Why Subscribers Leave And How To Hold Onto Them

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I’m thinking of cancelling my subscription to The Economist

When I first subscribed a few months ago, I enjoyed the novelty –  or perhaps, nostalgia – of receiving a printed magazine in my mailbox every week. 

On Sunday afternoons, I would park myself on the sofa and thumb through the latest issue.

I enjoyed the stellar reporting and analysis, but truth be told, I also enjoyed fulfilling my own internal perception of being a well-informed global citizen.

Subscribing to The Economist made me feel good about myself. To paraphrase Seth Godin from his brilliant book This is Marketing, “people like me do things like this.” 

But somewhere along the line I fell behind. 

Now piles of unread issues stare down at me in judgment.

The weekly treat has become a weekly reproach.

The Economist has done nothing wrong. They have complied with their end of the contract.

Yet I am inches away from unsubscribing, because the Economist is making me feel like a loser. 

It might sound like I’m being a bit “extra” as my kids would say. 

But if you own a subscription-based business, you would do well to recognize how much emotion can be generated over a seemingly minor purchase. 

Here are six – mostly emotional – reasons why your subscribers may be quitting your service:

1. Too Much of a Good Thing
As a business owner, you are hard-wired to give value.

You give and give to your subscribers hoping this will make them stay. You parade your SaaS product before new users in all its glory, believing they will fall in love with every feature of your app. Unfortunately, it might send them fleeing for the exit instead.

“Value is like water. Too much water is just as bad as too little,” explains membership marketing consultant and author of Retention Point Robert Skrob.

Visualize over-watering a plant or overfeeding a goldfish. The intentions may be good but the end results ain’t pretty.

Overwhelm is the number one reason people quit online memberships according to membership site guru and Tribe Founder Stu McClaren.

Think about it this way – if you join my subscription coaching site for example and I offer you a few free short downloads, you will probably appreciate the gesture.

But if I send you a link to 20 hours of video from my latest master class, chances are that you won’t watch them.

But the danger is not that you don’t watch them.

The danger is that the act of not watching them makes you feel bad.

It makes you feel like you are not keeping up…that you are not getting the most out of the subscription…and that maybe it was a bad idea to sign up in the first place.

Next thing I know, you’re reaching for the unsubscribe button.

2. Poor Onboarding
Whether you’re running a low-touch, self-service subscription or a high-touch, Enterprise SaaS, what Customer Success consultant and author Lincoln Murphy calls “the seeds of churn” can always be traced to onboarding issues.

Every subscription business needs to establish a robust onboarding process. This is the critical period when the new subscriber either finds value in your product or will end up leaving.

The first step is to make your new subscriber feel welcome. Something along the lines of, “Yes, you are in the right place and we’re thrilled you’re here.”

Not like this example from Optimizely where the first email I received was not even addressed to me:

Compare this dry non-personalized welcome with the short and sweet one from MailChimp:

Beyond the welcome, the goal of onboarding is to help your new subscriber understand your product, get into the habit of using it and develop confidence in their ability to be successful with your product.

Some subscription companies leave their new customers to figure out too much on their own. 

It’s dangerous to assume that your subscriber knows how to use your product or service or that you have put enough support in place. Confusion leads to cancellations. 

Onboarding is especially important when the subscription is sold on a free trial or freemium basis as is the case with most SaaS companies. 40% – 60% of free trial signups will use your app once and never come back. 

Successful onboarding gives new subscribers a small incremental goal to achieve so that they start to feel good about using the product. Emphasis on the word “small”. 

Let’s look at MailChimp again for an example of a small initial goal that helps new subscribers get up and running:

They make sending my first email as easy as possible by helping me import an audience and they tell me that this task is just going to take 3 – 5 minutes.

Remember my previous warning about overwhelm and avoid giving new subscribers too much to do right after sign-up. This is way too early in the relationship to dump so much responsibility your fresh recruits/

If the outcome of the tasks you give new subscribers isn’t clear or it all feels like too much hassle, then they may never activate your product at all.

3. Selling Information Instead of Transformation
It’s a delicate balance – giving your customers enough information to empower them during the onboarding process without turning them off.

Inspire your new users with the potential results they can achieve with your product or service, instead of just hitting them with the how-to stuff.

Give your subscribers the tools they need to use your service but always keep in mind the real reasons they signed up for your service. Remember that every buying decision is several layers deep and is driven by both internal and external motivations. 

Nobody signed up for your subscription because they want to sit through boring instructional material about your product. If they wanted to know so much about how your product works, they would have applied for a job with your company.

Instead, you need to show your subscribers how their life will improve by using your service. Help them visualize their newly empowered self, their more efficient business, their slimmer silhouette or whatever the outcome is of using your service.

It’s like Copywriting 101. Sell the transformation not the boring information. Sell the sizzle not the steak.

