When we as consumers interact with businesses online, you can be sure that its marketers will throw every trick in the book to try and convert a sale. But what tactics will companies use to keep a customer once they’ve made that sale?
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.
Sometimes these practices can verge on illegality. In 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) dished out a record $245m fine for video game developer, Epic Games, as part of a wider settlement over “dark patterns” — manipulative marketing practices designed to trick Fortnite players into unwanted purchases. The FTC also filed a lawsuit against Amazon for implementing similar tactics on its website.
But just how widespread are these practices today? To find out, we have analyzed the marketing practices of 40 major online subscription services to see whether they use hidden tricks to influence their customers when canceling. To investigate the topic further, we have also surveyed 1,035 U.S. adults to find out their opinions on dark pattern practices.
- The average subscriber would encounter 6.2 dark patterns when trying to cancel a service, and this would take an average of 6.7 clicks/taps to get from the homepage to cancellation.
- The gaming platform, Humble Choice, had the most (12) instances of dark patterns when users tried to cancel their subscriptions.
- Delivery services like Amazon Prime were on average the worst for dark patterns when canceling, with an average of 7.3 patterns per cancellation, closely followed by gaming subscriptions (6.8 patterns per cancellation).
- 76% of U.S. 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.
- Of the major subscription services analyzed, 87.5% are most guilty of ‘guilt copy’, where the content is written in a way to shame their customers for leaving, while 77.5% are intentionally using confusing design elements to stop subscribers from canceling.
For the purposes of this research, we define a dark pattern as practices that aim to deliberately misdirect or confuse users when trying to cancel a subscription to a product or service. These could involve things like manipulative copywriting, deliberately confusing web or app design, or other tactics that aim to misdirect and push users away from ending their subscriptions.
During this study, we reviewed various research pieces and reports on “dark patterns”. This allowed us to include a variety of different manipulative practices across the subscription cancelation process.
Definitions came from the likes of the Federal Trade Commission, Princeton University, and e-commerce platform, Shopify.
For our report, we reviewed the number of times one of these dark patterns was present when a user tried to cancel their subscription in five key industries.
On top of this, we surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. adults who regularly use subscription services about dark patterns, and whether a business’s attempts to influence their behavior would have the desired effect.
In total, more than three-quarters (76%) of people believe that subscription services make it difficult for users to cancel, and 92% agree that they would be more likely to use a competitor service if they feel the business is manipulating them into retaining their custom.
To make matters worse, 89% of people admitted that these practices would make them trust the provider less, preferring instead to have the final say themselves.
It’s clear that dark patterns impact trust and encourage users to leave via competitors. With the FTC commissioning reports investigating the rise of dark patterns we wanted to know which specific patterns were the most common when people tried to unsubscribe from various services.
The most common dark pattern we found was guilt-inducing copywriting, with 87.5% of the major brands we looked at deliberately writing text (referred to as copy/copywriting) on their websites to make the user feel shame in canceling their subscription. Examples include “we’re sorry to see you go” and “are you sure you want to lose these benefits” are worked into the user experience to guilt-trip customers into retention.
The below table reveals how often we found various dark patterns in our research when trying to unsubscribe from different services.
|Dark patterns||What is this?||% of services that feature this|
|Guilt copy||Copywriting designed to make users feel guilty for canceling the service.||87.5%|
|Continue button placed next to cancel||A type of visual misdirection, encouraging users through design to click cancel instead of continue cancelation.||77.5%|
|Rejoin email (or buttons)||The service places a large emphasis on rejoin buttons immediately after cancelation and in follow-up email remarketing.||57.5%|
|Confirmshaming||Copywriting that shames users by highlighting how they are harming themselves by leaving this service.||55.0%|
|Obstruction||The user is faced with designed barriers, making it hard for them to cancel the service.||52.5%|
|FOMO||Using scarcity to highlight what features users will miss out on if they unsubscribe.||47.5%|
|Forced reasoning||Forcing users to give a reason for canceling, further inducing guilt.||45.0%|
|Nagging||The service will offer alternatives, like lower tiers of subscription, or offering to fix the problem instead of canceling.||42.5%|
|Misdirection||Using design to steer users away from canceling.||42.5%|
|Disguised Ads||Ads that are disguised as other kinds of content or navigation, in order to get you to click on them.||37.5%|
|Preselection||The user is presented with a default option that has already been selected for them, such as not canceling and keeping the subscription.||25.0%|
|Trick wording||The user is misled into not canceling, due to confusing language.||22.5%|
|Rejoin discounts||Giving users discounts for rejoining to get them back after canceling.||20.0%|
|Roach Motel||When subscribing is easy but canceling is difficult, typically requiring a call to cancel, while some may accept emails.||17.5%|
|Visual interference||The user expects to see information presented in a clear and predictable way on the page, but it is hidden, obscured or disguised.||12.5%|
|Fake scarcity||This could include a service highlighting how the price may not be the same if you return, or how you will lose access to content even though you have days left until your subscription ends.||10.0%|
|Trick questions||Confusing language (such as a double negative) is used in questions. As a result, it becomes much harder to act.||10.0%|
|Butler lies||This could involve copywriting that says how “Your files are not protected” when there is no way they can know that, which almost sounds threatening to the user.||7.5%|
|Opt-out defaults||Defaulting users into choices not aligned with their goal, such as having to opt out of a smaller subscription instead of canceling.||2.5%|
Marketers and advertisers have been harnessing the power of guilt as an emotion for decades, from charities to cosmetics. However, services like Amazon and Netflix have contributed to a culture of ‘subscription guilt’, where users are made to feel shame for not properly utilizing all a platform’s service has to offer.
