This weekend, my family watched Hamilton on Disney+. We weren’t the only ones. I’m guessing a lot of the 54 million (as of May) subscribers were also singing along as part of a “shelter at home” Fourth of July holiday.

Like many others, we subscribed last week, specifically to watch the musical. To be specific, we upgraded from our Hulu-with-ads subscription (which I got initially so my kids could watch The Handmaids Tale…but then we got hooked on some other shows) to the Hulu/Disney+/ESPN+ bundle.

Disney is most certainly seeing a spike in subscribers this week, but will it last?

Will this cohort of subscribers who joined to watch Hamilton be less likely to stay engaged and more likely to cancel? Probably.

Onboarding: The Key to Retention

One of the most overlooked elements of subscription business models is the onboarding flow. Often, even as someone is signing up, they’re making a note of the “cancel by” date.

Many organizations focus a lot on the ‘headline’ benefit that will drive acquisition. In this case, that headliner is Hamilton. And by all counts, it’s driving lots of people to sign up. But from the moment you attract a new subscriber, you need to be helping them establish the habits that will make them stay. To do that, you need to ensure they’re getting the value they’re paying for.

A good onboarding path is focused on doing three things.

First, get them enjoying that headline benefit as quickly as possible. There is nothing as annoying as a long signup flow when you’re just trying to get to the content.

Second, reinforce the wisdom of their decision. Clearly demonstrate all the value they’re getting and how the new subscribers is on their way to achieving the goal or solving the problem that made them sign up in the first place. In our case, that Forever Promise for us might be “content that we can enjoy as a family” or even “making memories as a family”.

Third, help them expand this single experience into a habit that will continue to help the new subscriber achieve that goal or solve that problem on an ongoing basis. By looking at the first seconds, minutes, days of behavior among “best subscribers” and comparing their experience with that of people who ended up canceling in month one, you might get some tips about how to design that habit forming experience.

In this case, they need to get me (or my kids!) to go to Disney+ first when we want video content, and to stay there once we’re there. How do they do this? Well, because there are so many streaming services, these onboarding tactics are pretty well established:

  1. Make sure that the new subscriber is getting the best possible experience. Help them get the content on the big screen (and not just on the phone or laptop screen).
  2. Surface content that they’re likely to enjoy, particularly in additional categories–if they only watch musicals, they’re going to run out quickly, or get bored.
  3. Make it easy for them to earmark “to be watched” content
  4. Expand offerings to family members. If the kids want it, it will be harder for mom to cancel it! And today’s kids are tomorrow’s subscribers, so it pays to establish habits with them now.
  5. Remind them when new content is available, both within and outside the app on an ongoing basis.
  6. Be on the lookout for “failure to launch.” If a new subscriber isn’t adopting the habits, implement early interventions. Don’t wait until the person actually clicks on the cancel button to get them on the right track.

Disney’s Approach to Onboarding

The question is whether Disney can skillfully onboard new members by helping them “get the value they’re paying for.” Many people who have joined, consider the first month’s subscription as the “fee” for Hamilton. So the company will have to be really proactive to win them over in the long term. It’s going to be harder than engaging someone who subscribed out of a love for Princess Movies or Star Wars or one of the other franchises.

I don’t know if they have a system to get new subscribers onto their smart TVs because we did that on our own, immediately.

They did do a nice job of showing us some of the most enticing options in their catalog immediately. In our case, we binged 5 episodes of “Phineas & Ferb” before tucking into the main event.

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But I have to say, suggesting that we watch The Sound of Music (2 hours and 55 minutes) after 2 hours and 4 minutes of Hamilton didn’t seem like the best recommendation for building engagement or habits. We do love the vonTrapps, but we own the movie already, as it’s an old title. And to recommend another really long musical right after Hamilton…I can’t imagine there would be a lot of takers. Even Lin-Manuel was surprised at this choice, tweeting, “lol wtf did my dad grab the remote at Disney headquarters”.

Meanwhile, I’m kind of surprised that we haven’t received any emails suggesting what we watch next, or notifying us of important features that will optimize our enjoyment. After all, I’ve been a subscriber now for two days, and I’m still in that “new subscriber glow” where I might be receptive to ads and encouragement. Enthusiasm has a half life, and the longer they wait to fully onboard me, the more likely it is that I get distracted and stop reading their newsletters.

So Will We Cancel?

In spite of my deep involvement in the world of recurring revenue, or maybe because of it, I tend to keep a lot of subscription services longer than initially planned.

I told my kids we would probably cancel after we watched. However, even as I said this, I knew that probably wasn’t the case. After all, we’re still paying for our Hulu subscription over a year later. The kids are already discovering all kinds of old favorites to watch as we continue to social distance.

And ultimately, Disney is all about the forever promise of family connection, and I’m a sucker for anything that brings us all together.