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7 Alternatives to a Subscribe and Save Program for Your Ecommerce Business

Not sure about discounting your subscription program with a subscribe and save model? Consider these 7 alternatives.
August 8, 2022

How are you positioning the value of your subscription program?

Discounts are often the go-to model for subscription ecommerce brands: Sign up for a subscription to save money. 

But is that really all subscriptions are? Can they have other advantages, too?

The problem isn’t that people are tired of saving money. Sure, people appreciate a discount, but that may not be enough to create sustainable growth.

Jon MacDonald, Founder and CEO at The Good, joined us on an episode of Subscription Ecommerce Live and explained how jumping right to a discount offer can cheapen a brand. He says discounts communicate that your products aren’t worth what you charge for them. He added that discount consumers aren’t the best target customers for subscriptions. Your goal is to have them stick around as long as possible because they love the product, not until they find a cheaper alternative.

We’re not suggesting you discount discounts entirely. They may work really well for your brand. You can still use them to help attract subscribers and bring them over the finish line. 

But you can also incentivize customers by offering alternatives to a subscribe and save program by highlighting advantages other than a lower price.

He added that discount consumers aren’t the best target customers for subscriptions. Your goal is to have them stick around as long as possible because they love the product, not until they find a cheaper alternative.

We’ve outlined 7 alternatives to help your brand attract and retain more customers. None of these are mutually exclusive. You can mix and match the options or pair them with your subscribe and save model. 

Subscribe and Make Changes Whenever: Offer a Subscription with Flexibility

Subscriptions can feel scary to customers. Some might believe they lock themselves into a long-term deal with the brand that’ll be harder to get out of than a gym membership.

It shouldn’t feel that way.

Offering flexible subscriptions allows you to make it easy for customers to 

  • Change up their orders before shipment
  • Add extra products to their order
  • Delay their shipment until they’re ready

Highlighting that kind of flexibility can ease subscribers’ minds and help them see the advantages of adjustable recurring shipments. 

One critical point: brands need to make it easy for customers to edit their orders. Too much hassle will eliminate any ground made by selling the idea of flexibility. 

Subscribe and Connect with Other Subscribers: Offer a Subscription that Provides Community 

People connect over common interests, and subscription ecommerce brands have a unique opportunity to bring individuals together over a shared love for a product or lifestyle. 

Some brands have found creative ways to instill this sense of community. One key here is to treat your clients as “members” rather than “subscribers.” Subscription can feel too transactional, while membership can create a sense of belonging.

We’ve hosted several ecommerce experts on Subscription Ecommerce Live who touched on the idea of creating connections and community during our discussions. They provided the following insights about encouraging subscriber engagement: 

Matt Houlemard from Recharge shared a story about an alcohol brand that invites its subscribers to happy-hour-like Zoom calls where members engage with one another and the brand. It creates a fun, low-pressure way to create an experience around the product. 

Sometimes the community idea can get wrapped up in numbers, but Kelly Vaughn emphasized the value of smaller communities. A cohort model can open up new opportunities to have customers connect in more intimate ways that often get lost in larger groups. 

Jamie Levy from Shopify Plus points out that community doesn’t have to be overly structured. It can happen on social media. She mentioned that Glossier does a great job of facilitating and encouraging discussion amongst customers in the comments section. 

Subscribe and Connect with the Brand: Offer Subscriptions that Deliver Exclusive Rewards

Building community amongst peers serves one purpose; doing so with your brand serves another. Customers aren’t necessarily looking for your brand to be their friend, but many want to feel like they mean something to the companies they love.

How can you make that happen?

One option is to offer exclusive rewards to loyal customers. 

Here are a few out-of-the-box ideas: 

  • Provide insight into upcoming products (help them feel like they are part of the journey)
  • Allow customers to vote on future products, flavors, or offerings
  • Give subscribers a choice on where the company’s donations go
  • Create a connecting point (Zoom meeting, phone call, etc.) with the brand’s founder or leadership team
  • Celebrate subscribers on social by scheduling a quick interview and posting a brief bio and testimonial from them
  • Offer truly limited edition items that only go out to subscribers
  • Send out meaningful swag (AKA the stuff that people want and won’t throw away the next time Spring Cleaning comes around)

Subscribe and Delight: Offer Subscriptions that Feel Personal and Unscalable 

Our industry can often get so wrapped up in repeatable, scalable solutions that we forget the power of creating unpredictable, unscalable experiences.

When Eli Weiss was with OLIPOP, he told us about a subscriber who needed to cancel his subscription because of a small flood in his basement. His team canceled the subscription, but instead of leaving it at that, they immediately looked for ways to do more. Eventually, they decided to send the subscriber a meal and a note wishing him well. 

