Subscription Horror Stories


Don’t cover your eyes, because in this post, we’re going to look at subscription horror stories in the context of popular horror, dark comedy, and sci-fi books and movies. Sometimes you need to look your worst fears in the face so you can avoid them.

Now you can rent a movie and call it market research! You’re welcome.

Learn what to avoid with your subscription customers by studying a few popular plot lines.

I Know What You Did Last Summer
In this movie, based on a book by Lois Duncan, a killer knows the dark secret of a group of teenagers, and sets off to exact deadly revenge. First, however, he lets each one know that he is watching.

Real-world subscription equivalent: A subscription business that uses its subscriber data for dubious purposes gives subscribers chills. Remember when Uber published its “Ride of Glory” data about customers using the service for casual hookups? Yes, that was creepy.

How to avoid it: Be careful about what data you collect and who can access it. Use common sense; you never want to appear to be stalking your subscribers.

2001: A Space Odyssey
One of the most chilling moments in this classic sci-fi movie is the famous conversation between Dave and HAL, the computer, in which Dave begs Hal to “Open the pod bay doors” to no avail. He’s talking to a computer that refuses to listen.

Real-world subscription equivalent: Ever had a similar experience when trying to cancel or change a subscription? Trying to get through an automated calling system, leaving messages, or otherwise hoping to reach a human being, to no avail?

How to avoid it: Make it easy for subscribers to view or change subscription options with simple online systems. Help subscribers connect with a real person when they need to. And create an exit plan for subscribers who need to leave. If you let people leave gracefully, they may return later.

The Sex Tape
The premise is simple: private data is unwittingly released into the world. The movie is billed as a comedy, but if happened to you personally, it would be anything but funny.

Real-world subscription equivalent: Sadly, this plot plays out around us every day in data breaches for all kinds of businesses. Back in May, hackers stole personal data about millions of users of the Adult Friend Finder site. The site describes itself as a dating, hookup, and sex community. More recently, hackers broke into and released data from the “infidelity dating” site Ashley Madison.

Every business is susceptible to data loss, no matter what industry it participates in. The Information is Beautiful site maintains an online, dynamic visualization of the world’s largest data breaches. Take a look and be afraid.

How to avoid it: Maintain subscriber information in a secure system. Don’t collect more data than you need. And if problems happen, take action quickly to correct them.

In this Stephen King novel and movie adaptation, a novelist is trapped by an over-ardent, unhinged fan. [Spoiler alert] She feeds him painkillers and reacts to his attempts to leave by relieving him of body parts.

Thanks to Zuora’s Gabe Weisert, subscription expert and Stephen King fan, for this example.

Real-world subscription equivalent: Every subscriber’s worst fear is getting stuck in a too-intimate relationship with a business that owns your credit card and data.

How to avoid it: Make sure customers know what you’re doing with their data, and what will happen to their data if and when they leave. Be responsible about managing subscriber data, and created an exit plan before it’s needed.

It all comes down to trust.
The ultimate horror story for a subscriber is being exploited or betrayed.

Subscription businesses sometimes put customers in these situations inadvertently, not with evil intent. From the subscriber’s perspective, any of these scenarios feel like a betrayal of trust.

In a subscription-based business, it’s essential to establish and maintain a trusted relationship with customers, starting with marketing and extending through the entire customer relationship.

Image by Alex Munsell on

Customer-Inspired Marketing

Sparkler Morgan SessionsYour best marketing ideas may come from outside the marketing organization – even outside the company. In the case of Pley, a simple suggestion from a busy parent resulted in a business success and many happy children.

Pley is a subscription-based service for children’s toys. In shorthand: Netflix for LEGOs.

The company does many things right when it comes to marketing its subscription business. I profiled Pley and the PleyWorld community in a recent post on the Marketo blog: 3 Ways for Marketers to Take On the Growing Subscription-Based Economy.

In this post, I want to tell the story of Pley Birthday.

