Subscription Business

The Subscription Business Model Explained: Definition, Examples, and Statistics

Serge Frigon

Subscription models are not new to SaaS or eCommerce. But as the global subscription economy grows, companies are identifying new opportunities to build recurring sources of revenue into their businesses.

While subscriptions offer some serious perks in the form of consistent cash flow, customer analytics, and higher lifetime value, high churn rates and evolving customer expectations are ever-present threats to guard against. High-powered subscription management, from implementation to monitoring key success metrics, is crucial to building and maintaining a subscription that offers consumers ongoing value.

In this blog, we’re delving into all the essentials of subscription business models and how companies in the SaaS sector can leverage subscription offerings to drive sustainable growth.

TL;DR

  • A subscription business model involves customers paying a fixed, recurring fee at regular intervals for continuous access to a product or service.
  • Subscriptions offer predictable cash flow and the potential to build long-term relationships that reduce the need for constant marketing efforts. However, subscription offerings also face a high churn rate due to subscription fatigue and competition.
  • The main types of subscriptions are access subscriptions, replenishment subscriptions, and curated subscriptions.

What is the subscription business model?

A subscription business is a revenue model where customers pay a fixed, recurring subscription fee at regular intervals (weekly, monthly, or annually) in exchange for a product or service. Subscription services are typically based on offerings where consumers benefit from long-term access or delivery, rather than a one-time purchase. The subscription business benefits by receiving recurring revenue in exchange for the product/service, which ensures predictable revenue—so long as customer churn rates remain under control.

The most common types of subscriptions include:

Access subscriptions. These subscriptions charge customers a fee in exchange for access to a specific product or service. Streaming services including Netflix, Spotify, and software like Adobe are some of the most widely used access subscriptions.

Replenishment subscriptions. Replenishments are based on consumer goods that consumers need to restock on a recurring basis, such as groceries, household goods, and personal care products. Meal kit subscriptions like Hello Fresh and shaving subscriptions like Dollar Shave Club offer a weekly or monthly subscription for essential goods.

Curated subscriptions. Curated subscriptions offer customers a selected assortment of new products each month or quarter based on consumer feedback or listed preferences to create a personalized customer experience. Curation is most common in the wellness and beauty space; subscription boxes like Birchbox and FabFitFun are some of the most well-known curated subscriptions.

How does the subscription business model work?

A subscription business model is based on a specific product or service that a business plans to offer on a subscription basis. This could be a Software as a Service (SaaS) product, a subscription box, or a replenishment service. Consumers will sign up to access or receive this offering at specified intervals over a set period of time, such as monthly, quarterly, or annually. The company collects revenue via debit or credit card for each cycle of the subscription, which is then reinvested into the business.

How can SaaS companies implement a subscription business model?

A business has to determine the appropriate pricing strategy for the subscription offering they are creating. This could be a multi-tiered pricing strategy, where different price points exist for access to escalating benefits and features. Alternatively, you might have a single plan with specific add-on features, or a ‘freemium’ model with certain paid add-ons.

The frequency of your subscription is also a key consideration, depending on the nature of your product or service. For example, a subscription box could be offered at a bi-monthly, monthly, or quarterly basis. This could be set at gradually escalating price points to encourage upselling and increase Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR).

Recurring payments and billing are naturally the centerpiece of any subscription, as the business needs a way to seamlessly bill customers every subscription cycle and minimize churn or failed payments. This generally requires businesses to keep customer payment details on file to avoid payment delays that affect cash flow or profitability. This is where Stax Bill is a huge asset to automate the repetitive side of subscription billing and management, so you can focus on building a great offering.

Regardless of whether the subscription is a product or service, you need to provide a way for customers to access their subscription, make changes or upgrades, and contact customer support if needed. The most convenient set-up is a web portal with unique login details for each customer.

Advantages of a subscription business model

Recurring revenue stream

Because subscription-based businesses aren’t relying on one-time sales on a regular basis to generate profitability, they can build much more predictable revenue and augment this with cross-selling and upselling opportunities and raise average revenue per customer. By locking in long-term relationships with customers, successful subscription businesses can more easily plan sustainable growth strategies and robust customer loyalty initiatives to maintain MRR and boost customer lifetime value

Lower customer acquisition costs

In SaaS and eCommerce, customer acquisition costs are only rising as competition in the sector heats up. With so many options available, it’s easy for consumers to bounce between different vendors based on price or convenience, making it challenging for businesses to ‘lock in’ a stable customer base. 

A major advantage of subscription pricing is that rather than maintaining a high volume of one-off transactions, companies must prioritize building lasting customer relationships that are sustained over multiple subscription cycles. Once a subscriber is acquired and the customer is paying for a product or service over time, the need for ongoing marketing efforts to bring customers back is reduced. Instead, your efforts can go towards improving customer retention and bolstering the customer experience.