4. Failure to remain relevant
Subscribers often leave because the offering becomes irrelevant to them. They no longer see the value of your services.

Address this first by nailing your value proposition. If your value proposition is weak, the rest of your marketing will crumble. 

Then you need to communicate that value proposition correctly, creatively and consistently over time. 

You can also combat irrelevancy by getting as close to your subscribers as possible. 

Who are they? Why did they subscribe to your service in the first place? How have they changed over time? 

Think about what is going on in their lives or what might be on in their minds that may affect how they interact with your service.

The more you can answer these types of questions about your customer, the better you can protect your business from churn.

5. Not Embracing a Membership Philosophy
It’s important to keep in mind that a subscription is simply a way of transacting business. As Rob Ristagno of Sterling Woods Group writes in his book, A Member is Worth a Thousand Customers, “Membership is a higher-level, more lucrative tier of business. Membership connotes belonging.”

The reason companies like Apple or Starbucks or Harley-Davidson are such category leaders isn’t just because of the quality of their products. They’ve also done an outstanding job of building community around their brands.

In case you hadn’t noticed, human beings are drawn to community. We want to belong to something.

We don’t just want to use your product, we want somewhere to meet other users, talk about your product and bond. 

Community matters. I am a Netflix subscriber. But I am a proud member of Copy Chief, the world’s greatest online community of copywriters and marketers.

If you’re a SaaS company selling software tools to businesses, you need to infuse your marketing with this philosophy of membership. Membership is about relationship. 

Take a leaf out of the playbook of Canadian ecommerce SaaS Shopify. As they declare on their website, when you join Shopify, you’re joining a community.

Shopify produces content that speaks directly to the challenges of new ecommerce store owners, showcases members stories on its blog and leverages user-generated content in Facebook groups, Shopify meet-ups and other channels. 

The company’s network of ecommerce entrepreneurs will stay with Shopify not because of flashy tech updates but because these are their peeps.

Every subscription company should aspire to treat customers like members. This is the way to create that sense of belonging that makes your brand sticky.

Your initial offer may suck subscribers in. But they’ll stay because they feel an affinity with your brand. 

That’s why it’s so important to share the “why” of your business. Be transparent with your customers. Share your values. Show your subscribers through stories and content that they belong in your tribe. 

Otherwise, the relationship they have with your company will remain purely transactional and as soon as something better, cheaper, faster comes along, they will bounce.

6. Lack of Attention to At-Risk Subscribers

A paying subscriber is not necessarily a happy subscriber. Sometimes people simply forget or don’t get around to cancelling subscriptions.  

Don’t assume that the monthly fee you receive from each subscriber is an endorsement of your service or a confirmation that they’re with you for the long-haul.

You need to monitor subscriber usage (try the many software options e.g. UserIQ or ToTango) and track subscriber behavior closely so that you can step in to lure back anyone at risk of leaving.

To what extent is each subscriber actually using your product? Are they even logging in? Are they only using the most minimal features of your product? Are usage rates declining?

This is the type of customer analysis that Customer Success expert Irit Eizips of CSM Practice advises her clients to undertake to help save subscribers in the danger-zone.

When you flag at-risk subscribers, then it’s time to kick in with various re-engagement strategies to bring them back. 

High-ticket clients will need high-touch engagement such as in-person meetings and phone calls. 

But you can reach most subscribers with a strategically designed email campaign to re-engage cold customers.

Download my Guide to Customer Win-Back Email Campaigns here

Make Churn a Learning Opportunity

The advice in this article will help you hold on to more of your subscribers. That said, a certain amount of churn is inevitable. 

Credit cards fail or don’t get updated (in fact 40% of churn is caused by failed payments according to Churnbuster.io). 

And life changes may mean that a customer no longer needs the service (for example a new car buyer cancelling the subscription to your car buying platform). 

The key thing is to treat churn as a valuable learning opportunity. Do some digging to understand why your subscribers are leaving. 

Were there problems with the service? Are they going to a competitor? Did customer support let them down?

If you conduct exit interviews with customers who leave, you will start to identify the root causes and hopefully prevent churn before it happens. 

Design your exit interviews to deliver granular information. Don’t use open ended “why did you leave?” questions that are too general to be useful. 

Subscription billing company Chargify sends out a short survey asking “What reasons prevented you from implementing Chargify?” and “What could we do better?”

Sometimes they are able to re-engage with the customer and pull them back in.  But either way, they get valuable feedback that helps shape the company’s onboarding and product development going forward.


You can have all your business ducks in a row, but often it will be these emotional or personal triggers that end up costing you subscribers.

Be proactive to prevent churn and when you do lose customers, take the time to find out why and how you can retain them better.

Here are three ways to take action on the ideas raised in this article:

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