In 1997, after a couple of years of doing consultant work at Berkeley Lab (a government research lab), I became a permanent employee. I remember the year because it was the same year that I officially got married for the first time. Yes, if you know me today, and know my amazing wife Melissa, you may not know that she's my second wife.
I got married in 1997 and was divorced 20 months later.
Until I was 27, I'd had a remarkably blessed and wonderful life and things had mostly gone great. I'd been raised in a home with two parents. I'd finished high school and been immediately accepted into a prestigious program at a great university (Go Bears!), and found work right after graduating.
Even at work, from 1995 until 1997, I had received more raises than I would have dreamed of, and was making (in just two years) what my father had spent almost 15 years to achieve. And then, in 20 months, I demonstrated that I could create the conditions for the biggest failure of my life.
I could tell you the various things my ex-wife did that bothered me, but really, that's not the point. The point is that I learned about the power of incremental regret.
What is incremental regret?
I don't know if anyone has ever used the phrase before, but I've found it to be very powerful and useful (as a concept).
Incremental regret is the tiny bits of regret that we feel over a situation that builds (like layers) on top of each other, until the amount of regret is so large that virtually nothing sensible can be done to mitigate its levels.
In my personal life back then I was often non-attentive and sometimes disrespectful. Not in huge ways. In tiny little ways. But often. And each time I was dismissive or rude, each time I chose work as more important or some other stupidity, she was feeling tiny bits of regret.
But here's the thing, each instance was tiny. So it was never worth a fight – in the moment.
But later, some 20 months later, it had grown to the point that she just walked out. And at that point, there was nothing I could do. (Except learn to be a better person for the next time, if that came around.)
We all love Recurring Revenue (until we don't)
Every person I talk to about membership sites loves to talk about the upside of recurring revenue. And trust me, I know a ton about recurring revenue (and love it). But there's a little gotcha with automated monthly payments that you have to watch out for.
Because what most people do with these membership sites is load them up with content and then start automatically charging – even if it's not a lot of money.
But you can imagine what happens if a person signs up, gets access to some good stuff, and then gets billed the next month, and doesn't see additional material of the same quality. They have a tiny bit of regret.
Not enough to have them leave, but just enough to have an initial “hmmm”.
And then another month of charges – again it might not be much – and the regret may be tiny. So small you're not hearing any feedback at all.
But it's layering on. And building up. And one day, boom – people start leaving in droves.
And your brand takes a hit, but your pocketbook takes a bigger one – and when you try to fix things, guess what? You can't. Because by now, people are talking – all over the web – about your crappy membership site.
And there's no way to get that toothpaste back into the tube.
There's good news!
A little bit of counseling, a lot of reflection, and a few years of growing up, and I was ready to meet Melissa. It had been four years and I was (hopefully) a different man. She tells people she's glad I had the experience because the husband she has is different because of it. And I hope she's right. I don't want to take anything for granted – ever.
And that's the trick for you too!
No matter how easy it is to enjoy the benefits of automated payments, make sure you're not taking those members for granted. Keep giving them incredible service, access to great material, and new content as often as it makes sense. Earn that monthly payment.
Every. Single. Month.
And as you do that, you won't see incremental regret build up.