On the virtue of simple fulfillment systems

Recently a colleague on the SIPA listserv asked about some of the simple subscription management plugins that work with WordPress. The question took me back to the days when I was first learning how incredibly complicated circulation systems can get, which also reminded me of the early days of iPad.

When Apple first got into the subscription business, I was rather shocked at how badly they misunderstood the publishing industry. Their system for managing subscriptions was very primitive and couldn’t accommodate anything like the complexity that a modern subscription management system should.

The way they structured the business seemed an obvious ploy to replace existing publishers by taking away all their customers. I thought the publishing industry would see through it. Of course they didn’t.

At first I thought all the kids at Apple were being dazzlingly arrogant. Did they, for instance, even know what a snow bird is? I got the distinct impression they thought they didn’t need to learn from all those old dinosaurs, stuck in the habits they inherited from the 1950s. Everything’s different now, they thought, and selling a subscription isn’t any more complicated than selling a toaster. And if it is different, it shouldn’t be.

Ha ha. How I laughed at the cool kids. Now I think they were on to something. Although I think it was luck and not genius.

Modern fulfillment systems have been written to accommodate the quirks and foibles of decades of marketing / circulation professionals, who have been trying different versions of offers and payment plans, tinkering with (“optimizing”) everything they can get their hands on. By now these systems have accumulated so many possible options and policies and different ways to do things … it’s more than a little crazy.

Take a simple example. When a gift subscription is up for renewal, we want to be able to renew the donor with one offer, and if he doesn’t renew we might want to renew the recipient with a different offer, and we want to display different things for both of them on the customer service page. If the donor is a subscribing donor, we might want to attach that renewal to his issue. Sometimes we want to send the renewal premium to the donor, and sometimes we want to send it to the recipient. And if the donor and the recipient both pay ….

All these things require options and switches and policies and rules, and if you get one of them wrong, very weird things can happen. And that’s barely scratching the surface on how complicated it can get.

This all raises an important question. What’s the ROI of complexity?

Imagine two systems.

The first allows you to tweak to your heart’s content. You can do installment billing in Bitcoin if you want to, and there’s infinite flexibility in how and when you send your renewal messages, and what they say. Through careful testing you discover that offering two renewal premiums on effort #4 gives you a 5 percent lift. Hoorah!

The second system has one basic template for bills and renewals, let’s you choose between an annual or a monthly subscription, and … that’s about it. It doesn’t do bi-weeklies (except for the skip week at Christmas), and it doesn’t let you have 14 different prices for the same publication.

With that second system you’re not going to be able to do all the testing and tweaking and “optimizing” you’ve been hearing about at the marketing conferences. On the other hand, you don’t need five people monkeying with the system all the time, and you don’t have embarrassing calamities when one of the 7000 switches is set incorrectly.

Now then. Which system is smarter?

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