Are Subscriptions The Ultimate Evil? A Response To Brian S. Hall

Are Subscriptions The Ultimate Evil? A Response To Brian S. Hall








Gabe Weisert

Content Marketing Manager


Tech Journalist Brian S. Hall recently published a screed in Techpinions against subscriptions in general and Zuora in particular called “The Subscription Economy Is Sending Me To The Poorhouse.” The gist of his argument is that subscriptions are greedy corporate scams intended to suck as much money as possible from hapless consumers, and that Zuora is an innovationless enabler of these scams. We encourage you to read the entire piece, but here are a few highlights of his argument:


  • “Instead of making my life easier, making it so I never ever have to worry about running out of milk or daily vitamins, the subscription economy has become just another needless pressing burden.”


  • “Canceling that subscription, which was supposed to benefit you, is made just hard enough, just time consuming enough to make it not worth your effort. You remain locked in. A dollar here, a dollar there, pretty soon it all adds up.”


  • “I imagine the great minds of Silicon Valley will not stop at having my refrigerator text me that I am low on eggs. Rather, Big Tech will team up with Big Grocer and place me on a weekly egg subscription — one that is impossible to cancel but which no doubt promises 10 cents off, per egg, should I buy two boxes of Cheerios every month for the next year.”


And on a final ominous note:


  • “If we fail to take action soon, we could find ourselves trapped in a web of subscriptions from which there is no escape.”


He then makes a solemn vow to, wherever he can, “cancel all his subscriptions, permanently.” 


This is going to take some work, because as Mr. Hall readily admits, he is a particularly avid subscriber. In addition to standards like the New York Times, Pandora and Netflix, he has subscriptions for craft coffee, razor blades, multi-vitamins, MLB At Bat, NHL Center Ice, Oyster (a digital book subscription service), Evernote, and anchovy oil for his dogs. 


He concludes his piece with a swipe at Zuora, noting that he is “not even remotely impressed by the computational complexity and Big Data algorithms crafted by those leading the subscription charge.”


Then he compares us to the 1969 moon landing, with the implication being that the moon landing was impressive, and we are not. 


We’re not going to try to take on the Apollo space program, but in the spirit of healthy debate we’d like to offer up a few points:


  • We agree with Mr. Hall that companies that willfully obfuscate, offer poor customer service and make it difficult to opt out are lame. Hopefully the market will dispense of them accordingly. Witness the Columbia House CD Club. 


  • But even when you’re dealing with a lame company that makes you call them to drop a subscription, is the time-savings cost of one annoying phone call greater than the time-savings cost of having to go out and buy the newspaper every morning? Or driving to Costco every week to buy razors & toilet paper & multi-vitamins? Is this the very definition of a first world problem?


  • Do you remember when people bought $25 dollar DVDs to watch them once? MGM does. Do you remember when it cost $400 and a stack of paperwork to rent a car for an afternoon? Avis does. Or when big companies had to buy and install massive multi-million dollar databases in order to close their accounts? Oracle certainly does. How long do you think having to pay for 500 channels when you only want seven is going to last? Subscriptions don’t have to mean obnoxious bundles and upsells, they can also give rise to smarter customer options that people actually want.


  • If you want to own something, take care of it, and grow from that experience, go for it. Buying and fixing up an old car can be a really rewarding experience. But if you just need a drive, why buy the car? Let someone else take care of those assets. A lot of our clients got their start during the depths of 2008, when the entire country experienced a profound and traumatic consumer shift towards paying for only what you need (or “pay as you go,” which we are happy to report is a very popular subscription model). 


  • We spend a lot of time explaining to companies that by switching to a subscription model, they will receive less money up-front, take on more risk of customer flight, and will probably have to make some more investments in their customer service.  And we tell them that this is a good thing. This admittedly sounds crazy at first. Why do we do this? Because if their products don’t suck, and if they’re cool with people on a regular basis, then eventually they will do well, and their customers will save money and time.


  • And finally, to quote Neil Armstrong: “I believe every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine.” 


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