Pros and Cons of Yearly vs. Monthly Billing

SAAS companies love annual billing!

But how do monthly subscriptions compare to annual subscriptions?

Let the data speak for itself. Among the Forbes Cloud 100 with public pricing, 68% offer annual plans with a prepay. To get the commitment and cash, they typically discount their product by 20-30%.

To be fair, at first glance the logic is quite sound. In return for predictable revenue upfront, I will give you a discount. 

This seems like an ideal arrangement for you and for the customer. If customers pay upfront for one, two, or even three years, retention rates will improve, CAC payback will improve, and cash flow will increase, right?

Unfortunately, as with most things, as we look under the hood this logic is deeply flawed. 

Monthly Billing Frequency Wins In The Long Run

Unless a refund or early termination occurs, you are likely to retain an annual customer for at least one year. You can count on this. However, do  subscription based businesses with an  annual bill plan have better retention than those with monthly plans? 

The simple answer is no.

When it comes to gross dollar retention (GDR), there is not much difference regardless of how long the contract is (or how much it is). The median GDR of companies with all of their revenue on monthly/quarterly contracts is 90%, while the median GDR of companies with all of their revenue on annual or multi-year contracts is 85%. Overall, companies that use monthly contracts retain their revenue better than those that use annual contracts. 

The case for annual contracts is flawed even if gross dollar retention is equal-because of the 20-30% discount, you need to see a big jump in retention to justify the discount.

Monthly contracts also win on CAC payback

It is also possible to recoup most or all of the costs of acquiring that customer by pushing them to annual plans. As a result, if you make your CAC payback for 12 months, you can be certain you won't lose money on that customer.

Again, companies with all of their customers on monthly contracts exhibit better metrics than those with annual contracts. And the metrics certainly don’t improve as you move across the spectrum. 

There are better metrics among my annual plan customers!

Customers on an annual plan are likely to exhibit better metrics than customers on a monthly plan, if you already offer them. It's not that annual plans are good for retaining customers, but rather that your more loyal customers will opt for those plans, stay on your software for longer, and ultimately do better. Meanwhile, customers who are less confident in your product will choose monthly plans and likely churn more quickly. By thinking that annual plans will improve your metrics, you may be led down the wrong path by this self-selecting bias.

Benefits and Cons of Monthly Billing

Benefits and Cons of Annual Billing

Should We Stop Selling Using The Annual Subscription Model?

It has always been and will always be cash that reigns supreme. Moreover, rising Days of Sales Outstanding (DSOs) can be a nightmare that brings your business to a halt. If you’re not sold on this annual payment fallacy, you may want to at least consider reducing your discount or deemphasizing it in your go-to market strategy. Here are a few things to consider before you launch quarterly incentives for annual pre-pay contracts. 

1. You may be elongating your sales process

Working to have your sales team execute an annual commitment can lead to increasing levels of scrutiny and procurement involvement. Particularly in situations where you don’t have a robust free trial or freemium motion, this can lead to hesitation for buyers and allow time for fear, uncertainty, and doubt to creep in. 

Pro tip: Let customers into your product and allow them to get to value before you start asking for an annual commitment. Not only will this allow you to decrease the threshold required to get this commitment (e.g. going from a 20% discount to a 5-10% discount), it also may increase the size of the overall contract as they discover new use cases.

2. You may be undervaluing your product

It is common for larger customers to prefer annual plans because they simplify budgeting and invoicing. However, these customers may also be willing to pay more for your product.

Offering an annual discount to customers who are seeing the greatest value in your product is a surefire way to lose money. Those who would purchase annual plans at a discount are also more willing to pay. 

You should evaluate your discounting structure for annual plans to ensure you're not over discounting. In recent surveys, it was found that diminishing returns exist above 10% (for example, 30% of customers would accept a 10% discount, and only 33% of customers would accept a 20% discount). In order to get an annual plan, you can lower your discount or use other levers.

If you rely on contracts for 1-3 years, you may create the wrong habits

Providing value to customers is a must for companies with monthly plans. You have probably seen a support ticket or feature request from a big customer get escalated to your leadership team because "this customer is up for renewal in three months." Inherently, building the right habits around retaining customers in the long run is a result of creating the right habits of always providing value to customers across R&D and customer-facing teams. 

A pro tip: Build your customer-facing teams to focus on customer value consistently, not just in the three to six months before renewal. Churn issues don't go away in the last three months of a contract. It is possible to ensure that contract structures don't prevent you from building the right retention motion by linking OKRs and/or employee compensation to product usage metrics.

Subscription Billing is Easy Until it Isn't

In the beginning, a subscription business is easy, relatively speaking.

You offer one or a small number of products at a specific price and cadence.

For example, a monthly bacon subscription for $50.

But what happens when you want to do promotions?

Let’s say that you want to offer a discounted monthly price, or reduced prices for different periods of time (e.g. three, six or 12 months).

What happens if a customer wants to cancel or pause their subscription, or you want to sell large amounts (e.g. five pounds a bacon per order)?

Billing becomes more complex and complicated.

As important, your accounting or billing platform can struggle to perform and support marketing and sales activities.

For companies with successful subscription businesses, growth is a blessing and a curse, although it’s better than the alternative.

At some point in time, the needs of your business outstrip your billing platform’s ability to perform.

Key features and functionality are missed or not as good as required.

Then, what?

Pick a better platform, right?

The problem is there are a huge number of options serving different types of customers.

The challenge is selecting one that meets your strategic and tactical goals. Ideally, it’s a platform that meets your needs today and tomorrow.

To provide insight into how to pick the right platform, we hosted a free Webinar on Dec. 2 at noon EST.

It featured an expert panel (Paul ChambersDarryl Hicks and Adam Levinter) who offered guidance on the key considerations and, as important, answered questions around:
- Plan management
- Dashboards and analytics
- Integrations
- Alternative payment toolsWatch the Webinar replay