The Key Elements of a Successful Subscription Offering

Subscriptions offer podcasters and other creators a fantastic business model. They allow you to generate predictable income for your business while also focusing your efforts on the people who get it — your subscribers — rather than constantly working to convince new people to buy. 

(Listen to my interview with John Warrillow for more insight on making subscriptions a core element of your business.)

But what is it that separates a good subscription from a great one? And what if you realize it’s time to make a big change to your successful subscription service?

Corey Haines is the creator of Swipe Files, which started as a newsletter and evolved into a successful membership community for anyone interested in learning about marketing or connecting with marketers. In 2021, Corey decided to narrow his focus to SaaS marketers, which brought on a lot of soul-searching about the direction of his business — and a significant change to his subscription model and pricing.

In Episode 243 of How I Built It, we talk about the changes Corey made and how they led to his best month ever. Here are some top takeaways from our conversation:

  • To be successful at selling subscriptions, you’ve got to nail down your value proposition. It’s no longer enough to say, “Pay me to create content.”
  • If you’re making a big change to your subscription offer, prepare yourself for the communications needs, customer objections, and tech stack adjustments your change will require.
  • No matter your role, think about your business like a startup founder would. Focus on product-market fit.

☝️One quick note about subscription fatigue: My conversation with Corey focused on business subscriptions —for online courses, exclusive content, or mastermind communities, which operate differently than consumer subscription products. When analysts talk about subscription fatigue, they’re usually referring to the consumer group — but the potential for fatigue makes it all the more important to provide real value to your business subscribers.

Read on to find out how.

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Nail your value proposition: Know why people buy

In Swipe Files’ latest iteration, Corey promises to teach SaaS marketers how to tweak their marketing and maximize monthly recurring revenue (MRR). On his membership page, the value proposition is right up top. 

There’s a headline that reads, “Want your MMR to look like this?” next to a graph that goes up and to the right: a clear demonstration of the kind of growth any SaaS marketer would want to see.

Landing on a clear value proposition that resonates with consumers in your niche is key to creating a membership that sells. This is a big change from the early days of Patreon, for example, when creators or artists could ask for a few dollars from supporters who just wanted to see them succeed. These days, creators have to focus on what’s in it for the subscriber.

It’s not always an easy thing to figure out. Corey says that even for him, an experienced marketer, it’s hard to distill exactly how he’s helping people and how to talk about that in a compelling way.

✅ Top tip: If you find you’re too “in your own head” to see what your customers value about your work, ask them! Use surveys, emails, or conversations to invite other people to describe your product and the value it provides.

How to go deeper 

As you’re attempting to define your value proposition, Corey recommends drilling down through four levels of value:

  1. Feature: What does the product do for you, and how?
  2. Social: How does this product relate to other people, your relationship with them, and how they view you?
  3. Emotional: Does this product bring you peace of mind? A sense of victory or triumph?
  4. Transformational: What is the ultimate change the product will help people achieve?

Get ready for the change ahead

If you find your new value proposition isn’t aligned with your current membership model, it may be time for a change. Change is hard, and making a significant change to an existing subscription product comes with a lot of work. 

Once you push down the first domino, Corey says, you have to be ready for what comes next.

Prep carefully behind the scenes before you launch. Map out a new membership structure and how you’ll describe it in your marketing channels. Create your new landing page, then be sure to test all of your automations — especially if you’re using products like Zapier or ConvertKit to connect multiple platforms.

Prepare for questions and objections

One of the biggest challenges to prepare for is the response you’ll get when you announce the changes. Here are a few things you might want to think through in advance:

  • How do you plan to receive and respond to the inevitable pile of questions that both new and prospective subscribers will send your way?
  • What will change for current subscribers in terms of content or pricing? No matter how clearly you state this, you’re likely to get some questions.
  • If you’re narrowing your niche, you’ll be saying goodbye to some active members who are no longer a good fit for the program. This churn is reasonable, understandable, and to be expected.
  • Likewise, if the focus of your membership changes — like shifting the emphasis from community to content — you may lose some members who preferred it the old way.
  • You’re also likely to find yourself correcting wrong or outdated impressions of your offer until word gets out about how your new membership works.

Keep the decision period short

You can use the timing of membership changes to your advantage. If presented well, new options instill a sense of urgency to buy and can even make up for any expected churn.

When Corey announced his changes, he gave new and current subscribers one week to lock in legacy pricing before the increase — and he planned to do the same before instituting a second increase a couple months later.

People don’t need a long time to make a decision, he says. Keeping the decision period short actually makes it easier for them. The urgency approach helped Corey achieve his highest-revenue month ever.

Find the right fit — for your market and for yourself

Niching and tweaking your membership product is a trial-and-error process. One way to find the best long-term option is to think about product-market fit — just like a startup founder would.

Pay close attention to how your product is suited for and tailored to your specific market. Only once you find that fit will you be able to scale and get the traction you need to multiply your revenue.

Corey recommends thinking about product-market fit on three levels:

  1. Find a value proposition that just clicks and makes effortless sense.
  2. Identify the products you can actually deliver.
  3. Figure out what you can deliver sustainably that you also enjoy creating.

Burnout is a very real risk in this kind of work, and each creator’s best fit model will look different. But if you can land at the intersection of the three factors above, you’ll be well on your way to a successful subscription-based business.

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