What is subscription commerce?
What is subscription commerce anyway? In a nutshell, subscription commerce refers to a model which provides a solution to the following question: why bother to sell a product that people only want sporadically, or even worse… just once. Membership sites and subscription boxes tend to hit the nail on the head in this regard, with offerings that both represent practical value as well as enough diversity to keep things interesting in the long run.
Broadly speaking, this means coffee mugs, doorknobs, light fixtures, and tablecloths are out, while razors, coffee pods, cohort-driven courses, and cooking kits are in. There are exceptions to the rule of course, as there’s a multitude of different product categories you can sell. We dive into the different types of subscription business models in more detail in a different post, but here’s a quick overview just for some added context.
4 types of subscription products
- Essential consumables – often entails disposable or replaceable products, like coffee and toilet paper.
- Systems – often entail a base product designed to be used with a proprietary refill, like a Nespresso coffee machine and pods.
- Collectibles, Passions and Hobbies – often products or services catered to passionate fanbases in different domains, like baseball cards, comic books, or wargaming. Often comes in a basic plan and several higher tiers with more valuable/rare merchandise.
- Memberships – often products centered around connecting with like minded people aiming towards achieving a collective goal, like learning a new skill, accessing exclusive experiences, or exploring niche interests. Membership plans go deeper than this though, as we’re about to explain.
What's the difference between subscriptions and memberships?
The relationship between normal subscription products and memberships is a bit like the relationship between squares and rectangles. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, in the same way that all memberships are subscription products, but not all subscription products are memberships.
As we hinted at above, memberships are often more about the INTENT behind signing up. Often, people sign up to memberships in contexts where they have a much deeper desire to engage with the focus. Access to member-only content and membership apps are often part of the package, with more benefits coming at higher pricing plans.
It’s less ‘never having to worry about buying floor wipes again’ and more ‘committing to be part of a movement/program/collective goal that might induce lasting existential change’ – often in the form of professional training, mentoring groups, and lifestyle coaches, and frequently involving some kind of gated content if the offering isn’t a physical one.
Main steps on creating subscription or membership website
Here’s a guide to creating a subscription or membership website for both existing website owners and people planning to launch a brand new site.
Step 1 - Choose your type of subscription model
The final form of your subscription business model will inevitably differ depending on your product offering. This decision is a key part of making a business plan. However, one thing is for sure — you’re going to need some combination of a website builder and other subscription features first to make sure everything’s running at full capacity. Here’s some examples of different companies following the 4 different product offering types mentioned above.
To reiterate, these are products that most people use on a regular basis, and are often disposable or consumable. As people are often loyal to certain brands in these product categories, the concept of running out can be quite a stressful one — providing a great opportunity for people to move to your subscription-first alternative, an easy process when marketed correctly.
- Pet food – e.g. The Farmer’s Dog
- Toilet paper – e.g. Who Gives A Crap?
- Laundry detergent – e.g. Smol
- Food/beverage – e.g. ButcherBox
- Hygiene products – e.g. Lady Box
- Health and wellness products – e.g. Cove
- Socks and undergarments – e.g. Sock Club
Systems, on the other hand, often entail proprietary hardware that accepts predominantly proprietary refills. This model is interesting as it can be applied to old and new types of products, from automatic coffee machines to tried-and-true milk bottles. Provided the core piece of hardware looks and feels good quality, there’s little stopping consumers from developing a huge physical attachment to the product — or more so, the experience of using it, which they will invest money and time keeping as part of their lives over the long-term.
- Swiffer + swiffer pads
- Spruce cleaning product bottles + refill products
- Scentfill plug-ins + refill scents
- The Modern Milkman milk bottles + milk refills
- Nespresso + coffee pods
- Balms etc + deodorant refills
- Gillette razors + blade refills
- Oral B toothbrush + brush heads
Hobbies & Collectibles
From Dungeons & Dragons fans to baseball card aficionados, dozens and dozens of types of products have developed a massive fanbase over the years. Whether the fans want to collect memorabilia, or have a set of items in the same colour, or connect with other fans through interactive experiences, hobbies & collectibles are a huge market for subscription models. Entrepreneurs operating in this space are often inspired by their own passions to create their businesses, a quality that by way of that same passion lends itself well to building strong communities.
