Ideal Subscription Paths

How Implementing an Improved Subscription Path for an Online Content Offering Increased the Monthly Revenue of our Test Site by 14.74%


We recently released the recording of our Ideal Subscription Path clinic. You can listen to a recording of this clinic here:

Windows Media Audio:


In previous reports, we have repeatedly stressed the impact that an optimized order process can have on your bottom line. Two of these reports include:

Order Forms Tested:

Abandoned Order Recovery:

In this brief, we will look specifically at optimizing the subscription path for a paid-content offering. Our test site was able to increase its monthly revenue by 14.74% (in just the first month of testing) by improving its subscription path.


In our initial micro-test, we made a number of changes to the subscription process for our test site. We asked for less personal information on the first page, changed the “button text”, and streamlined the presentation of the sign-up form. (We outline 15 improvements later in this brief.)

The subscription process on our test site allows site visitors to sign up for either free memberships or paid memberships. Free members provide their contact information and receive access to more content than anonymous visitors. Paid members receive full access to all the content on the site, including premium content only available to paid members.

For a period of seven days, we tested the old subscription process and the new one side by side. Here were our results:

Seven-Day A/B Split Test
End of February 2004 (7 Days) Old Version New Version
Hits to Registration Page 3388 3631
Free Memberships Completed 1670 2084
Percent (Free Memberships) 49.29% 57.39%
Paid Memberships Completed 33 26
Percent (Paid Memberships) 0.97% 0.72%
Total Revenue Generated $1,263.50 $1,187.00
Average Transaction $38.29 $45.65

What You Need To UNDERSTAND: The new page generated significantly more free memberships but (perhaps surprisingly) fewer paid memberships. However, the average transaction price for those who did sign up as paid members actually increased.

What can we infer from these results?

Reducing the length of the first registration page (by only asking for name, email address, and a password), improving the “button text”, and streamlining the presentation produced a marked increase in the number of free memberships. However, our new sign-up process also produced a decrease in paid sign-ups. Is this reason for concern? Possibly, but consider two points:

  1. KEY POINT: The increase in free sign-ups grants us more opportunities to convert these visitors to paid members in the future. The statistics above only count the paid members that signed up on the spot (most of them being “impulse” purchases); they do not count subscribers who would return to the site in the future to join as paid members. We have ample opportunities to convert these free subscribers to customers through the site’s email newsletter and other permission-based marketing tools.
  2. At this site’s traffic levels, a seven-day test is simply not enough data to measure the real impact of these changes on paid memberships, which fluctuate significantly on a daily basis.

In addition, the average transaction price went up significantly. This was due primarily to the increased visibility given to the year-long membership offer, which is available at a significant discount but requires members to pay for the entire year when they sign up.

The real impact of our changes was measured over the entire month after changes were made. The chart above does not take into account users who returned to the site and joined as paid members at a later date, but the below chart certainly does. We looked specifically at total revenue generated in the month after changes were made:

Year-to-Year Comparison
February 2003 $6,233.50
March 2003 $6,451.00
Percent Increase 3.49%
February 2004 $18,324.00
March 2004 $21,025.00
Percent Increase 14.74%

What You Need To UNDERSTAND: The increase from February to March was much higher in 2004 than in 2003. March is typically not a high-volume month for this site, so we were surprised to see such a large increase in revenue. Near the end of 2004, the only changes made in the marketing efforts for this site were enhancing the subscription path.

We made many changes to our test site in addition to those mentioned in the micro-test above. However, all of these changes served our goal of enhancing the subscription path to generate the most free AND paid sign-ups.

What were the changes we made? And what would we recommend as an “ideal subscription path” for a subscription based site?

After implementing and testing subscription paths on a number of sites (including our own), we have distilled our results down into a number of key guidelines:

  1. KEY POINT: By offering both free and paid subscription options, you change the perceived question from “if” to “which”. Visitors are less likely to question whether to sign up or not; instead, they decide whether a free or a paid membership interests them the most. Offering a free subscription option eliminates “if” anxiety.

    Your subscription path actually begins with your landing page, which is the page on which visitors arrive to your site. This may be your home page in most instances, but you may also have any number of other landing pages. Check your web logs or metrics solution to determine which pages are the “entry” pages for your site.