In our survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, 30% noted the prevalence of persuasive wording to try and force their retention. It should be noted that, for those who aren’t marketers, this is unlikely to be something that is noticed in day-to-day web browsing and purchasing so the figure is likely much higher, like the 87.5% of instances we found.
We found guilt-inducing copy in Paramount+’s cancellation process which states they were “sad to see you go”, or Qobuz who are “always sad to see our members leave” or EA who asks “is this really game over?” This could leave a lasting impression on a user as they leave, making them feel like they are going to be genuinely missed. If a person said they were sad to see you go in real life it may have some form of emotional impact.
Similar to guilt-inducing copy, confirmshaming sees companies ask if users are “really” sure they want to cancel, reminding them that if they do so, they will lose benefits. This typically occurs during the cancelation process as a way to convince users to stay. Sometimes it can be as simple as Amazon Prime writing, “By canceling, you will no longer be eligible for your unclaimed Prime exclusive offers” highlighting the offers lost.
Others, like Walmart+, state during cancelation, a subscriber can “Save up to 90 hours” which is, according to them, “Time back you can use however you want”. They could have taken this further to be a textbook definition of confirmshaming by changing the cancel button to read “I don’t want to save 90 hours of time”. However, highlighting this supposed time saving during the cancelation is still one way to divert users’ attention away from their true goal of leaving and shame them into willingly, in this case, losing 90 hours of their time.
We asked our consumer survey panel how guilt-inducing copywriting and confirmshaming make them feel by providing examples from our research. Over two-fifths (41.2%) said text like this annoyed them, and the second biggest proportion (21.1%) said it didn’t bother them.
Over one in six (17.5%) said it made them angry, 16.3% said it amused them, while 15.2% said they felt attacked by the brand.
Interestingly, only 14.4% said copywriting like this actually made them feel guilty, perhaps indicating this practice isn’t worth a brand’s time.
Our survey respondents also highlighted that they had noticed deliberate website and app designs that make it hard to cancel (43%). When analyzing the services, we see this quite often with 77.5% intentionally misdirecting through the design of cancelation and continue buttons, 57.5% making rejoin buttons prominent on the page or in email marketing, and 52.5% doing other obstructive design choices.
The ‘Rejoin’ button from Humble is in blue encouraging an immediate re-sign-up once cancelation has happened, which matches the blue ‘Cancel’ button from a step before which could mislead some
Other common dark patterns we found were: FOMO, highlighting what users are missing out on when they leave, (47.5%), forced reasoning where people are forced to provide a reason for leaving, further inducing guilt (45%), nagging (42.5%) where services offer alternatives to cancelation like lower tiers of the same subscription, and misdirection (42.5%) where design steers users away from the cancel area or button on the website/app.
One other important dark pattern we observed, but only 17.5% of the time, was the ‘Roach Motel’ pattern where companies require people to contact them directly outside of the account settings to unsubscribe. This tactic often involves being made to call sales teams to cancel who will do their very best to talk individuals out of leaving. Fortunately, it’s not too common a practice, however, more than one in six services forcing this route of cancelation may be considered too many for some.
Our research shows that of the five biggest sectors for subscriptions in the US, delivery services use these dark patterns most frequently.
|Industry||Average dark patterns per subscription platform|
We identified an average of 7.3 dark patterns per platform, more than gaming (6.8) and cloud storage (6.4) services. Of the delivery sector’s major players, Amazon Prime gave users the hardest time when canceling a subscription, with no less than 11 dark patterns on display.
