The Little-Known “Dark Patterns” That Are Making You Pay More for Subscriptions

Subscription services have become a popular and convenient way for consumers to enjoy ongoing access to their favourite products and services. But it’s no secret that some subscription services employ tactics to encourage customers to enter into contracts that are then hard to cancel.

NetVoucherCodes is passionate about helping consumers save money, so it decided to find out exactly how companies and subscription services use these tactics.

To do this, they built a seed list of 87 of the most popular subscription services, breaking them down into categories such as streaming services and broadband providers. They defined a subscription service as when ‘customers are charged a recurring fee for access to a product’. Then, they analysed the sign-up and cancellation process for each company and noted down the number of times they used dark patterns and how.

1. Hidden subscription

A hidden subscription is a dark pattern where consumers are unknowingly enrolling themselves in a recurring subscription. An example of this is Now Broadband, which automatically adds two free trials to a customer’s basket without asking the customer for confirmation first. This may see the customer agree and sign up to two contracts that they didn’t realise they’d opted into and then struggle to cancel, or worse, not realise they’re signed up at all.

2. Pre-selected marketing emails

When a company pre-ticks the marketing email box, this is tricking customers into signing up for promotional content that they might not need or want. The tactic employs the default effect of cognitive bias, which is a psychological phenomenon in which people will often automatically go with the option that was chosen for them, even if other choices are available. Users have to first be aware that the box has been pre-ticked in order to untick it, which many people might miss. Companies should always leave this as a choice for customers.

3. Illusion of choice

An illusion of choice is when a company provides you with a number of subscription options, some of which are priced exactly the same for better services. Now, Broadband offers three different product tiers for customers; however, they clearly try to upsell the more expensive option by highlighting it as the “most popular” and listing it first to influence customers. They also offer three options, with two being exactly the same price, although one is clearly a better option, giving the illusion of choice.

4. Fake scarcity

Fake scarcity refers to when a company pressures consumers into taking action because of a fake time limit. An example of this is when a subscription service offers a limited-time deal with a countdown to encourage consumers to sign up as soon as possible, potentially before they’re ready. Often, this countdown will just restart when it gets to the end, meaning customers have been pressured into signing up even when the deal is always available. This is particularly prevalent in the meal delivery and gym industries.

5. Hard to cancel

One of the easiest ways to make sure a customer is signed up for a service longer than they intend to is to make the process of cancelling as hard as possible. Often, signing up for a subscription can be an easy task, while upon unsubscribing, you have to jump through multiple hoops. There are many tactics companies use to stop you from cancelling. These include making sure that you have to go through multiple screens to cancel, making you call or talk to a member of staff and showing you their benefits before getting to the cancellation section.

6. Nagging

Nagging is the practice of saying that when a user tries to do something, they’re often interrupted with requests to do something else that might not be in their best interest. Every time a user is met with a new request, this wastes their time and attention, potentially encouraging them to just say yes to whatever the company is asking. Here is an example by 3 Mobile, who hit users with multiple pop-ups at once, providing them with offers, asking if they needed help choosing a plan and encouraging them to get in touch with a member of their team.

7. Hidden costs

A hidden fee is when a customer puts in time and effort into choosing their product or subscription and then, at the end of the process, is met with unexpected charges that were not originally advertised. As users have already invested time by this point, they’re more likely to continue with the purchase, even if they’re unhappy with the additional cost. An example of this is when a broadband provider will advertise a recurring monthly cost and then include a cost for equipment or the set-up fee at the end.

Rebecca Bebbington, a money-saving expert at NetVoucherCodes, has curated some top tips to help consumers save money on their subscriptions. She says: “While subscription services tend to use tactics to encourage consumers to spend more or lure them into longer contracts, there are ways you can save money.

“To avoid charges after a free trial, set reminders to review and potentially cancel the service. Remember, not all subscriptions remind you to cancel. Some services let you enjoy the full trial even if you cancel right away, so consider cancelling immediately after signing up to avoid forgetting later.

If you’re thinking about switching providers because the costs are too high, you can use this as an opportunity to negotiate a discount. Sometimes being transparent about your intention to cancel with the company can lead to them offering you a better price to keep you as a customer.

“Using a single account like Apple for all subscriptions can help you keep track of your subscriptions and make cancellations easier. This can give you better control over your spending.”