Most of us are perfectly aware that subscribing to a service is much easier than canceling the subscription. That’s because companies use hidden marketing tricks to influence us.
These tactics are usually called dark pattern practices that, according to the US Federal Trade Commission, trick or manipulate users into making a particular decision. In this case, users are being pushed into deciding not to cancel.
According to Deloitte, the average company spends around 58% of its marketing budget on digital activities, which will include ways of manipulating a user into not canceling a subscription.
Researchers at EmailTooltester, a web tool review company, have now analyzed the marketing and design practices of 40 of the most popular online subscription services to see precisely how they use hidden tricks to influence their customers when canceling.
It turns out that the average subscriber encounters 6.2 dark patterns when trying to cancel a service. This takes an average of 6.7 clicks or taps to get from the homepage to cancellation.
The gaming platform Humble Choice is the worst, with the most (12) instances of dark patterns. However, delivery services like Amazon Prime are, on average, the worst for dark patterns, with an average of 7.3 per cancellation.
Users aren’t blind to this – they’re annoyed. The survey showed that 76% of US adults believe that online subscription services make it intentionally difficult for users to cancel, with 92% agreeing that they’d be more likely to switch to a competitor brand as a result.
In response to this consumer frustration, the FTC has called for easier ‘Click to Cancel’ options in March, and in October, it said it was sending nearly $100 million in refunds to consumers who lost money as a result of internet phone service provider Vonage imposing junk fees and creating obstacles to those who try to cancel their service.
And, in June 2023, the FTC filed an official complaint against Amazon for enrolling customers without their consent and sabotaging cancellation attempts with dark patterns.
“A user looking to cancel a subscription service in America now has to jump through seven hoops while being manipulated by 6.7 dark patterns each time. It’s no wonder that the FTC is clamping down on these marketing practices and handing out large fines,” said Robert Brandl, the chief executive of EmailTooltester.
What do consumers actually want? It’s simple. 38.9% of survey respondents said they would prefer one button in their account labeled “Cancel” to stop their subscription, with the next most popular option to cancel being one email to customer service (19.1%).
The most popular dark pattern employed is guilt copy, designed to make users feel guilty for unsubscribing to a service.
An example would be IDrive, a technology company that specializes in data backup applications, which states that “data not backed up could anytime transform to data lost,” creating guilt that you could be about to destroy valuable information.
But firms also use dirtier tactics – for instance, by placing the “Continue” button next to the “Cancel one” and encouraging users through design to click “Cancel” instead of continuing the cancellation process.
Services can additionally place “Rejoin” buttons immediately after cancellation and employ so-called confirmshaming when users are shamed by highlighting how they’re harming themselves by leaving.
On the other hand, some practices can actually be useful to users – for instance, services might offer lower prices or longer periods of special-offer pricing.
However, it’s not really beneficial if you’re trying to close down the account of a recently lost loved one. A large majority, 91% of survey participants, said that a company had made it difficult to close a deceased person’s subscription account.
“When asked if the company charged for the period of time since the individual died, only 12% said the company refunded or did not charge. Overall, this paints a picture of lost cash and struggling cancellations in a period already difficult for people,” said EmailTooltester.
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