businesses Need To Let Their Users Quit

Instead of intentionally hiding the ‘unsubscribe’ button, let customers leave gracefully. They might just come back.

Rob Walker
Marker
Published in
6 min readNov 7, 2019

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Illustration: Tom Guilmard

NoNo one loves a quitter. I don’t (just) mean that in the sense of a high school coach shaming anyone who walks away from the team. I’m referring to the moment a consumer quits a subscription-based business or service — one of the hottest business models of the moment, from giants like Spotify to box-merchant startups like Stitch Fix, to yes, us (as in, Medium).

Such enterprises, particularly newer ones, naturally focus on signups, easy onboarding, and racking up impressive numbers of new customers on a monthly or quarterly basis.

To the extent such companies think about offboarding, the strategy often boils down to intentionally orchestrated friction. If you’ve ever gone through, for example, the maddening process of dumping your cable provider — “Yes, you’ve mentioned the bundles” — you know exactly what I mean. But really, if you’ve ever broken up with any such business, you know that quitters get little respect. When it’s not an annoying process, it’s usually an indifferent one. And after all, why should a company bother to design for ex-customers?

But more and more, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time to give quitters more respect. After all, it’s widely recognized that, as KPMG put it in a 2017 report on software-as-service businesses, “churn” is a “must track metric” for subscription-based businesses. If such services put as much thought into designing the quit process as they do to the process of customer courtship, they might just be able to only measure churn — but actually understand it.

But many companies (especially startups) still seem to think that if it’s too easy to cancel, more people will cancel — period. At least that’s the experience of Guy Marion, chief executive and co-founder of a startup called Brightback, which specializes in customer-retention software systems — with a specific emphasis on creating more thoughtful quit processes.

So Marion has a bias here — but he also has a point. He notes instances where companies (note: not his clients) have…

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