Subscription-Product Fit, Part 3: The SUBS Approach to Successful Subscription-Product Fit

In the first post in this series, we discussed how central subscription-product fit should be to your subscription business. In the second post, we’ve unpacked the distinction at the heart of subscription-product fit — Use vs Pay.

How do we translate this Use vs Pay distinction into an actionable approach to subscription development? The following principles apply:

  • First of all, the subscription should seamlessly extend from the product.
  • Second, the subscription should unlock the best you have to offer.
  • Third, the subscription should be clear and easy to grasp.
  • Finally, the subscription ought to sustain your growth loops.

Look at that, we even got a handy mnemonic out of it: “SUBS”. I’ll be here all night folks.

Each of these principles relates directly to aspects of the Use vs Pay distinction:

  • Seamless extension: Your Use → Pay flow is as smooth as possible
  • Unlock the best you have to offer: Your “Pay” is as compelling as possible
  • Be clear and easy to grasp: Your Use / Pay distinction is as clear as possible
  • Sustain your work of mouth: Your “Use” is as self-sufficient and shareable as possible

Let’s talk through each of these. I’ll compare these two principles on the basis of two apps, Calm and Lifesum. Both are successful apps in their verticals (meditation and weight loss/calorie tracking), though Calm is a juggernaut that easily leads up its category while Lifesum is a third place contender in a space dominated by MyFitnessPal and Noom. Accordingly, I usually use Calm to represent the example that gets SUBS down effectively.

Seamlessly extend from the product

This is a fundamental product UX principle more than a principle specific to subscriptions. A great product experience should be seamless. Goes without saying, right? Strangely enough, however, this principle is often cast aside when it comes to the most important touchpoint in most apps: the upsell.

In Calm’s case, the content library acts as the primary route into the subscription. As you explore the library of meditations, you find a meditation that attracts you. Some will be available for free, others will be locked. Often a taste of the content is made available before the upsell is introduced.

In Lifesum’s case, multiple upsell moments are arbitrarily interruptive. On a recipes page, for example, a popup screen appears as soon as you start scrolling down on that page. Unlockable recipes feels like a relatively weak premium feature to start with, so making the upsell this interruptive weakens the user experience without a clear upshot. The app in general is littered with upsells designed primarily to get in your face without providing clear additional value to the user.

Unlock the best you have to offer

“Unlock the best you have to offer” is the paramount rule for ensuring that users even consider your subscription in the first place. The subscription should be the best you have to offer, growing clearly out of the freemium experience. The “Pay” side of Use vs Pay equation, in other words, needs to remain strong.

For Calm, their content library is their app. While a handful of their meditations are made available for free, this is only enough for a taste of the app. To really use Calm, you need to sign up for the subscription and get into the full experience. The “Use” side of the equation functions merely as a compelling trailer for the main attraction, which naturally has a price of admission. Those still unsure about paying have a 7-day free trial to make their decision (wouldn’t it be great if movies had a 7-minute free trial model?)

For Lifesum, a content library and recipe plans are available beyond the basic food tracking diary. But if I wanted to come in and keep track of my food intake with a complete picture on the nutrition I’m getting, I could do so easily without using any of these extra features. They are nice-to-haves that I could get by other, free means — for example, by going on the Internet for recipes, or downloading apps that are likely to be more comprehensive for me anyway.

Be clear and easy to grasp

This rule, “Be clear and easy to grasp”, brings up a useful distinction for subscription development — quantity versus quality. Generally, the more that is quantitatively put behind a subscription, the more clarity suffers. A laundry list of locked features makes the general product experience something of a minefield, as you hit random points in the app experience where various features are locked by the subscription. This approach can be elegantly executed, but that often takes more than simply slapping upsell labels on existing parts of your base product experience. The better approach is to focus on the quality of the subscription offer, which usually takes the form of a holistic ‘core’ to the subscription that can be told as a single clear story.

Calm’s upsell screen gives a longish list of things to expect from the subscription, but all of it is immediately comprehensible and intuitively tied to a single story — ”unlock the Calm content library”. The paywall screen remains the same throughout the product and subscription experience, and the user simply reinforces their understanding of the subscription as they continue to use the app and explore the content. Every experience of reaching the paywall screen is the same — you click on content you can’t get, you get prompted to subscribe.

Lifesum has a long, scrolling paywall screen thick with information about the subscription. This comparison list above shows, of course, that the basic version of the app is less good than the premium. However, this list doesn’t tell me any kind of story about what to expect from the subscription. Because I don’t have the story in mind yet, I’d be much more likely to try to figure it out for myself than to opt in at this point.

Of course, many users might opt-in here simply to lock in their commitment to use a diet tracker, which is likely to be a big goal of theirs at this moment. But that might not be enough, and it is especially likely to lose those who are on the fence, kicking tires, or comparison shopping.

Sustain your word of mouth

Sustaining your word of mouth is all about the “Use” side of the equation. This principle can be one of the harder ones to get clarity on without deeply modeling, since word of mouth is difficult to measure. Essentially, you are trying to compare your free and premium user populations by translating your free users to premium users based on word of mouth: how many free users would lead to a premium user? If you might lose more than that many free users for every new premium user you convert with a change to your subscription approach, you may want to reconsider. Since hard numbers will be hard to come by here, you’ll need to go with a broad gut check.

Calm’s relatively limited content library doesn’t make it easy for a free user to remain in the experience for long, making it unlikely a free user would form enough of an impression to spread the app by word of mouth. However, their referral feature isn’t even available until a user signs up for the premium version. Given the nature of meditation, it’s unlikely someone just dipping their toe in the water of an app and using it sporadically as a free user would be an enthusiastic promoter of a given meditation app, especially given the wide range of competition there is out there. So Calm gives up on free user referrals and word of mouth, but gains in more committed users and likely loses little if anything in their growth loops.

Lifesum has no referral program, and there is nothing inside their experience that suggests they fundamentally interfere with or slow down their word of mouth growth. The one thing I’d ding them on is the confusing mix of different premium functionality, which would make it more difficult for someone to share exactly what they get out of the paid version of the app with a friend.

Product, growth, data, archery