Optimizing Subscription Pathways

How simplifying the sign-up process can result in a dramatic increase in the number of subscribers to your newsletters or subscription services


We recently released the audio recording of our clinic on this topic. You can listen to a recording of this clinic here:

Subscription Pathways

What is your conversion rate of visitors to subscribers? Are you leaving money on the table? Our own testing suggests you may well be.

We conducted a number of tests, with one research partner who wanted to increase their newsletter subscriber list, and with two others who wanted to increase sales of their subscription-based publications.

In both cases we analyzed their existing subscription pathways and identified areas in which we thought we could make improvements.

The outcome was both surprising and instructive. As you will see from our test data, the changes we made resulted in some of the highest increases in conversion rates we have ever seen from a single round of testing.

Why? It is our guess that while many companies have started to pay a great deal of attention to their sales pathways, few are applying the same kind of attention and discipline to subscription pathways. In other words, there appears to be plenty of room for improvement.

Test #1: Reducing Steps

Our first test was the most basic. We reduced the number of pages in a subscription path for a large online publisher from nine pages to three. Here were our initial test results:

Subscription Path A/B Split Test
Metric Subscription Path A Subscription Path B
Number of Pages 9 pages 3 pages
Unique Visitors 10,245 10,314
Orders 27 107
Conversion Rate 0.26% 1.04%

What You Need To UNDERSTAND: By reducing the number of pages in the subscription path from 9 to 3, conversion was improved by 300%.

By reducing the number of steps in the subscription path, you reduce the burden on potential subscribers. Each new page is an additional “decision-making” point where you can lose more visitors to attrition.

KEY POINT: Reducing the number of steps is probably the single most-significant improvement you can make to your subscription path.

Test #2: Step-by-Step Breakdown

In our second testing sequence (for another large online publisher), we had several objectives:

  1. Determine how we could improve the subscription offer page to have the most impact on the number of “started” subscriptions.
  2. Determine which order process sequence converts the most actual subscribers.

To begin, we gathered a set of metrics on the existing seven-page subscription process:

Subscription Path A: Seven Pages
Page Users Conversion Rate Per Step
1. Offer Page 1059 N/A
2. Create Account 20 1.88%
3. Items Added 9 45.00%
4. View Cart 9 100.00%
5. Payment Info 9 100.00%
6. Place Order 4 44.00%
7. Receipt 0 0.00%

What You Need To UNDERSTAND: The current offer and subscription path resulted in zero registrations. Only 1.88% of visitors even started the subscription process.

Because of the relatively poor overall conversion of the baseline offer and order process we decided to completely redesign the order process and offer page. Based on past research, we decided to create a shorter order process and pair it with an email capture form on the initial offer page.

Here are the results of those changes:

Subscription Path B: Four Pages
Page Users Conversion Rate Per Step
1. Offer Page 877 N/A
2. Name and Credit Card 51 5.81%
3. Address, Password, and Terms 6 11.76%
4. Receipt 3 50.00%

What You Need To UNDERSTAND: The revised offer page resulted in a 309% increase in those who started the subscription process. The overall conversion rate from the offer page to sale was 0.34%.

We revised the subscription pathway even further, removing a page from the sequence, while retaining the same offer page. Here were the results:

Subscription Path C: Three Pages
Page Users Conversion Rate Per Step
1. Offer Page 896 N/A
2. Order Form 59 6.58%
3. Receipt 4 6.77%

What You Need To UNDERSTAND: Overall conversion rate was 0.45%. By reducing the number of pages by one, conversion increased by 32.35% (0.34% to 0.45%).

Based on these findings, we can conclude that our offer page design is moving in the right direction in terms of simplicity and messaging.

However, we feel that the sample size of orders received (approximately 15) is too small to draw a conclusion about which order process (four pages vs. three pages), would be the most effective for converting users into subscribers.

How would we move forward with this testing?

  1. Based on previous research, we feel that overall the offer page and order process can continue to be refined and strengthened.
  2. We would also test a radical redesign of the current offer.

Test #3: Subscription Path for a Free Newsletter

What about free subscriptions? How can a free newsletter subscription process benefit from pathway optimization?

In our final test, we optimized yet another company’s efforts to generate subscribers to a free email newsletter.

  1. We reduced the number of pages in the subscription process by one.
  2. We reduced the amount of data required to sign up, focusing only on vital information (name and email address) and eliminating additional demographic information.
  3. We incentivized new subscriptions with a free e-book download.

Here are the results of those changes:

Free Subscription Test
Metric Before After
Average Daily Subscriber Growth 10.2 82.5

What You Need To UNDERSTAND: By implementing three simple changes, the number of daily subscribers increased by 711%.

Both paid-subscription sites and free email newsletters can benefit greatly from subscription pathway optimization.


We have tested and improved the subscription pathways on a number of sites. Our experiences from these efforts have been distilled into a number of general 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.
  2. 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.

    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 fundamentally important. Each page should provide an example of the kind of high-quality content your site offers. Credibility indicators and testimonials from existing subscribers should not be overlooked.
  4. KEY POINT: Your value proposition should 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 to indicate how many steps remain for the user (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.

    For more on order recovery efforts, see our recent report on this topic:
    Shopping Cart Recovery

  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 customer service rankings (eBay, Yahoo!, etc.) 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, if your development platform accommodates it, 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.

Following these guidelines will give you a good start, but true optimization of the subscription path will come from repeated testing and tweaking.

In a previous report, we identified nine principles of an effective order process. Because the true value of an online subscription needs to be presented and sold as effectively as if you were selling an actual physical product, we recommend you keep these guidelines in mind:

  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

With each additional subscription optimization effort we make on behalf of our research partners, it becomes even clearer to us that many companies are leaving very significant piles of cash on the table. By optimizing your subscription pathway via ongoing testing, you will minimize your own losses.

Related MarketingExperiments Reports:

As part of our research on this topic, 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


Editor — Flint McGlaughlin

Writers — Brian Alt
Nick Usborne

Contributors — Jalali Hartman
Jimmy Ellis
Eric Stockton

HTML Designer — Cliff Rainer

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