Define The Product | Starting a Subscription Program, Part 1

This is part one in a three-part series offering best practices for eCommerce stores looking to build out a subscription program. Once you’re done reading, check out Part 2: Understanding Your Customers and Part 3: Managing Growth.

Subscription programs aren’t the hot, new thing they once were, however, they provide huge benefits to both customers and entrepreneurs. One of the attractions of the subscription model is its accessibility to all kinds of sellers. It doesn’t require enormous capital to get started, instead a little hard work, ingenuity, creativity, and hustle can lead to success. There’s some debate as to whether the trend will have long-term staying power, but sometimes that debate overlooks the fact that these programs are an excellent fit for the modern lifestyle. As consumers grow more used to the convenience of subscriptions, we believe the market will continue to grow.

Understand Different Business Models

First, you should be aware that there are a couple different subscription models. Some businesses are focused entirely on subscriptions, while others offer customers the opportunity to make one-time purchases in addition to subscribing. Typically, startups tend more towards the leaner, subscription-only model, while more established eCommerce stores might incorporate a subscription model into their existing operations (though this isn’t the case in every situation).

Offer Practical Value

One of the first things to consider when starting a subscription program is the focus you want for your offerings. Some entrepreneurs have found success through semi-frivolous, playfully-minded subscription programs, but, as the field grows more crowded, we recommend looking at ways you can offer real value to your customers.

Even if your boxes are focused on fun, there should be a defensible reason for their existence. Perhaps they offer products that cannot be found elsewhere, or perhaps they speak to an underserved portion of the market. Because people have so many different subscriptions options, you need to be able to clearly articulate the value your service brings to your customers’ lives.

Don’t Neglect the Emotional Element

However, you do not want to invest time and effort into something that doesn’t excite you. If you’re not enthusiastic about the subscription theme you’re offering, your customers will be able to tell.

One thing every subscription program has going for it, is the fact that receiving mail is an emotional experience for everyone. Those emotions are powerful and they help you sell your program. However, while a customer will get an initial high from subscribing (if you’re doing your job right), it’s important to find ways to “keep the magic” going long term. A few suggestions include:

  • Packaging: Packaging should be unique, attractive, functional, and reflect your branding.
  • Little surprises: Depending on the program you’re offering, including little surprises from time to time can be a big emotional booster for your subscribers. This could be anything from extra products to fun stickers, exclusive offers or other branded swag. When the customer feels like they’re getting an extra treat, it personalizes the experience for them.
  • Unique products: If subscribers know they can’t get the items in your program anywhere else, it creates a sense of exclusivity.
  • Strong story: Make customers feel as if they are going on a journey with you. Sell them on the stories of the products, even after they’ve already bought into your company, and find little ways to personalize everything.

Subscription businesses with an entirely practical or emotional focus will have a much higher hill to climb. It’s important to keep both elements in mind so your subscribers are happy for years to come.

Fight Subscription Fatigue

Subscription boxes have been trending for a few years now and no longer attract customers through sheer novelty alone. They also exist in what is becoming a crowded marketplace. If you’re competing with several other similar programs, you cannot coast. However, the perk to this dynamic is that smaller businesses have a decent shot when competing against the big guys. A unique voice, great products and a lot of work can help you stay competitive.

Find the Right Timing

This can vary widely depending on the product you’re selling. If it’s something like diapers or toilet paper, there is an exact science to the quantity and frequency you should be sending for each shipment. If customers end up with a surplus of items, or they’re always running out before the next shipment, they might grow frustrated.

The same is true with subscription services dealing with consumables like coffee and food. To ensure freshness, shipments need to be organized and scheduled with military precision.

When you figure out the schedule that works best, make sure you are communicating it clearly to your customer from the first moment they land on your site. “How often will I get my products?” is certain to be one of their first questions.

eCommerce Strategy


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