- Model Box
- DnD Adventure Club
- Loot Crate
- Multiverse Comic Box
- Sports Plus Crate
- Hunt A Killer
- Watch Gang
Finally, we have membership models, which can take a variety of different forms, including digital products with gated content (think online courses), physical products (think Sam’s Club memberships, which enable you to enter their retail locations), and combinations (like Jenny Craig’s duo of ready meals and online resources). Membership offerings have the biggest chance to explode into a massive, self-reinforcing community in which people are consistently hyped up to be involved. This often occurs after they see the fruits of their engagement with the membership features and benefits on offer, and is often boosted with the help of an online community.
Step 2 - Decide whether or not you want to use your existing website or create a new one from scratch
The next thing you will need to do is decide whether or not you want to use your existing subscription website or membership website, or create something new from scratch using one or several new tools.
Using your own website: Pros and cons
If you decide to keep your own website with your existing custom domain, there’s a few things you will need to take into account. On one hand, this option will save you lots of time, as, well, it already exists! However, if you’re working on a generic website shell not designed for subscription models, you’ll likely have to use a variety of different plugins, from membership plugins to online payments plugins, to make everything work seamlessly, which isn’t always the most easy way to do things in the long run.
That being said, there are definitely some best practices you can integrate retroactively to make sure your traditional website is moving towards a subscription-first model.
- Make sure it’s clear from the first page that your subscription a) exists, b) provides some kinds of benefits, and c) is easy to sign up for.
- Don’t hide your subscription options on some difficult to locate page!
- Remember, there’s tons of ways you can pack the customer journey full of upsells and cross-sells, whether you’re giving people instant access to a coupon code (for purchases over a certain amount) in return for their email, or automatically offering them an upgrade through an automatic email sent out after they purchase.
Creating a new website: Pros and cons
If you decide to start from scratch and create a new website, the sky’s the limit! Starting with a blank canvas means you can tweak every single aspect of the website from day one, with the added benefit of hindsight from your old website! It can be an excellent option if you’re looking to kick things off from scratch again, especially if you find a flexible website builder with some high-quality, pre-optimized subscription website templates.
Checkout flow too inefficient? Redesign it from the ground up!
Too many product offerings scattered around the site? Centralise everything and make it easier to navigate!
Old template and messy CSS slowing things down? Here’s your chance to do it right.
Tired of having to keep compressing your images? Unlimited storage means you’ll be able to use those high-res images you’ve dreamed of!
Of course, the disadvantage is that it takes much longer to set up a new website rather than just using your old one, but it’s an investment in time that will pay off in spades once everything’s sorted.
Step 3 - Choose your subscription or membership builder platform
Now, it’s time to deal with the subscription side of your subscription business. Your website is like the storefront. How things work behind the scenes, though, will define how easy it is for you to do well as your business grows over time. The right kind of subscription or membership builder platform, therefore, is key.
Types of subscription platform model
When you’re deciding on a subscription platform, there’s a few different models you can use.
On one extreme, you can be one of those entrepreneurs running a business through using dozens of different plugins, like these BigCommerce subscription apps, or these Magento subscription plugins. While objectively, this provides the biggest range of capabilities, it’s unlikely that everything is going to work together in harmony, especially as each plugin will get updated at a different rate which means some of them can gradually start to lag. Plus, it can get quite expensive too, as each plugin will have a different price point which could change over time.
On the other hand, you could also use a mix of a standard website and a bunch of plugins, like WooCommerce and WordPress together (or another WordPress membership plugin). Webflow subscription ecommerce solutions also exist, but they require you to upgrade your membership plan to use them. In any case, all of these will give you the easy content management capabilities of a standard website platform alongside a limited set of features made for subscription businesses. However, it won’t be as powerful as a dedicated subscription website builder or membership website builder though.
Finally, you could find an all-in-one platform, that enables you to do everything from set up a dedicated membership website or populate an online store with different subscription boxes, to upselling exclusive content through email marketing (perhaps targeted at a specific online community) and cross-selling additional products during checkout.
What to look for in a subscription platform
Deciding what features you need in a subscription platform should be a simple process. Here’s a list of some of the most important ones to remember, all of which can be found on a one-platform solution.