Pley invites customers to give their feedback in an online forum. Better yet, the company pays attention to that feedback. One subscriber (a parent) suggested that the company send multiple sets for a birthday party. And four months later, Pley Birthday was born.

The company reaches out to loyal customers as their birthdays approach and offers a free birthday party kit for up to 15 guests.Slide1 Pley provides the online invitation workflow and sends LEGO sets, activities and goodie bags for the party.

The results are reason for celebration:

  • Customer loyalty: Happy parents continue renewing the subscription.
  • New customer acquisition: Guest goodies include a discount coupon for new subscribers, so the company can track customer growth resulting from the parties.
  • User-generated content: Many parents share pictures or video from the party on social media, creating more visibility for Pley’s service.

Are you listening?
Are you inviting and listening to customer suggestions? Do you foster an environment or community in which people believe their suggestions will be heard?

Particularly in a subscription-based business, your customers are willing to tell you what they value. It’s up to you to listen and take action.

Next steps: If you’re interested in more ways to nurture existing customers, sign up for the Subscription Marketing group. You’ll get access to a growing list of content, including a value nurturing checklist and an ebook on Customer Retention Marketing.

Image by Morgan Sessions on

A Marketing Manifesto for Value Nurturing

When you want to maintain a long-term relationship with the customer, avoid any marketing tactics that erode trust.

The book Subscription Marketing includes a manifesto for marketers nurturing recurring customers. Of course, it applies well in nearly every marketing situation, but it’s particularly critical when, as in a subscription-based model, you maintain an ongoing relationship with customers.

Here’s a handy infographic:

Value Nurturing Infographic

These are the four rules:

  1. Be empathetic: Always try to deliver value from your customer’s perspective.
  2. Show your personality:  Any brand personality should be authentic and consistent across all customer interactions, not just marketing.
  3. Handle your mistakes with grace: Admit errors. Even have a plan for letting customers go gracefully.
  4. Don’t be creepy: Personalization and retargeting seem like great ideas until your customers think you’re stalking them and lose trust.

Content Marketing: Not Just for Lead Generation

Huge Blinders by emilio labrador, on Flickr

Marketing organizations often focus all of their time and budgets on generating new leads. But by wearing “lead generation” blinders, you lose sight of the bigger picture. Getting customers is important, but keeping them is essential to long-term business success. Marketing needs to expand its focus to include customers after the sale.

Think I’m overstating the case? Open View Partners published this terrific infographic of stats about B2B content marketing. Reading these stats, you cannot help but notice the focus on lead generation. This point in particular stuck out: 84% of B2B marketers said that brand awareness was their top content marketing goal.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 11.09.34 AM

B2B marketers are replacing advertising with content marketing. Great, but there’s so much more they could be doing. Content marketing has an important role to play after the sale, nurturing customers.

What happens to customers when you grow?
Also in the news recently was this article in Fortune about the shutdown of Homejoy, a cleaning services marketplace startup. The article’s author, Ellen Huit, suggests that the company never figured out how to retain its customers. It kept spending on acquiring new customers, which made it look like a hot startup. But its retention rates hovered around 15-20 percent. The story illustrates the dangers of focusing exclusively on acquiring customers, without a model for keeping them over time. The risk is particularly acute for startups chasing fast growth.

After writing about this topic in the book Subscription Marketing, I’m continuing to hunt out examples of content marketing after the sale and sharing them with the members of the Subscription Marketing email group. Even if you’re not marketing a subscription-based solution, every marketer can learn something from successful subscription businesses.

If you have great examples or suggestions you’d like to share, let me know in the comments or by email. Thanks!

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  emilio labrador 

Summer Reading for Marketers

Reading has always been an important element of summer for me.

As a child, I remember checking out stacks of library books to bring to the family cabin for vacation. Reading was a family trait; our car carried more weight in books than other luggage. When attending summer camps, even though my time was scheduled, several lengthy books always came with me.

So I was particularly happy when Roger Parker included Subscription Marketing on this summertime reading list on the Content Marketing Institute blog.