Valuable customer insights

Because customers are usually locked into subscriptions for a period of time, subscription companies have the opportunity to gather a wealth of data about consumer preferences, usage, and purchase history which can be used to create more targeted marketing efforts and inform future product development. You can even consider offering subscribers a discount in exchange for completing a survey to learn more about how they are using your subscription, which can help to improve retention

Disadvantages of a subscription business model

Churn rate 

One of the biggest drawbacks of the subscription revenue model is that consumers are prone to so-called ‘subscription fatigue’. Once a customer has grown accustomed to a subscription, it becomes harder to maintain the same sense of surprise and delight that keeps them excited for the next cycle. As a result, churn rates for subscriptions are high, especially for subscription offerings in discretionary categories. Other factors, such as growing competition, economic climate, and changes to product categories also contribute to customer churn and make it difficult for subscription businesses to maintain predictable revenue, even with strong forecasting.

Meeting customer expectations

When paying an annual or monthly fee, customers have high expectations for the product and service they’re subscribed to. Subscribers expect consistent value—and if this isn’t met—customer dissatisfaction and churn are likely to follow. Subscription providers must maintain high-quality, engaging, and relevant experiences if they expect customers to stay subscribed over the long term. However, responding and adapting various subscription offerings and pricing models to changing customer needs is an ongoing process that requires significant time and resources.

Maintaining customer support

As your subscription uptake increases, customer support needs to scale in tandem so customers feel supported and have queries or problems resolved in a timely manner. However, building this infrastructure while also maintaining quality and responsiveness is a major challenge. Automation tools can provide some support in managing and allocating support tickets, but new customer support personnel need to be trained and supervised closely during onboarding, which takes significant time and resources.

11 Interesting Recent Statistics on the Subscription Business Model

Subscription services are most commonly found in the software and eCommerce industries, but new inroads are being made in other sectors as subscriptions have become an integral component of our daily lives, changing the way we consume media and purchase goods and services.

Here are 11 statistics about the subscription business model and its impact on the global economy:

The subscription economy is forecast to reach a market size of $1.5tn by 2025

The Subscription Economy Index report found that the subscription economy has grown by 435% between 2011 and 2021. This is attributed to the growing trend of companies shifting from a ‘pay-per-product’ licensing model to a subscription business model where customers are billed on a recurring schedule.

All new software entrants and 80% of historical vendors are offering subscription-based business models

Source: Gartner

In agreement with other recently-published research, a report by Gartner, a global research and advisory firm, argues that the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model has not killed the software market. However, the model is growing rapidly and pressuring legacy providers to include SaaS options or risk losing market traction.

63% of publishers say turning audiences into paying subscribers is a key challenge when creating subscription products

Source: Digiday

According to online media trade magazine Digiday, media publishers are increasingly eyeing subscriptions as a revenue-generating alternative to advertising. However, these publishers admit to struggling with conversions. Additionally, 43% of publishers pointed to developing products that people will pay for as their biggest challenge to subscription model adoption.

The global car subscription market is set to reach $38.4 billion by 2031

Source: Straits Research

Luxury car manufacturers are switching up their traditional business models and adding subscription options. Cadillac, for example, launched a car subscription concierge service of cars and SUVs in 2018. The service allows for the company’s vehicles to be delivered and picked up on demand for customers via a smartphone app.

69% of households now subscribe to one or more video streaming subscription services

Source: Deloitte

Replacing traditional TV subscriptions are video streaming subscription services, according to Deloitte’s 13th edition of their digital media trends survey. Their report indicates subscribers utilize an average of three video streaming services. Additionally, 43% of U.S. consumers have both pay TV and streaming subscriptions.

41% of households subscribe to one or more streaming music services

Source: Deloitte

Deloitte’s report includes survey responses from 2,003 U.S. consumers. According to the results, music streaming service adoption saw an increase of 58% from last year. At close to 60%, adoption among Gen Z and millennial consumers is even higher. In fact, Spotify recently announced it has reached 100 million paid users, the first music streaming company to do so.

70% of business leaders say subscription business models will be key to their prospects in the years ahead

Source: Global Banking and Finance Review

Manifesto Growth Architect, a growth strategy consultancy, surveyed 504 senior business leaders across the retail, finance, leisure, automotive, and utility industries for their ‘How to Make Money from Membership Economics’ report.

While many leaders saw the value of the subscription model, only 24% were currently implementing it, and a mere 7% were generating significant revenue via membership. Another quarter of businesses were trying out membership models but were not sure how they would evolve, and 22% saw potential but were unsure how to proceed.