- Subscription billing features
- Cutoff dates and set renewal dates
- User-customisable offerings
- Flexible billing and shipping dates
- A good dunning process manager
- Trial periods
- Commitment periods
- Normal eCommerce features (perfect for upselling one-off items)
- Multiple payment gateways that can support credit card payments at a low transaction fee
- Tax calculations
- Cart functionality
- A website builder with a wide range of templates and drag-and-drop capabilities
- A logo creator
- Mobile and tablet display compatibility
- Meta and SEO tools
- Customisable registration forms, surveys and onboarding quizzes
- Embeddable checkouts
- Order management systems
- An API for further development
- Inventory tracking
- Coupons, referral, and affiliate programs
- Tracking codes
- SMS marketing tools
- Cart abandonment reduction tools
- Churn reduction tools
- Loyalty programs
- Ability to send email campaigns
- Secure login area and login forms
- One-off login links that can be sent to a subscriber’s email address
- Cancellation forms
- Exceptional customer support
- And more…
Review and comparison of the best subscription website builder platforms
So, to sum it all up before you’re fully ready to make the decision. You’ve got the option to choose a subscription platform powered by 100% third-party apps or plugins, a traditional website and subscription ecommerce plugins together, or an all-in-one platform, the latter being the easiest.
You know which features you should be looking out for based on your business needs, and you’re content with switching up your website layout and flow to optimize for subscription conversions. Let’s have a quick look at some of the most popular platforms out there, and what they have to offer:
Top Subscription Website Builders and Platforms
Subbly is a dedicated platform for owners and operators of subscription businesses, designed to be the only tech you’ll ever need. Sure, we have apps and integrations too, but your core functionality will never run on plugins alone.
- Pros: Affordable, growth-friendly pricing, all the features you need to run a business, phenomenal 24/7 support
- Cons: Smaller range of integrations for now, not completely adapted for non-physical products
Wix is a website builder with basic ecommerce and subscription functionality, that requires third-party integrations and plugins for anything more advanced.
- Pros: Easy to start blog or websites, has many apps/integrations, including membership plugins.
- Cons: Website builder not eCommerce-focused, with extra costs to build an eCommerce friendly site with features such as subscription payments, for example.
- Read more about Subbly vs Wix
Squarespace is also a website builder with basic ecommerce and subscription functionality, that requires third-party apps and plugins for anything more advanced.
- Pros: Good for websites that don’t sell products, very simple for easy business models that don’t require a variety of shipping/billing frequencies
- Cons: Not good for uncommon business models, limited eCommerce features and functionality.
- Read more about Subbly vs Squarespace
WordPress + WooCommerce
WordPress + WooCommerce is an ecommerce plugin for WordPress-powered sites requiring yet another plugin or third-party integration to run a subscription business.
- Pros: 1000+ integrations, good for people dedicated to WordPress who want subscriptions
- Cons: Premium cost, no 24/7 customer support, complicated to set up
- Read more about Subbly vs WordPress + Woocommerce
Cratejoy is a marketplace-based solution that provides access to a massive sales opportunity at the expense of built-in functionality, like printing shipping labels directly from the platform.
- Pros: 30 million+ monthly visitors and Buzzfeed exposure
- Cons: Only works for physical products, not as easy to maintain control of your brand and marketing.
- Read more about Subbly vs Cratejoy
The Bottom Line
There’s a ton of different ways you can go about approaching the process of starting a subscription box business or membership website, and it all starts with the support of the right technology. From plugin-only solutions to all-in-one platforms that can do everything you need and more at a very fair price, there’s no shortage of ways to bring your subscription dreams from the drawing board to reality with the right subscription or membership website builder.
Remember, it’s important to lay a good foundation leading to successful years to come, and a good way of making sure that’s the case is having as few moving parts as possible in your subscription website platform. Once you’ve pulled the trigger, it’s hard to go back and start from scratch again – and a massive use of time and resources that would be better spent reinvested into growing your business. Don’t be afraid, though – with the tips in this article, we’re confident that you’ll have all the information you need to make the ideal decision for the best subscription website builder for your unique business context. Still not sure where to start? Try your first 2 weeks on Subbly on us, free of charge and experience the power of an all-in-one platform built for subscription success. Now go forth, entrepreneur, spread your subscription wings, and fly!