Several of these books have now found a place in my summer reading plans, taking their place in the piles of physical and digital titles awaiting my attention. Summer is partway over, and the reading list awaits!

Look for reviews of several of these books here, in this blog, in the coming months.

Do you have other books you’d add to the list? Let me know if there’s something you’d like reviewed.

Thanks, and happy reading!

Cultivating Content from Customers


Content cultivation is the practice of collecting content from customers to use in ongoing marketing and customer nurturing.

When it comes to content marketing after the sale, you need focus on the issues that are important to current customers. What better source for this content than the customers themselves?

You may have heard the term user-generated content, referring to posts, videos and other content created by customers rather than brands. Content cultivation goes further than simply collecting social media posts. Marketers engaging in content cultivation actively pursue and share contributions from customers to create new marketing content or support ongoing marketing objectives.

See this article I contributed to Marketo’s blog for a description and examples:  How Content Cultivation can Reinvigorate Your Content Marketing Efforts

Here are a few other examples of content cultivation.

  • GoPro has practically built its brand on user-generated content, as the product is all about collecting and sharing video. The company invites customers to submit photos and videos for selection as the photo or video of the day.
  • Pley, a sharing economy startup for children’s toys, created an online community called PleyWorld in which subscribers can submit and vote on designs for LEGOs kits.
  • Contests and awards are another great way to solicit content from customers. In a B2B example, Totango invited its customers to nominate individuals and teams as customer success heroes. The company shared the video submissions for team awards and celebrated the winners at the Customer Success Summit.

Do you have examples of content cultivation you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment or send me an email. Thanks!

And if you’re interested in marketing for ongoing customer loyalty, join my Subscription Marketing group. I’ll share interesting resources and articles every couple of weeks.

[Image via Skitter Photo on]

How Would You Like That Content Served?

over easy
I did an interview recently with Roger Parker about the process of writing the Subscription Marketing book. During the Q and A session, one of the callers asked whether I had an audiobook version available.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “D’oh!”

As a content marketer, I understand the importance of offering content in different forms. To reach a broad audience, you need to give people what they need in the format they want. Yet I’d neglected that practice for the book on which I had worked so hard.

(If you’re interested, here’s the link to the interview with Roger.)

So I’m focusing my blog efforts today beyond the written word.

Video Is Everywhere

No marketer can ignore video anymore. Video has qualities that make it particularly compelling in many business situations:

  • Video makes a human connection at scale. A video can seem personal even when you’re connecting with thousands of people.
  • It embodies the practice of “show rather than tell.” When it comes to helping customers find success quickly, it’s hard to beat video. Online courseware like Khan Academy attest to the power of video in teaching complex subjects.

Let’s Hear It For Audio

Audio also has a place in many content marketing plans, for several reasons:

  • It makes also a human connection: Unlike the printed word, audio has the intimacy of a human voice.
  • It works well for longer subjects: People who don’t have a lot of time to read longer works can listen to audiobooks and podcasts in the car or at the gym.
  • Audio podcasts ‘serialize’ well. Customers can easily subscribe to a podcast and automatically get the new content as it becomes available.

Practicing What I Preach

As the listener’s question highlights, I don’t always practice what I preach. As a writer first and foremost, I’m wedded to the printed word. But I vow to get better about using different media. And I’m going to start by repurposing content into different formats.

For example, I did a webinar for Totango back in May on Customer Retention Marketing. You can watch the video of it here:

And if you don’t have forty-one minutes to listen, I’ve turned it into a PDF ebook, which you can access by joining my subscription marketing group.

In addition, I turned the slides themselves into a presentation on Slideshare.

The bigger challenge for me, going forward, is taking content that originates in print and creating the other versions.

A Question for You, Blog Reader

Returning to the original question about audiobooks, what’s your personal take? If you’re have made it this far in this blog,  clearly you’re a reader. Do you also like to have books on audio for car trips or the gym? Would you listen to a business book like Subscription Marketing on audio?