  2. Content-based sites often have a number of landing pages because of the keyword-rich pages that contain articles or other content. These pages often achieve the highest search engine rankings for the site, and will therefore be the first page that many of your new visitors will see.
  3. Optimizing your landing page(s) is of key importance. Each page should provide an example of the kind of high-quality content your site offers. Statements of other member benefits are also useful.
  4. KEY POINT: Your value proposition should also be prominently visible on your landing page(s). One of the first things you want new users to see is what makes your site unique among the sea of competitors. Make sure your value proposition is quantified with data or other proof.
  5. Use your landing page(s) to funnel your visitors into your subscription path. Use eye-catching elements of the page to direct users to the benefits of becoming free or paid members. Control the eye-path of your pages by using color, style, and graphics to give extra weight to certain strategic areas of the page.
  6. Implement a multi-page subscription process with a smooth transition from page to page. Number the steps (i.e. Step 1 of 4).
  7. Measure the average time it takes to complete the sign-up process and make this information available to visitors (i.e. Create your User ID now; it takes only 30 seconds).
  8. In the first step, gather only the most vital contact information. This will allow you to follow-up with users who do not complete the sign-up process. Use either a follow-up email or a polite, customer-service oriented phone call to contact visitors who do not complete the process.
  9. KEY POINT: Incentivize users at each step. The initial incentive might simply be free access to some additional content only available to registered members. At later steps, consider using a comparison chart (paid vs. free) that shows the superior benefits enjoyed by paid members.

    Avoid NEGATIVE surprises. Subscribers should be encouraged at each successive step.

  10. Use testimonials and credibility indicators throughout your subscription path. Sincere statements from your customers about the quality and value of your offering can greatly encourage new sign-ups. Third-party credibility indicators such as the BBBOnline Reliability Program are perceived by many customers as reassuring.
  11. Stress your privacy and security measures at strategic points.
  12. Use smart “button text” (the text on the buttons that users click to submit your forms). Avoid using the term “register”, which implies your visitors volunteering their personal information. Instead, use a phrase like “Create User ID”, which implies that they are receiving the added value of special free access to your site.
  13. Ideally, you will identify free subscribers that return to your site with the use of cookies. This will allow you to present them with a customized version of your site that encourages them to sign up as a full paid member.
  14. Strategically crafted email messages constitute an important element in your sign-up process. New members (free and paid) should receive an email immediately upon signing up. You should also use email to follow up with incomplete sign-ups.

    For more on this topic, review our report on the order process:

  15. Capture key metrics at each stage of the sign-up process. Following these guidelines will give you a good start, but true optimization of the subscription process will come from repeated testing and tweaking.

So for example, your actual subscription path may look like this:

  • STEP 1: Landing Page – Here you will use eye-path strategies and effective site copy to funnel your visitors into the subscription process.
  • STEP 2: Minimum Contact Information – Here you will collect name, email address, and possibly phone number in order to contact visitors that do not complete the sign-up process.
  • STEP 3: Select a Membership – Here users will select between free and paid memberships based on the compared benefits of each. Upon submission, they will receive a confirmation for a free membership or will be sent on to Step 4 to complete a paid membership.
  • STEP 4: Payment Information – Here you will collect address, credit card, and other relevant information. Include privacy and security information at this point in the process. You may also wish to consider a money-back guarantee. You could also offer a yearly membership at a discount to incentivize a larger purchase.

We have published a PowerPoint presentation on the order process that you may find helpful when optimizing your subscription path:

Finally, we have identified these nine principles of an effective order process:

  1. Track the customer’s buying experience.
  2. Avoid surprising the customer with negative information.
  3. Help the customer understand.
  4. Save the customer time.
  5. Give the customer options.
  6. Help the customer feel safe.
  7. Incentivize the customer to continue.
  8. Help the customer select everything they need.
  9. Solve the customer’s credit card problems

These nine principles come from our report on the Order Process, which contains additional advice also relevant to those running a subscription-based site. This report is available at:

As part of our research, we have prepared a review of the best Internet resources on this topic.

Rating System

These sites were rated for usefulness and clarity, but alas, the rating is purely subjective.

* = Decent ** = Good *** = Excellent **** = Indispensable

Welcome to the Riptide **

The Better to Tease You With **

When People Pay What They Think Content Is Worth **

Content, or Malcontent ***

What Price Content? ***

10 Steps from Free to Fee ***

Monetize the Archive? ***

Paid Content: Three Studies **

Proven Online Subscription Sales Tactics **

Optimize Content to Maximize the Bottom Line **

Increasing Your Conversion Rates **

Top 4 Subscription Marketing Lessons from the Adult Content Industry for Mainstream Sites ** Tests Rich Media Email to Convert Site Skimmers into Paid Members **

How to Raise Subscription Site Conversions and Lifetime Value Rates **

Selling Subscription Renewals via Emailed Transactional Forms — Hopeful Test Results **

How to Convert Free Newsletter Readers into Pricey Paid Content Buyers — Step by Step **

Online subscription sales boom; micropayments explode *

Best Practice Guidelines for Magazine Publishers Going Online *

Selling Out: Web Publishers’ Newest Problem *

Related MEC Reports:

Order Forms Tested

Abandoned Order Recovery:

Offer Pricing Tested:

Email Capture Tested:

Email Capture Pop-Ups Tested:


Editor — Flint McGlaughlin
Writer — Brian Alt
Contributor — Jimmy Ellis
HTML Designer — Cliff Rainer

You might also like

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.