While your brand may not have similar opportunities, you can spice up your subscriptions with some of these ideas:

  • Sending handwritten notes to loyal customers with their shipments 
  • Adding little, surprising gifts to orders for free
  • Helping customers build their ideal subscription through quizzes that give them an idea of what offer best fit their needs

Remember that you don’t have to do everything at scale. The unpredictable nature stirs up  excitement and makes people more likely to share their experiences with others.

In the OLIPOP example, the subscriber told others the story, sharing it on social media and through word of mouth. It felt personal because it was. The brand couldn’t scale this or repeat it. 

Other companies find ways to offer special perks that align with the brand, like Chewy, which is known for sending pet portraits to their subscribers. 

Subscribe and Earn: Offer a Subscription that Creates a Volunteer Sales Force

Happy customers that are excited about your brand can become your best salespeople, but you have to find meaningful ways to incentivize your base.

Lauren Nolan joined us on Subscription Ecommerce Live and explained how the team at House of Wise, a luxury wellness and CBD brand, empowers their community to promote the brand through referrals. As the VP of Communications and Public Relations, Lauren looks for creative ways to get the brand’s subscribers to generate sales.

Example: In the summer months, their brand focuses on fitness. So subscribers who generate content or hit certain referral goals get access to things like

  • Private workout classes with notable influencers
  • Elastic bands to work out with and instructions on how to use them
  • Tips for home workouts

They also saw success aligning their referral community around a mission: The team also created a program with a philanthropic mission called the 420 Justice for All. They made and sold 1,000 special boxes and sent proceeds to the Last Prisoner Project (a nonprofit that advances criminal justice reform for the cannabis community). 

House of Wise sent their top 25 most engaged community members a free box a week before the release and invited them to help with product promotion. This was not only a savvy way to push user-generated content; it gave the audience a unique opportunity to participate in and connect with the brand’s mission.

Similarly, BoxyCharm empowered subscribers to share their brand by using their shipping soon emails to drive referrals. This method allowed them to grow their subscriber base by 15,000 month-over-month. Other brands can replicate this program with ARPU.*

*If you’re unfamiliar, ARPU is a tool that empowers Recharge merchants to make more money with their upcoming shipment notification emails. 

Subscribe and Save the World: Offer a Subscription that Lets Subscribers Give Back

Some consumers are looking for ways to make a difference with their purchases, such as buying from environmentally sustainable brands or brands that support charitable causes. 

Andrew Forman joined us on Subscription Ecommerce Live and shared how incorporating these higher ideals into a brand can make meaningful impact while improving the company’s bottom line

His company Givz helps Shopify sellers offer buyers the choice of having the brand make a charitable donation. Andrew shared that they A/B tested this model against the traditional subscribe and save method. Some subscribers got $50 off their first box. Others had the choice to have the brand donate $30 to the charity of their choice. 

The donation group ended up leading to higher customer lifetime values. 

Subscribe and Sit Back: Offer a Subscription that Puts a Necessity on Autopilot 

Not every brand selling subscriptions needs to add more to the experience. That’s fine. Some subscriptions don’t need to be overthought. They just need to reliably deliver a product, on repeat.

That kind of reliability is still a perk worth mentioning, though. It allows customers to get their products without ever even thinking about it. 

This tactic works best for products that are staples for subscribers: food, vitamins, and beverages. Some brands in these industries can still create community and offer extras. But others find success in targeting subscribers who prefer low-touch engagement. 

You can provide simple perks, like sending recipes or advice on how to best use the product, but—for the most part—you can keep these subscribers happy as long as you keep giving them what they need at the right time. 

Closing Thoughts

Offering discounts is a great way to attract subscribers, but it’s not the only choice in subscription selling. Discounts alone often excite people only until they find a better deal at a lower price.

Using one or more of these alternatives for your subscription program can help you avoid becoming a “discount brand” and extend LTVs. 

Don’t be afraid to mix up these options. You can even add them to your existing subscribe and save model. It’s not about reinventing the wheel; it’s about showcasing the many value-adds that subscriptions bring. 

If you’d like to level-up your subscription program by customizing communication with subscribers to deliver highly relevant messages to subscribers (say, you want to offer a free gift on their 4th renewal), we invite you to learn more about ARPU. We’re obsessed with creating amazing subscriber experiences with upcoming charge notifications that offer 2-click upsells and effortless delays (no login required). We currently serve Recharge merchants on Shopify and BigCommerce.

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