Let me know by leaving a comment or dropping me a line at ajanzer [at]

Image Krzysztof Puszczyński

It’s Never Too Early to Start Planning for Customer Retention

Value nurturing sounds great, but first we need to prioritize lead generation.

Lead generation almost always takes priority over customer retention efforts. According to a recent study by Regalix Research, only about one in four B2B marketers plans for customer retention. The rest are simply too busy getting new leads.

I understand, really. Before you can worry about customer loyalty, you need the customers.

But neglecting customer nurturing at the outset can cost you dearly in the long run. The best metaphor I can think of is planning for retirement.

Why Customer Retention Planning is Like Retirement Planning
Compound Interest
It’s a truism of retirement savings that the earlier you start, the more savings you can accumulate. Start saving for retirement in your twenties, and you’ll be well ahead of those who don’t start until their thirties or forties, even if you’re putting away a relatively small amount each year.

This is true for two reasons:

  • First and foremost, there’s the magic of compounding interest over time. If you put away money in your twenties and then stop, you outperform those who don’t start until their thirties or later. Time is on your side.
  • Second, saving for retirement in your twenties establishes the habit of living on  a little less than you make. Even if that’s painful during when the income is low, the habit is powerful.

The same two arguments apply to planning for customer retention and customer loyalty. Whether you’re launching a new company, product or service, the time to start planning for ongoing customer loyalty is at the outset, not long after you have an established customer base.

Customer retention, like interest, is a compounding metric. Its impact grows over time.


The compounding impact of customer retention rates (without new customer acquisition)

If you’ve got 1,000 customers and a customer retention rate of 85 percent, at the end of four years you’ll be down to 522 of those original customers, while losing 15 percent of any new customers you acquire. If you can improve customer retention rates to 90 percent, then you’ll have 656 of those original customers after four years, and more of the new ones as well.

If those customers are loyal, they’ll not only keep coming back but they’ll refer your business to others. In other words, they’ll do lead generation work for you.

Embedding the Long-Term Perspective Into the Culture

Planning for retention from the start of a business or product establishes a culture of listening to and attending to customer needs from the outset.

In the early days of a company or a product, you have the most opportunity to engage with customers individually. Take the opportunity to build customer retention and loyalty strategies not just into marketing, but also into the corporate culture. When you start with a focus on the long-term customers, you’re less likely to fall into the trap of measuring success based on short-term metrics, such as new lead acquisitions or customers.

Don’t try to build long-term customer relationships using short-term metrics.

If you’re interested in the topic, download my free ebook on Customer Retention Marketing. And I welcome any thoughts or ideas you have on the topic.

Image: [cc] by

Using Customer Data: Don’t Be Creepy


Businesses have all kinds of data about customers. You can use that data in ways that demonstrate value to your customers, or that erode customer trust or creep people out. You decide.

As a previous blog described, campaigns that use customer data can help you reinforce the customer’s perception or realization of solution value.

But it’s a small step from personalizing messages to stalking the customer. To see how this can go wrong, let’s look at a few missteps.

Uber and the Ride of Glory

For all of Uber’s rapid success, it’s made a few mistakes along the way, including the company’s “Ride of Glory” blog that used customer data to analyze apparent casual hookups among its riders. I’d point you to the blog itself, but the company has wisely taken it down.

Uber’s data analysts defined the behaviors that demonstrated a casual hookup: someone catching a ride after 10pm on a Friday or Saturday, then picking up a second ride near the previous drop-off point between four and six hours later.

They then examined this behavior by city, by gender, and by date, and posted the results on its blog. Data analysts, no doubt, found it fascinating. Some Uber subscribers were less thrilled.

The blog was disconcerting for people who didn’t think about the fact that the company could profile personal behavior using the service. The company has since taken down the blog, but it dented the trust that is so essential for the service.

Shutterfly and the Awkward Congratulations

You know that awkward moment when you ask someone when the baby is due and they tell you they’re not pregnant? Shutterfly had a similar problem at scale when it congratulated a large number of customers on becoming parents.

