How to actively sell a subscription (and avoid selling passively)

Last modified on December 15th, 2021

Is sales intent at the core of your strategy? 

So many businesses dabble with the idea of subscription products. But how many of them actually make them a core part of their offering, rather than just a bolt-on? One of the core principles every subscription-first business holds dear is their sales intent. This means to be a subscription-first business, you make selling subscriptions the primary purpose of your business model. In fact, you could even say that this is actually the most fundamental principle behind every successful subscription-first business.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t also sell one-time products on a transactional basis. Indeed, many subscription-first businesses may already be selling one-time products in order to funnel customers towards their core subscription offering. In a successful implementation, this could take the form of loss leaders or lead magnets given away for free (or cost price) in order to sell the final subscription further on in the buyer journey. However, one-time products can be a bit of a double-edged sword, as while they can be anchors for subscriptions or used as tools to upsell, when placed inefficiently they can also distract from the priority — selling subscriptions. We spoke about in a previous blog post – check it out here!

Active selling vs. passive selling

But what does actively selling a subscription even mean to begin with? At the heart of the matter is the idea that by actively selling subscriptions, you’re making it as easy as possible for the customer to make one choice: to subscribe, or not to subscribe. This is often achieved by creating a more structured buying process for the customer, which leads to more control and certainty over the end outcome. In a sense, it means creating a situation in which buying your subscription is the best option, the easiest option, or in some cases the only option when visiting your website. If your best customers are actually subscribers, then why not make selling your subscription your primary purpose? 

On the other hand, a popular variant of a passive-leaning model is ‘subscribe and save’, for example. It’s a form of passive selling as it gives your customers the choice between one-time purchases and subscribing — i.e. it is fully optional. Do subscribe and save businesses want subscribers or one-time sales? It’s not always clear which one is their top priority, and their model leaves all the choice to the customer. While maximizing customer choice may be good for some businesses, this is a decision that should be made intentionally. The more passive subscribe and save model is not a bad one – it’s just a business decision. 

An excellent example of this sort of sales intent can be seen with boxed alkaline water brand Flow. After selecting products on their website, online shoppers are directed to a checkout experience that pre-selects an offer to subscribe to monthly shipments and save 10%. However, Flow is careful to make it clear that a one-time purchase is okay and don’t try to make it difficult to switch choices. By pre-selecting the subscription offer, it’s possible that Flow actually values subscription above one-time purchases, but are hesitant to pursue subscription more aggressively. Because one-time purchases are so easy to buy, Flow is ensuring that they don’t upset their existing buying journey, at the likely expense of leaving some subscription sales on the table.

Recess, another drinks company, has a similar approach, although it differs in its emphasis, defaulting to the single purchase option on the product pages while also placing a big ‘subscribe and save’ button at the top right of their website.

A great way to compare active and passive selling models is to think in terms of fishing. Active selling is like spearfishing, where a hunter uses targeted precision to identify exactly which fish they want, and only goes after them. It may take them a few tries to optimise the weight and length of their spear, but once they’ve got it down, they’re destined for success. Passive selling, on the other hand, is like casting a line at random, sailing around without a set course, and seeing if anything gets caught in the process. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, but there’s never any harm in trying.

So, what comes next?  

In a way, you can think of active and passive sales as existing on a spectrum of sales intent, and figure out where you are — and where you need to go — based on this.

On one end, you have businesses that don’t sell any subscriptions at all. One step up, you have companies that mainly sell one-time products but also offer a subscription – although they often don’t do much to promote it.

Then, you have the mid-ground — active-passive purgatory, so to speak, such as the subscribe and save model. This could almost be considered its own mini-spectrum, with companies who offer, but don’t actively prioritize a subscribe-and-save offer (like Recess) on one end and those who do (like Flow) on the other.

Once the benefits of your subscription offers (outside of just saving money) are marketed properly — and people are buying them for those reasons — then you’re entering the territory of true active selling. This is the beginning of where you want to be.

You’ll know you’re actively selling subscriptions once your offering is heavily skewed to subscription products, with transactional products buried deeper in your site, not as easy to access and less compelling. However, there’s no need to eliminate them completely. You may indeed be able to shorten the path to subscription nirvana by evolving your business model into an integrated one in which one-time products are used to augment and add value within the subscription buying journey!

A big part of active selling means asking your customers for a commitment up front. This can be somewhat polarizing, so not every customer will commit. However, the ones that do will be high-quality, loyal, and profitable, and from that point on, these subscribers are yours to lose. Your job is simple: delight them over and over again, and they’ll stay committed for a long time.