53% of senior finance executives say at least 40% of their organizations’ revenues are recurring

Source: CFO

According to a report by CFO Research, in collaboration with software provider Salesforce, recurring revenue business models (also known as subscription or usage-based models) are on the rise. The report indicates that 23% of C-suites—top senior officers in a company—and boards are incorporating such business models into their strategic planning. Additionally, 17% of C-suites and boards are planning to launch a new or additional recurring revenue business in the near future.

48% of businesses with a recurring revenue model struggle to meet accounting and reporting challenges

Source: CFO

As a result of regulations enacted in the past few years, subscription revenue has to be recorded according to certain standards. Revenues earned through a subscription model have to be recognized when realized and earned, versus when it is received. If not properly managed, subscription model businesses can face audits and compliance issues around revenue recognition.

The average subscription billing vendor is growing 30%–50% annually

Source: The Paypers

The rise of the subscription business model has led to a corresponding increase in the necessity for subscription billing management platforms. The subscription and billing management market was valued at $3.8 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $10.5 billion by 2025, according to Zion Market Research.

70% of businesses believe that recurring revenue models are the future of their industries. 

Source: Manifesto Growth Architects

Despite this, only 10% of them are currently deploying subscription models. This is most often due to challenges surrounding implementation and managing recurring billing and accounting correctly, as this requires a big operational shift from one-time purchases.

Final Words

As more and more everyday products and services are repackaged as subscription offerings over one-time purchases, this sizeable shift in the economy offers a range of challenges and opportunities to businesses in a range of industries, including retail, SaaS, communications, travel, and more. Recurring revenue helps to diversify revenue streams and offers businesses a lucrative way to build long-term customer relationships, but at the risk of high churn and maintaining a complex billing and accounting system. This is where Stax Bill makes subscription management a breeze with its all-in-one recurring and subscription analytics solution – for a simple monthly fee, you can rest easy that your subscription is running smoothly.


FAQs about Subscription Business Model

Q: What is the impact of the subscription business model on the global economy?

The subscription business model has significantly impacted the global economy. It brings in recurring revenue for companies and has become an integral part of consumer lifestyles, influencing the way we consume media and purchase goods. Additionally, the model is growing rapidly and pressuring traditional providers to adjust their services accordingly.

Q: What are the potential challenges faced by businesses with the subscription model?

While the subscription model offers plenty of opportunities, businesses can face challenges, such as struggling with customer conversions and developing products that people are willing to pay for regularly. Additionally, accurately managing revenue recognition as per regulations is critical; otherwise, companies can face audits and compliance issues.

Q: What sectors are adopting the subscription business model?

Various sectors are implementing the subscription model, including software, e-commerce, media, luxury car manufacturing, and financial services. This model is also making inroads into other industries, disrupting traditional business models and creating opportunities for recurring revenue streams.

Q: How prevalent is the subscription business model among senior business leaders?

A survey of 504 senior business leaders by Manifesto Growth Architect indicates that while many leaders see value in the subscription model, only 24% are currently implementing it, and just 7% are generating significant revenue through this model.

Q: What are some examples of companies that have adopted the subscription model?

Examples of companies adopting the subscription model include Netflix, Spotify, Wanderift, Charles Schwab, Enterprise. Specific industries, such as luxury car manufacturing, has brands like Cadillac leveraging subscriptions.

Q: What are the findings of the International Data Corporation on the subscription business model?

The International Data Corporation identified that while the subscription business model isn’t applicable for all software companies, most will transition to support new cloud service offerings while leveraging existing delivered software.

Q: What is the future of the subscription business model?

The subscription business model is expected to continue growing, given the success it has brought to several businesses across various sectors and its acceptance among consumers. The subscription and billing management market alone is expected to reach $10.5 billion by 2025, indicating a well-sustained growth trajectory.

Q: How prevalent is the subscription model in the media industry?

Following the report by online media trade magazine Digiday, media publishers are increasingly focusing on subscriptions as an alternative to ad-generated revenue. However, converting users into subscribers remains a considerable challenge for them.

Q: What impact has the subscription model had on the TV industry?

Traditional TV subscriptions are declining as more and more consumers switch to video streaming subscription services. Deloitte’s report indicates an average of three video streaming services per subscriber, with 43% of U.S. consumers having both pay TV and streaming subscriptions.

Q: What are some significant statistics about music streaming services?

Music streaming services have seen an increase in adoption, with Spotify announcing it has reached 100 million paid users. According to Deloitte’s survey, the adoption among Gen Z and millennial consumers is even higher, close to 60%.


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Written by:

Serge Frigon
Serge Frigon
Director of Product, Stax Bill

Serge Frigon is Stax Bill’s Director of Product. He is passionate about improving billing processes for SaaS companies. With 20+ years in SaaS and billing software systems, Serge has a first-hand view of how important financial insights can be to the health of a company.