codal insights

4 Traits Of All Successful eCommerce Subscription Services

April 5th, 2018

From burgeoning startups leveraging it as their sole business model to enterprise companies like Starbucks cautiously testing its waters, it seems the subscription service trend isn’t going away anytime soon.

It’s not hard to see why so many businesses are choosing a subscription-based model for their eCommerce initiatives. The enticing recurring revenue inherent to the model is not only easy to forecast and prepare for, but also offers it sans checkout, one of the toughest obstacles to pass for the conventional online store.

But despite these benefits, launching and maintaining a successful eCommerce business using the subscription model isn’t easy. It can certainly be a profitable strategy — you don’t have to look farther than subscription kings like Birchbox or Netflix — but what is it exactly that distinguishes these titans from their lesser competition?

As an eCommerce web design & development company, we analyzed these subscription services under a user experience lens to find out.

Discoverable & Personalized

These are the pillars of the user experience for just about every first-tier subscription-based service. From Trunk Club to Blue Apron, it’s clear that companies that inject one (or both) of these characteristics into their user experience are positioning themselves for success.

Discoverability and personalization are what draws people to subscription services, arguably even more so than the simple convenience factor. But what do they really mean?

4 Traits Of All Successful eCommerce Subscription Services


Perhaps its best illustrated by example. Consider Birchbox, the prototypical beauty product subscription service. When customers open up their boxes, they’re introduced to all sorts of new products and samplers they wouldn’t normally be exposed to. Subscribers love the fact that with every delivery, they might discover their new favorite nail polish or lipstick.

Take an even more extreme example: Vinyl Me Please, the popular “record of the month” club that delivers preselected vinyl to their customers’ doorsteps. Discoverability is the basis of VinylMePlease’s entire user experience—they’re not just delivering vinyl, they’re delivering that feeling of excitement when you discover a new band or a new sound.

Vinyl Me Please has high discoverability, but zero personalization—the customer gets no direct say in the record they receive. A better example of a business that’s mastered both is Trunk Club, the fashion company that delivers clothes handpicked by a stylist that match their user’s specific taste.

Their model harnesses both discoverability and personalization. Customers are introduced to new clothing brands and products, while also having their personal style tailored to. Trunk Club straddles the line between a fully-fledged subscription model and an on-demand service, but they perfectly embody how to use the two pillars of subscription services to their full effect.

Establishing Trust

While enterprise companies likely won’t have trouble accomplishing this, almost all new subscription services are going to need to establish rapport and foster trust with their customers in order to retain existing subscribers and attract new ones.

While this is generally good practice for any eCommerce company, it’s especially crucial for ones utilizing a subscription model. Buyers are more willing to try a new company or service if it’s a one-time purchase, but it’ll take much more convincing if they’re to be persuaded to subscribe and get charged repeatedly.

There’s a number of ways to accomplish this, many of which can be implemented by your eCommerce web design company. Logowalls and media press modules are excellent design features to lend credibility to your service and can cement yourself as legitimate in the eyes of the consumer.

Successful subscription companies should also dedicate a portion of their website to reviews and testimonials, furthering their credibility and showcasing what real users love about their service.

4 Traits Of All Successful eCommerce Subscription Services

eCommerce company Sock Club features both a logo wall and curated reviews on its home page

Recently, catering to cultural influencers has proven to be an effective strategy to increase brand awareness and establish trust with the consumer. Subscriptions that feature physical products, like Nature Box or Trunk Club, can easily accomplish this by offering to send influencers a free box.

Well-Defined User Personas

As an UX design agency, Codal understands the indispensable importance of detailed user personas. They’re crucial for crafting tailored experiences that resonate with your target audience.

4 Traits Of All Successful eCommerce Subscription Services

The best subscription services understand this as well. Just look at the niche markets that they target: there are boxes for vegans, pet owners, comic book enthusiasts, and more. These may be more limited demographics, but successful subscription services cater to them by delivering a more nuanced user experience than a general eCommerce store.

Engaging Content

As an eCommerce service, the foundation of your businesses’ digital presence is going to be your website. Just like any other online retail store, it needs to be built on a robust, reliable eCommerce platform like BigCommerce and should be masterfully designed to promote conversion.

But the best subscription service websites are more than just a marketing tool or a streamlined sign-up sheet. Their sites provide a much more in-depth, holistic user experience to help strengthen their brand and engage their customers.

Whether that’s in the form of a blog, infographics, image and video content, or even buying guides, the most successful subscription services go above and beyond when it comes to their website. Let’s revisit Vinyl Me Please, the monthly record delivery club.

4 Traits Of All Successful eCommerce Subscription Services

Their website is brimming with content—they’ve got articles on music and music appreciation, analyses and reviews, even a magazine. They even have a radio show, a podcast, and a native music streaming functionality. Their user experience directly engages with music lovers, making them infinitely more likely to sign up for their service.

The Backbone of eCommerce

Reviewing these characteristics that successful subscription services share — discoverability, personalization, engaging content, clear user personas, establish trust —reveals a common thread connecting all of them: a solid, foundational eCommerce website.

Even as a nontraditional eCommerce model, subscription services need a strong web presence underpinning their entire digital strategy.

That’s why it’s crucial to not only select a reliable eCommerce platform like BigCommerce that offers subscription enablement tools, but to optimize the performance and functionality of that site by investing in the user experience. This means making sure your site is mobile responsive, beautifully branded, offers a streamlined checkout experience and leverages tools like Akamai Image Manager and Google AMP to ensure your pages load quickly.

At the end of the day, all eCommerce models live and die by the user. Your customers experience with your business, whether in the physical world or the digital one, will determine whether your subscription service is successful or not.

Sean McGowan


Sean is a technical researcher & writer at Codal, authoring blog posts on topics ranging from UX design to the Internet of Things. Working alongside developers, designers, and marketers, Sean helps support the writing team to ensure Codal produces engaging web content of the highest quality. When not writing about the latest and greatest in digital design, Sean can be found baking, watching movies, or complaining about the shortcomings of his favorite Philadelphia sports teams.


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