The Pitfalls of Unsubscriptions:
Trends Associated With Membership Cancellations
If you’ve tried initiating the cancellation of a service you previously subscribed to, you may have noticed it takes you at least twice as long (if not longer) on average to locate the ‘cancel subscription’ button and get the process going.
The dark pattern is called ‘the roach motel’, where the deceptive design makes it easier for you to sign up for the service but makes it especially difficult for you to leave, quite literally like an insect trap.
While some modern services that have fewer chances of subscribers canceling their memberships (Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, etc) have a relatively easier unsubscription process, it could definitely be more straightforward.
In this study, we analyze and compare close to two dozen services across various categories, ranging from digital news publications to beauty box services, audio, and video streaming platforms, and meal kit delivery services to ascertain exactly what trends most industries follow to make unsubscription easier or difficult.
We examine and report on the usual pitfalls expected during the unsubscriptions, sorted by categories, and develop a point system on the ease or difficulty level of the overall process, so you know exactly what to expect.
Video Streaming Services
Out of all the categories, Video streaming services have seen a consistent increase in subscribers, and with the exception of a few plunges in subscription numbers, the trend isn’t expected to die down anytime soon.
While the numbers may be worrisome for people at Netflix, they do speak highly of the ease of unsubscription process at the video streaming giant. 5 clicks once you’re signed in, and you’re basically done. Netflix comes in 2nd in the ‘ease of unsubscription process’ in overall categories with a fantastic score of 18 total points.
Typically most video streaming services have a fairly easy unsubscription process, are possible solely via online channels, and take 5 clicks at the maximum to opt out of the monthly subscription. Across the category, the unsubscription process is fairly straightforward and most services perform in similar patterns.
Audio Streaming Services
Audio streaming services have been around forever, but listeners have seen many popular services come and go every few years. Spotify has existed for the better part of 16 years but has had a lot of competition from other platforms such as Apple Music.
It thrived when it went global in a major way last year though, offering free and premium services in more than 180 countries. Despite the fact that Apple Music is available in close to the same number of countries, it doesn’t have a free version, which is why Spotify comes out on top.
The clear category winner is Spotify, which has not only the highest number of global subscribers at the moment but also has a free version for everyone, regardless of location, which makes it all the more popular. The unsubscription process is straightforward, where you can suspend the premium account but still have access to Spotify’s songs library.
In fact, Spotify reigns at the top of our ‘Easy to unsubscribe’ list (overall), scoring a total of 20 points with the general ease of unsub process, online cancellation, and easily visible cancellation button.
Again, like video streaming services, the general trend for audio streaming services unsubscription usually entails a less complicated procedure, where the rules and cancellation process is easy to understand. Like most modern services that aren’t afraid of the future, audio streaming services make it easy for consumers to opt out of subscriptions when they feel like it.
Food Subscription Services
Meal kits and food box subscriptions have seen a steady rise in popularity with a surge in demand during the 2020 pandemic lockdown. With limited access to grocery stores and pandemic anxiety, the food box subscriptions saw an exploding growth trend in subscriptions and are touted to overtake all digital subscriptions in 2022.
The category winner for the best unsubscription food box service is Green Chef which has an online cancellation procedure, a relatively easy-to-see unsub button, and a low difficulty level overall.
With an array of services entering the market every month with better and more tailored food choices, consumers may be tempted to shop around for a service they like best instead of sticking to just one. However, food box and meal kit subscriptions do not make it easy at all to cancel the service.
Although consumers may find it relatively easy to pause the meal kit subscription for weeks or even skip a couple of months, canceling the service is a whole other ball game. According to JMG ENTERPRISES, a YouTube account, figuring out how to unsubscribe from Blue Apron for his mum turned out to be an extensive time taking procedure, where there’s no clear process to follow for membership cancellation.
Digital News Subscription Services
Newspapers subscriptions have been falling for decades, especially because people can now get news via other sources, for example, TV, social media, and free online publications. Print journalism has been dying a slow death in today’s fast-paced world, and newspapers leverage that to blackmail subscribers to cancel their unsubscription plans.
The clear category winner for a relatively easy unsubscription process overall is Washington Journal, where subscribers can initiate a membership cancellation online or via email. While specifically in this category, no digital newspaper has an easy way out, and all of them have a hard time letting customers go, with many roadblocks and speed bumps all the way to intentionally make leaving deliberately taxing, The New York Times ranks at a dismal 8 points as the lowest in the category.
Most reviewers say digital newspaper unsubscription is a maze-like process that is not easy to solve. It is designed to keep the subscribers not only in, but make it immensely difficult for them to leave.
Despite the fact that signing up for any of the digital or box subscription services takes less than half an hour on average, even trying to initiate the cancellation of said service may take anywhere from a few minutes to hours or even a few days on average.
Newspapers, especially The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are notorious for making people jump through hoops and making them call the helpline during very specific official hours to cancel the subscription.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not), digital newspapers subscription may require customers to call for cancellation initiation only in the US or the UK, globally subscribers can just cancel the subscription online.
