How to Handle Subscription Renewals

Sep 24, 2013 10:33 AM  By

With the maturation of SaaS products, digital content paywalls and downloadable software products, there is even more demand for improved multi-period subscription billing. Straight forward subscription billing is an accepted practice for legacy products, like newspapers, magazines and cable TV, but many online sellers have been slow to adopt subscription billing models for their own digital products.

A common fear among digital vendors is that many customers hesitate to enter into a contract where they are re-billed on a pre-defined schedule. These fears are certainly valid, making it even more important to understand the different options you have when selling your products on a subscription basis. Of course each option has pros and cons. So rather than forcing a rushed subscription billing implementation, you should study the available options so you can choose the right subscription model for your business.

There are two traditional models for customer renewals: automatic and manual. Subtle differences exist within each of these models, but the automatic vs. manual rebilling process is the fundamental difference to focus on.

Automatic subscription renewal

The most commonly implemented option occurs when a customer provides payment information, receives the product and is billed again at fixed dates in the future. As long as the customer pays the bill, he will have access to the product. Typical examples of this renewal type are monthly cable TV bills, annual anti-virus definitions and per-gigabyte data storage fees. Because customers are familiar with what the billing amount will be, they are typically OK with automatic payment.

Manual subscription renewal

A less-popular option occurs when the customer is not billed again in the future unless he willingly agrees to the charge. This method often requires the customer to re-enter payment information – but could also leverage previously submitted payment information and require the press of just one button. A good example of this type of subscription is a utility bill. You definitely want electricity and natural gas, but you generally choose to complete payment manually each month because you want to see and approve the amount before paying.

Consumers are familiar with subscriptions that have automatic billing, but are also more likely to complain publicly if they are upset with the way that companies go about implementing automatic subscription renewals. Check out these examples of complaints about BitDefender‘s automatic renewal practices. This is not unique to BitDefender, and often is a function of how obvious the selling entity notifies the customer at the time of purchase about future charges.

The pros for the automatic subscription renewal should be fairly obvious:

  • Continues until canceled by customer
  • Doesn’t require manual intervention by marketer
  • Increased conversion rates because valid billing information was already captured
  • Incremental costs are minimized because the product was already delivered successfully

For all of these reasons, companies love an automatic recurring subscription. The typical renewal rates for a monthly automatic subscription are in the 90+ percent range. For annual cycles, the number drops into the 80s because of expiring credit cards and accounts.

However, as automatic recurring subscriptions apply to online products, there are quite a few drawbacks that companies need to balance as well:

  • Increased refunds and chargebacks because of customer forgetfulness and deceitful marketing tactics
  • Increased customer contacts to support inquiring about credit card charge or account debit
  • Offline payment methods, like wire transfers, require customer action, so you will have to send reminders via email
  • Negative SEO and social media messages from backlash

Before making a decision for or against the automatic renewal process, consider the pros and cons for a manual subscription renewal. The pros are:

  • Low levels of customer complaints, refunds, chargebacks because of advanced renewal notice
  • Ability to increase conversion rates by optimizing your marketing message
  • Additional marketing opportunities while communicating about original purchase billing cycle
  • Receive real market feedback about product pricing/positioning by testing renewal efforts
  • Adjust renewal price when re-marketing to customers to increase conversion rates

Companies skilled in email marketing or concerned about reputation find the outlined pros listed above attractive. However, there are serious cons that need consideration as well:

  • Conversion rates are substantially lower than automated methods
  • Requires high manual efforts to execute renewal marketing messages
  • You need to provide a new purchase order for each subsequent billing event

It may help to think of these options outside the realm of digital goods. For example, when setting up a new e-bill payee in your bank account, the vendor presents your bill within your online banking interface, then you choose between automatically paying the entire amount or manually approving the payment amount each month.

I certainly don’t want a utility company to automatically withdraw from my account each month in case there is a mistake. So in that case, I am willing to go in each month and approve the amount paid to the utility. However, I know my mortgage payment will be about the same each month so I’d prefer to have that payment automatically deduced from my account.

Taking this concept to the next level, if your rebilling event is a shorter time frame such as monthly, an automatic subscription is likely to be better since both you and the consumer won’t want to deal with manually approving a payment each month. This applies to many SaaS products. However, if the time frame is longer, like six months or a year, then the manual renewal may be best to reduce the complaints about automatic charges. This can apply to anti-virus and anti-malware software products.

Whichever way you choose to go, carefully consider the buying behavior of your customers. As the attitudes of online shoppers evolve, you may find even more opportunities in the area of automatic or manual subscription billing.

Automatic subscription renewal is the default choice of many companies looking to capture subscription revenue online. However, you should look at all the options out there and choose a renewal process based on your customers buying habits.

Craig Vodnik is the co-founder and vice president of operations at cleverbridge.