Our report echoes similar findings from the FTC in June 2023, when they filed an official complaint against Amazon for enrolling customers without their consent and ‘sabotaging’ cancelation attempts with dark patterns.
While Amazon Prime and its gaming and video counterparts are among the most prolific when it comes to dark patterns, gaming platform Humble and its Choice service rely more on dark patterns during their cancelation process, with no less than 12 examples found in our research.
Humble set itself apart from its competitors as an ethical alternative in the gaming subscription space, with 5% of a user’s monthly fee supporting charities. While Humble has raised more than $240m to date for good causes, there is no hiding from the hurdles their customers must jump through to cancel their subscriptions.
Cloud-based storage provider Dropbox also features in the top five, with 11 dark patterns in use in its cancelation process.
|Platforms||Industry||Dark patterns discovered when canceling|
|Amazon Prime (Shopping)||Delivery||11|
|Amazon Prime (Gaming)||Gaming||11|
|Amazon Prime (Video)||Streaming||11|
|Microsoft OneDrive||Cloud storage||9|
|XBOX Game Pass Ultimate||Gaming||9|
As part of our research, we also looked into how many clicks it took to unsubscribe from each platform. On average it takes around 7 steps (clicks/taps) to get from the homepage to then successfully cancel a subscription. When you factor in the number of platforms using copywriting tricks and web/app design features to make it challenging, those 7 steps could involve a hurdle at every click.
In our research, the cloud storage solution MEGA, had the most clicks (11) to unsubscribe, followed by Google Drive and Humble Choice at 10 each.
When we look at what consumers actually want, 38.9% of our 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%). Another 19% would prefer to speak to someone on a phone call, a further 14.5% would prefer live chat, and the minority (8.4%) said they would engage well with video calls to customer service.
The most popular option of one button in their account, would require at most 3 clicks, from the homepage clicking the account then clicking cancel and confirming, which is in contrast to the 7 steps on average.
|Category||Subscription||Clicks to unsubscribe|
|Cloud storage||Google Drive||10|
|Gaming||Google Play pass||9|
|Gaming||xBox Game Pass ultimate||8|
Among the countless emotional and difficult processes for loved ones after the death of someone close to them, canceling their online subscriptions should be painless. However, the responses to our survey are surprising, and show that an overwhelming majority of customers have faced challenges in closing a deceased relative’s account and dark patterns will play a part in this.
We asked whether people felt a company had made it difficult to cancel a loved one's account after they had passed, and 91% of participants agreed. To make matters worse, 88% of respondents answered ‘yes’ to the question “Did the company take any money or charge for the period of time since the person passed away until it was canceled?”.
Almost two in three (65%) continued to pay for subscriptions for three months after a loved one passed away.
Our survey also found that almost two-thirds of respondents (65%) continued to pay for services for three months or more after a loved one’s death. With consumers spending a reported average of $219 on monthly subscriptions, leaving these running could become very expensive for grieving families.
While major brands have established processes to drive revenue and retention for their subscription platforms, profiteering from paid accounts of the deceased could be seen as poor form by many customers.
Dark patterns research methodology
USA Today found that gaming, cloud storage, retail delivery services, TV/movie streaming, and music were the most popular subscription services in the U.S. We then built a list from these five categories of the most popular services and manually analyzed each when unsubscribing, looking for dark patterns. Subscription services were chosen based on reports online for the ‘best’ subscription services for Americans in each category.
- Connectbit – Most used cloud storage by user numbers
- Statista – Biggest streaming platforms
- Business of Apps – Most used music streaming services
- CNET – Best gaming subscription services
- IRI Subscription Services – Top retail subscription services among US consumers
The list of dark patterns our researchers used was created from various pieces of research into the topic online, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Princeton University, ecommerce vendor Shopify, and the Deceptive Patterns (formerly Dark Patterns) organization.
New accounts were created for each of the subscriptions and services were used for a number of weeks before unsubscribing.
We surveyed 1,035 American adults who have used subscription services in the last 12 months, asking them questions about dark patterns and the process of canceling subscriptions.
Our respondents identified as:
- Female 41.35%
- Male 57.78%
- Non-binary 0.68%
- Other/Chose not to identify 0.2%
- 18-24 3.00%
- 25-34 53.43%
- 35-44 25.99%
- 45-54 10.72%
- 55-64 4.25%
- 65 and over 2.61%
This article has been written and researched following our EmailTooltester methodology.Our Methodology