This indicates that the service providers intentionally make the process so cumbersome that most people end up taking months to finally follow up with their cancellation. Newspapers are aware people are suffering from ‘subscriptions fatigue’ that limits the number of publications they are willing to pay for.
And that number is decreasing every day. The digital publications are forced to apply ‘subscriber hostage tactics’, making subscribers explain in great detail to a customer care representative why they’d want to unsubscribe and try to convince them otherwise.
The New York Times even posted an opinion piece in 2020 about why subscribers shouldn’t cancel that newspaper subscription, and how ‘The only thing canceling your subscription to a newspaper will do is hasten the death of journalism itself.’
Miscellaneous services include all kinds of subscription-based services like Amazon Prime including Amazon Prime Video and Music, popular monthly beauty boxes like Ipsy and Birchbox, and pet box services like Barkbox that don’t fall in any of the above categories.
Birchbox, with its medium to hard unsubscription process, wins the miscellaneous category. The worst performing service, Ipsy takes close to 10 clicks (maximum in all categories) to finalize cancellation and takes online and an email to get it done.
Through this study, we examined the unsubscription process as a whole and what it usually entails for 23 services from different categories including video and audio streaming platforms, food box services, digital news publications, and other miscellaneous services. We found that while popular subscription platforms including Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal have a very easy unsubscription process, it would typically be considered an anomaly.
We found that subscriber hostage tactics are still rampant and widespread and services majorly including digital newspapers subscriptions like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times and The Guardian make it very hard for customers to cancel their memberships.
One Twitter user @NuhnJason says “It's amazing how companies are finding ways to try to retain their customers by making it more uncomfortable to cancel.” And that is perfectly putting it.
Services like Amazon Prime, Ipsy, Barkbox, etc lie in the middle of the difficulty spectrum, having a somewhat difficult unsubscription process on average. In fact, Ipsy performed the worst in terms of the overall difficulty of the unsubscription, taking 10 clicks and making subscribers write an email to be able to finish their online cancellation process.
Many online stores and businesses employ dark patterns and various tactics to bully subscribers into signing up for longer or for more stuff than they’d like. But the state of California now has legislation in place that “among other things, requires companies that offer online subscriptions to also offer an online cancellation option”*.
Other states might soon follow suit, making these hostile practices to keep subscriptions number up give way to being replaced by fair business practices. Ultimately, it’s what value the customer derives from your product, and when they’re done, there should be amicable breakup options available.
We first categorized popular digital subscriptions to make it easier to break down the findings and to study general trends in each one. That made it easier to compare trends across different categories. We used sites like Statista to find the subscription number for services in each category. In some cases, no data was available, so we used reliable sites to make an approximation based on previous subscriber numbers.
Finding out the steps and the number of clicks for each service unsubscription took a couple of tools. Signing up for a few services was the first step. We also consulted sites like Line and DoNotPay, which basically have the information on how to cancel a myriad of online subscriptions and the site’s own ‘help’ section to figure out exactly how many clicks it took to cancel the membership fully. Then we viewed YouTube videos on specific services’ cancellations to get visual confirmation of the data gathered before.
The information for the ‘How to cancel’ category was collected using each individual service’s own sites, specifically their ‘help’ section. In some cases, Twitter and Reddit also had detailed descriptions of cancellation channels most services use.
The ‘visibility of the unsub button’ was gauged for each category using visual cues and button placements on the page to award points for easy, medium, or hard visibility. Categories for ‘Difficulty of the unsub process (low, medium, high)’ was then estimated using the other three categories and various customer reviews.
We developed a point system to rate each step in the unsubscription, making it easier to compare different services. 5 is the maximum number of points awarded for performing excellent in a category, and 1 is for performing the poorest. This is how the points were awarded for each individual category:
Click to Unsubscribe:
The click to unsubscribe is the exact number of clicks the subscriber has to make once they’ve signed into the service to unsubscribe. The higher the number of clicks, the lower the points awarded.
How to Cancel:
The how to cancel category refers to the cancellation channel the service provider has chosen to carry out the unsubscription process. Nowadays, most service providers opt for online cancellation, so the highest points for that. Any service that makes the subscribers walk through different hoops will lose points for multiple steps and an overall arduous cancellation process.
Visibility of the Unsubscribe Button:
This category awards points based on the visibility of the unsubscribe button on the final page where it’s displayed. Most service providers don’t hide it too much but some of them have a button that is really small and unnoticeable. Fewer points for an unsubscribe button that’s trying to evade the eye.
Difficulty of the Unsubscribe Process:
Difficulty of the unsubscription process refers to the overall experience subscribers go through once they decide to unsubscribe. This includes figuring out what steps unsubscription entails, which page houses the unsubscribe button, and how to go about finalizing the membership cancellation or unsubscription of the service. More points for service providers that have the unsubscription process easy to figure out, can be done online and takes fewer clicks.
Higher total points mean the service provider has a relatively easy process for unsubscription or cancellation, takes less time, and is easy to figure out. Fewer points mean the subscribers have a hard time getting around the unsubscription.
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