Churn, retention, dark UX: welcome to unsubscription hell

I cancelled two subscriptions last week. 

The first was for a major weekly newspaper with 1.5 million subscribers. It's one of those subscriptions you can't cancel online (how is this OK?). 

I had called a few months earlier and told them I wanted to cancel. They said they had made a note of it and the subscription would run out in August and not renew. 

Come September, sure enough there was a new charge on my card and they kept delivering the paper. I cancelled again and was now refunded the pro-rated (!) annual amount they had initially taken. Fine.

This morning I get an email from them asking for my reasons for cancelling. 

Fair enough, I think. They want to know how to get better. 

So I go through an automated funnel that, after every option I could have cancelled for tries to counter the argument. In the end I select "Other" (which was true, I cancelled because of their editorial stance) and the funnel culminates in: "Sorry to see you go, you can send an email to feedback@newspaper.com." 

Oh. They didn't really want feedback. What they wanted was to get a last shot at keeping me from churning. Bastards.

The other subscription I cancelled (or tried to!) was for a big online subscription startup. 15 million users. I had started the free trial a few days ago, but wasn't using it. So I wanted to cancel before it charged me an annual fee.

I went to their site. Under "Account" there was "Subscription Management." Great, I thought.

But it turned out that under "Subscription Management" there was really no way to manage my subscription. Instead it sent me to a Zendesk flow that had me answer multiple questions about wanting to cancel. Fine, I thought, maybe they haven't gotten around to building it yet (after 15 million users? Man I'm naïve sometimes). 

At the end of the Zendesk flow it told me to write a message to customer support (seriously?).

So I emailed customer support. They were fairly responsive (~12 hours) and very friendly and said they couldn't find my trial in the system. Instead they sent me a long email about all the benefits I got from their product. 

I emailed from the same email I had signed up with, so... seriously? That's like dark UX social engineering (aka "lying"). 

I ended up forwarding them my confirmation email to prove that there was a trial and asked them to cancel. So that's the end of that, I thought. Sure enough I get a Zendesk email asking for feedback (nope, not making that mistake again). 

Deliberate misdirection, invisible unsubscribes, forced subscription continuity... these are just some of the dark UX patterns we can see subscription startups employing to rope people into something they don't want anymore.

In my case it's just a nuisance. Just thirty minutes of my life I won't get back, but the $100 wasted doesn't matter. But for other people, it could really matter. So how is this ok? 

Of course this stuff goes beyond subscription: check out @DarkPatterns on Twitter for some prime examples. 

In the end, it always comes down to how ethical management is. And that mostly comes down to culture, how they were raised, and the source of their ambition. It's hard to see this type of greedy behavior from companies that I respect in an industry that I love. 

But some of it may also be driven by competition: if my competitors can pay higher acquisition cost because their lifetime values are higher because they've managed to reduce churn through dark UX, then I may have a real problem. 

I'm a limited government guy, so I'm not sure whether regulation is the best answer here. Perhaps the market will self-regulate through public shaming. In any case here are some best practices in my view:

- if I can sign up online, I should be able to cancel online 

- let me know when my renewal comes up, so I have the choice

- if I accidentally renew (you can see I'm not using the product), refund me (at least pro-rated)

- allow people to transfer/sell their subscription to others at any time during the life of the subscription

- don't mislead, trick, shame, or otherwise goad people into buying something they don't really want

I've always been reluctant to subscribe to stuff via Apple because I find the 30% tax (reduced over time, I know) egregious. But if it gives me better control over my subscriptions, I might just start doing that in the future.

1 response
I run CS for our startup and this stuff drives me mad. Consumers expect, rightfully, convenience across the board. It feels petty and greedy to actually build gates to prevent someone from completing a simple task. I expect it will change over time, without government intervention (and unlike you, I'm a big government guy), precisely because of shaming and competition that opts to do "the right thing".