What SaaS Companies Can Learn from Gym Membership Pricing

Kyle-Poyar by

Recently sign up for a gym membership as part of a lofty new year’s resolution? Me too. Well, just a little more than a month into 2017, I’ve already failed in my attempt to work out a few days each week. That said, I was wholly willing (and even excited) to sign up for a new gym membership despite past failed attempts to get my money’s worth from the local Boston Sports Club. And (thankfully) it’s not just me. An article published last year by the New York Times reports that every January many Americans sign up for the gym but hardly visit in the months following.

The article goes on to cite supporting research from economists Stefano DellaVigna and Ulrike Malmendier who studied usage patterns at three Boston gyms. The economists found that on average new members paid over $70 per month for their membership, but used the gym only 4.3 times over the course of each month (which amounts to $17 per use). They concluded that most customers would have been better off paying per use, which on average costs only $10 per visit. Doing so would have saved these consumers $600. Despite this simple math, we continue to pay a flat rate (rather than per visit) for a service we may or may not ultimately end up using.

And this paradox isn’t specific to gym memberships; I see it time and again in subscription businesses. Notable examples include the Uber Plus program, an Amazon Prime-like subscription offering unlimited UberPool rides in select cities; Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, which is essentially an iPhone subscription; and graze, a subscription snacking service.

Whether or not consumers get their money’s worth from these unlimited services remains to be seen. But the fact of the matter stands that we gain some sort of intrinsic value from an unlimited membership. That’s primarily because a flat monthly or yearly rate:

  1. Removes barriers to usage: We do use something more when we have a flat rate compared to when we pay by the use. For instance, in 1996 AOL replaced its metered dial-up pricing where you paid by the hour with a simple flat rate. AOL found that the amount of time their customers spent online nearly tripled as customers got used to the internet being “always on”. Part of why we pay extra, then, is to motivate ourselves to start going to the gym more than we currently do.
  1. Overestimation: While we do end up using a flat rate more than pay-per-use, we start with inflated expectations and don’t ultimately use it as much as we think we will. DellaVigna and Malmendier, for instance, found that gym goers anticipated that they would work out an average of 9.5 times per month, but only went 4.3 times. (But, hey, 4.3 times is a whole lot better than 0 trips to the gym!).
  1. Insurance: With a flat rate, we have peace of mind that our budget won’t skyrocket during months of high usage. This is doubly critical in the Enterprise space where Finance and Procurement start getting involved in a purchase decision.
  1. Taxi-meter effect: We actively feel discomfort when we have to link each and every use to an increased price and then mentally justify whether it was worth it.
  1. Convenience: We just don’t want to be bothered with paying each and every time.
  1. Community: Paying for a membership makes us feel part of a group or community (we belong to our gym), whether or not we use it as much as we want to. The Guardian has smartly embraced this benefit with their Guardian Members program, which is a subscription service for their readers to support their journalism, attend live events and get invited to behind-the-scenes functions.

SaaS businesses can apply these same insights to deliver a better customer experience while also increasing revenue. Here are three ways how.

  1. Introduce unlimited (Enterprise) plans for high usage customers: At a certain point, a large Enterprise customer doesn’t want to have to worry about tracking their usage and have their monthly bill fluctuate up and down. Many buyers would prefer to lock in a flat rate unlimited plan, even if it comes at a premium to the price that they would pay given their typical usage. You can use these flat rate plans either as a fence to upsell customers to a higher tier package, a tool to charge more to customers whose usage has flat-lined, or as an incentive to get customers to commit to longer-term contracts. SurveyMonkey, as an example, smartly uses unlimited usage as a means of fencing between their Basic (100 responses), Select (1,000 responses) and Gold (unlimited responses) packages.
  1. Test a three-part tariff: As Tomasz Tunguz points out, a three-part tariff balances some of the benefits of linear, usage-based pricing without the drawback of stunting usage. Rather than charging for each unit of usage, in a three-part tariff you would have a base platform fee (which includes a set amount of usage) plus a separate fee for additional usage. HubSpot smartly employs this structure in their pricing with a fixed monthly fee and an additional usage fee for more marketing contacts. Their three packages include different pre-set amounts of usage (100 contacts; 1,000 contacts; 10,000 contacts) as well as different overage fees ($100/mo., $50/mo., and $10/mo. per 1k extra contacts) as a way to steer customers into the best-fit package.
  1. Sell overage protection: Many developer tools, such as Logz.io in the log analytics space, incorporate daily usage volume into their pricing structures. However, for some customers, usage will fluctuate significantly from day to day or from month to month, which could lead to pesky overages. To solve that customer problem, Logz.io offers overage protection as a feature in their paid plans.

For companies still charging by use, I hope you’ll think about creative ways to introduce membership and flat rates into your offerings. These models could not only help you make more money, but might actually make your customers happier. What’s not to like about that?

Get tips to grow your business

Delivered once a week right to your inbox.
  • Email
  • Dale Underwood

    Another great article Kyle, thanks.

    A fourth (of many I’m sure) possibility is to employ a per usage with monthly maximum. It gives the customer both upside and downside protection. If they consume too little to reach the maximum, they feel good that they are on a “pay-per-usage” basis but if they have a blow-out month, they know what their cap will be. We adopted this based on Google advertising of Per-Lead and Monthly-Maximum combinations.


    • Kyle Poyar

      Great point, @disqus_MFwyre6Muv:disqus! Funny that you mention it. That model was just brought up on a buyer interview I had on behalf of one of our portfolio companies. It nicely balances the customer benefit of only paying when they use the product with the peace of mind of flat rate pricing.

  • A downside of offering unlimited it is instantly caps the value of a client. Seems like you can negotiate pricing guarantees for the enterprise clients instead of just giving away the farm?

    • Kyle Poyar

      @joshdance:disqus – Totally fair point. Going too wild with unlimited can backfire down the road, as expansion opportunity dries up. That said, it’s still useful in certain situations – e.g. when you’ve had a client for a few years and their usage is flat-lining.

    • Dale Underwood

      Good point. You definitely don’t want to give away the farm…but you don’t want to be sitting on the porch shuckin’ corn by yourself either! By dangling future unlimited usage you can usually 1) charge more for the usage along the way and, 2) (most importantly) drive consumption because they will want to reach that unlimited level.

      To your point, it is important to negotiate that tipping point as high as possible (if you can) to reduce leaving money on the table; but we must also realize that every budget has a limit.

  • You can’t argue with success. For example Salesforce per user pricing is proposed through different license types, each with different set of features and price tag, and it seems to be working for them. The question then, is on the consumer side: what licenses to renew each year? Have I used all the features I’ve paid for? What I should have paid if I’d optimized my usage with expenditures. I wonder how true pay as you go model would have worked if the initial charge would be as high as membership pricing, but at the end of the year you’d receive refund for the time the service was not used.

    • Patrick Fields

      You can monitor SaaS usage from user side using solutions like Binadox, then see for yourself if the price you pay for a subscription is justified.