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6 Ideas to Reduce Your Product’s Churn Rate We Found to Work

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 2.04.54 PMAt Buffer we recently spent the past 6 weeks focusing on one key metric – reducing churn rate.  Comparing to the initial setting up of the growth effort with lots of experimentation and exploratory data analysis, it was a conscious shift to align the team’s focus on one key metric.

Here are 6 ideas for those of you who run subscription-based businesses.  Churn rate can be broadly defined as the proportion of users who leave the service.  For a freemium, subscription-based business, we focus churn as users who downgraded from any paid plan to free.

1) Understand what makes them churn (qualitative)

The first step is to open up a dialog with the users when they leave.  We send emails (some even suggest calling up canceling clients, depending on team resources) and inserted a survey for users when they deletes their Buffer accounts.  We gain a tremendous amount of insight and perspective from even a simple email.  For us, it boils down to two main categories.

  • Usage / need : Given many of our paying users are consultants / managers of social media, their usage can differ in business cycles and/or client contracts.
  • Feature requests : Some of them are driven to other products because certain features were missing.  In our case, it was a nice affirmation to hear repeated requests for Google+ and LinkedIn Pages integration.

2) Inform with data (quantitative)

To further understand the behavior of the full upgrade-usage-downgrade cycle, we asked the following questions:

  • How soon do users upgrade after signing up?
  • How is user activity related to cancelation?
  • How soon do users downgrade after upgrade?

This can be powerful to find out leading indicators to churn.  For our case however, over 33% of these churned users were active still at the same day of cancel.  That was counter-intuitive for me as I had thought account activity to be somewhat indicative to eventual downgrades.  In any case, I recommend running these regularly to check for changes in patterns.  Never know what the data can tell you!

3) Prevent Involuntary cancelations

When users were emailed for feedback when they cancel, more than a handful of them responded “I did not cancel my account, is there something wrong?”.  We learned that some downgrades are actually involuntary – as the credit card expires and the user is not aware.  This is possible especially in big companies when the account might be paid by the finance/accounting department while used by the social media manager.  In addition, a good experiment will be to add in an in-app dunning notification.  Often times, the email address that a user connects with may not be the same one for the actual user of the app.  Tools like Intercom can be useful for such.

4) Moving from monthly to annual payment

Special credit to Patrick Mackenzie (@patio11), his blog post Rainy Day Ideas for Your Business inspired this experiment (highly recommend anyone who’s interested in conversion and growing software businesses to subscribe to his email newsletter for all the goodies).  This is where the user metrics that we implemented earlier shines through.  By segmenting out the most active users who have paid monthly for a couple of months, we sent out an email to remind them of an existing offer to upgrade to annual with 15% off.  While the per month revenue lowers, the overall effect is positive with a lower churn rate in general for annual payments rather than monthly.

5) Improving retention

At the end of the day, managing churn is another way of retaining users.  To measure retention, we used cohort analysis to gauge activity based on each cohort who signs up in a given period of time and then based on paid users based on upgrade dates.

We started to visualize the awesome users’ activity on a cohort analysis – ~60% of our paying users who signed up since Jan 2012 are still active.
We keep this metric on monitoring mode for now.  A third party tool that I really like visualizing and improving retention is RetentionGrid – while it’s an app on Shopify for now, I can see their visualization useful for many software businesses too.

6) Providing incentive for users to stay on paid during off-cycles

Another thing to explore in the future is providing incentive for staying on paid plan even when usage of the product drops intermittently.  This is partly inspired by a portion of users canceling because of a quieter business season.  That brings to a full circle from step 1 (gathering insights) to generating experiments ideas.

In all, churn is a broad topic that touches upon many facets of the product.  In focusing on it for an extended period of time allows for much more discussion and discoveries.  What are some of the experiments you tried / came across in reducing churn?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

  • Josh

    This is a very interesting analysis, made all the better with good examples from Buffer.

    It made me think of Jason Cohen’s discussion of how he measures CaC:

    You’ve probably already read it, but it may be helpful to other folks reading this article.

    Thank you for this article!

  • Great piece of advice!

  • Raf Weverbergh

    Thanks for sharing these insights. A question I have regarding payments, since you mention the case where users are not the ones who pay the bill.

    As far as I can see as a paying Buffer customer, almost all your payments are with credit cards. Is that correct? I’m interested to hear about how many of your users report to you that this is making it hard for them to work with Buffer. I’m launching a cheap enterprise/agency Saas soon, and early feedback from customers is that they would have a great deal of trouble paying with a credit card – mostly because there is no “corporate” credit card and they would have to front the payments themselves.

    • A bank transfer option for annually prepaid plans can work well. Higher reach and improved cash flow, combined.

      • Raf Weverbergh

        Thank you, Lasse. I will definitely try to work this into the product at a later stage.

        • Came by this again by coincidence. We are in the same boat and will add direct debit as a payment option to negate the unwillingness and/or lacking ability to pay via credit card. I recently bumped into one of the founders of Their solution seems perfect for us (currently works in all euro countries). Definitely worth checking out!

  • Brian

    Thank you for sharing. Are there additional thoughts on #6 wrt retaining useres to stay on paid during off-cycles? I’m interested to hear about what others have done that work and didn’t work

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