(See the article on Slate.)

This campaign had two major problems:

First, Shutterfly meant to send the announcement only to customers who had recently ordered birth announcements. Instead, it accidentally sent the email to a larger list. That was a human failure. People who had no children, recent or otherwise, got the announcement. Some found it humorous, others not.

Second, pregnancy and childbirth are personal, emotional subjects. One misplaced email can strike a sour note with recipients. Using customer data to automatically interact with customers on sensitive subjects is risky. The data itself isn’t infallible, and one misstep can cost you a loyal customer for life.

Handle With Care

What can we learn from these examples, and how can you avoid similar problems when using data to nurture customer value?

  1. Examine your motives. Are you genuinely trying to demonstrate value to your customers? Or are you looking for broader industry recognition (perhaps the case with Uber) or trying to sell something (the Shutterfly example)? If your motives are entirely self-serving, customers will see through them and lose trust.
  1. Avoid anything related to sex or pregnancy data. It’s hard to imagine how sharing any data about customers’ sexual lives could go well, even if you try to anonymize the data. In fact, unless you’re in the healthcare business and following HIPAA privacy regulations, avoid sharing customer data related to healthcare.

In the subscription economy, the customer relationship is built on trust. Violate that trust at your own peril.

(Image by WinterSixFour on MorgueFile)

Disrupting Digital Business: A Book Review and Marketing Perspective

The word ‘disruptive’ is thrown around a lot lately. It made Forbes’ list of the 10 most overused startup buzzwords. But there’s a good reason for that.

Disruption is all around us. It’s better to acknowledge and embrace that fact (even at the risk of overusing buzzwords) than to ignore it and find yourself marginalized in a world that has changed right around you.

These are a few of the thoughts that went through my head on reading Disrupting Digital Business.


The Book

In Disrupting Digital Business, Ray Wang of Constellation Research describes various trends fueling business disruption. These include:

  • Transformation of business models: how disruptive businesses are shifting the grounds beneath established businesses
  • Data “exhaust” and the opportunities for creating contextual relationships based on the massive amounts of data we generate
  • Trust in an age of radical transparency
  • New technologies for digital cognition and augmented reality
  • Person-to-person networking and how it’s transforming economies of scale and changing marketing dynamics

As a marketer, I love the fact that the book frames all of these discussions in the context of making and keeping a brand promise. In an era of digital disruption, success goes to those companies who use disruptions to deliver a greater brand promise:

“When you keep your brand promise, you keep your value. You can keep your margins.”

Subscriptions, Disruption, and Marketing

It’s the sign of a good book that you find it rattling around in your head and coloring your thoughts after finishing it.  For example, I encountered this article by Tien Tzuo of Zuora in Fortune about why an MBA isn’t useful in today’s world, because of the changes wrought by the shift to the subscription economy. He says, “Right now we are going through a once-in-a-century transformation in business that is throwing out all the existing rules.”

Tzuo is speaking of MBA programs in this quote. But I’ve had similar thoughts about the practice of marketing. As business models change from selling things to selling subscriptions and memberships, marketers that don’t adapt their practices to match the revenue model risk becoming less and less relevant.

Looping back to Ray’s book, marketing has a critical role to play at this moment because the brand promise is essential in an age of digital disruption. In this evolving world, marketing is becoming more relevant, not less so. It’s imperative that marketing organizations stay in tune with the changes happening in the business.

All of these pieces should come together in interesting ways in Zuora’s upcoming Subscribed Conference in San Francisco next week. I’ll be there leading a panel on customer loyalty and super-users. Tien Tzuo, as the CEO of Zuora and a keynote speaker, will  share his thoughts on subscription models and their evolution. As another keynote speaker, Ray Wang will speak about disruption. And I can hardly wait to hear what everyone has to say.

In the mean time, I recommend that you read Ray’s book and start thinking about the ways that the grounds may be shifting in your own industry.



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