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By Florence Robson
e are living in an age of subscription-based companies. Led by household names such as Hello Fresh and Birchbox, subscription brands have grown more than 300% over the past seven years, with British consumers spending £323 million on digital and physical subscription services in 2020 alone. Enthusiasm shows no sign of slowing – but once you’ve honed your offer, built your platform, and launched your business, how do you find and grow your audience?
Whether you have a product brand, an OnlyFans, or a blog, here are a few tips on how to get your first subscribers from the founders of some of your favourite brands.
Get clear on your purpose
“Start by asking yourself what problem you’re trying to solve,” says Katie Vanneck-Smith, Co-founder and Publisher at Tortoise Media. “What’s your purpose in people’s lives? The strategies for how to get your first customers should stem from that.”
At Tortoise, the founders wrote a manifesto stating what they were trying to achieve.
“Even before we had a product, people were happy to sign up because they bought into our vision,” says Vanneck-Smith.
Poppy Jamie, the founder of the mental wellbeing app Happy Not Perfect, agrees: “In 2018, it was a relatively open market for mental health apps. Because of the purpose-driven mission of our company, we had far more people sharing than we might otherwise have done.”
It can be tempting to skip straight to more tangible marketing tactics – but it is worth putting in the groundwork first. Tiwalola Ogunlesi, life coach and founder of women’s coaching app Confident & Killing It, spent a year posting inspirational videos on social media before launching her business.
“It’s really important to build a reputation for yourself so that people know who you are, what you stand for and the value you bring,” she says. “If I had announced that I was open for coaching clients without first proving what I was capable of, no one would have signed up.”
Get to know your target audience
Whether by launching surveys or delving into your data, the better you know who you are trying to reach, the more likely that they will discover you and stay loyal. When developing the health and wellness tracking app Moody, Amy Thomson was determined to build value for her customers.
“The best examples of subscription brands are those that evolve with their users and continue to offer something new,” she says.
For that, the smart use of data is vital.
“The future of subscriptions – particularly in the digital content space – is providing meaningful value personalised to you as a user, using your data,” she adds.
Qualitative research also has an important role to play. Before launching sexual self-care app Ferly, co-founder Billie Quinlan and her team sent out a survey to a wide range of core audience groups for their input – including Facebook communities, women’s groups, sex-positive communities, sexual trauma/survivor communities, and women’s fitness groups – using their responses to shape the product.
Use your networks
Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth. Encouraging friends and family to spread the word is one of the quickest ways to reach new people.
“Our first subscribers came from friends, and friends of friends”, says Megan Felton, co-founder of skincare consultancy Lion/ne. “We found that beauty is something that tends to be shared peer to peer.”
Le’Nise Brothers, nutritionist and coach at Eat Move Love, discovered that the health and wellbeing industry is also well suited to word of mouth.
“I don’t want women to feel as though they need a biology degree to understand their bodies,” she says. “In practice, this means taking complicated subjects and breaking them down. When my content is relatable, it gets shared – that’s been the main way my community has grown to where it is today.”
It can be scary to ask your contacts to promote your brand – but bold moves can have big pay-offs, as Valentina Milanova, founder of period-care brand Daye, discovered.
“When Sharmadean Reid [founder of The Stack] shared a post about our products, we got over 300 new subscribers,” she recalls.
Seek out your audience
If you want to move beyond your personal circle, you might have to step out from behind the screen and meet people IRL. Emilie Bellet, founder of financial education platform Vestpod, overcame her fear of public speaking to host investing workshops, while the Ferly team organised live events on taboo topics with sexual wellness influencers.
Tobi Oredein, CEO and founder of the Black women’s lifestyle community Black Ballad, launched the platform with daily street-style beauty campaigns.
“We used to go to Oxford Street and take pictures of Black women and interview them about the products they were using,” she says. “Then we would take their email addresses to build up our lists and encourage them to follow us on social media to see and share their pics. It really helped us to spread the word beyond our own networks.”
Rachael Twumasi-Corson, co-founding Managing Director at haircare brand Afrocenchix, took a similarly direct approach.
“We took our MVP oils to events like a community fair in Neasden, in north-west London, and signed people up to our mailing list on a piece of paper. We also stood outside the Afro Hair & Beauty show with clipboards to collect email addresses.”
Form meaningful partnerships
“Partnerships have been really important to us”, says Jamie. “We partnered with brands like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bumble, and they were amazing for raising the word about the app.”
Once you have gained some momentum via family, friends, and your wider network, partnerships with like-minded brands are a powerful way to tap into new audiences. These partnerships could take a number of forms, from in-store pop-ups to co-created content.
Want to build up your subscriber list quickly? Incentivised referrals could be the way to go.
“We launched Daye with giveaways to build up excitement, then introduced a referral programme to keep up momentum,” says Milanova. “Every time someone referred us to a friend, both they and the new customer would get £5 off.”
Time-sensitive offers are another powerful way of incentivising rapid sign-ups. Tortoise Media announced that anyone who subscribed in their first year would be a founding member, with exclusive merchandise, event invitations, and networking opportunities. They had more than 2,000 sign-ups before the platform even launched.
Consider crowdfunding platforms
Want to avoid the traditional investor route? Crowdfunding can be a powerful way to raise funds and gain subscribers at the same time.
“We did a crowdfunding campaign to transition Black Ballad from a free-access blog to a membership platform,” explains Oredein. “By pre-selling memberships in this way, we were able to translate a large chunk of our existing audience into paid subscribers in six weeks.”
Tortoise Media used Kickstarter to fund the development and launch of their platform – getting the word out about the brand in the process.
“What’s great about crowdfunding platforms is that they share your project with their own community, who tend to be people who are willing to back things they believe in.”
Whatever combination of strategies works best for you and your brand, be willing to move quickly, take risks and always keep your ultimate goal in mind.
To get subscribers to sign up to your new brand, you need to know who they are and incentivise them, while always keeping sight of your overall vision and goal.
By Florence Robson