Onboarding is the process of turning new sign-ups into “active” users by helping them learn how to use a product and get maximum value from it or better yet, solve their problems / pain points.

It enhances the customer experience by educating users, which ups the odds that a user will become a long-term customer. This is so important – especially in 2018 – because it’s easier than ever to acquire customers (or in other words, for your competitors to take yours away). If you want to succeed, it’s retention, not acquisition, that should be your main focus.

Those who are new to the SaaS game (or other user-led platforms, like social media sites) may get excited by new sign-ups, but when 40-60% of software users use a product just one time, that excitement is clearly premature.

Here’s why that’s a problem.

Acquiring a new customer costs money. This isn’t such a big deal for, say, an e-commerce store. If the cost-per-acquisition is exceeded by the profit margin on the product purchased, you’re golden. While it’s a bonus if that customer returns and buys from you again, you’re still in the green if they don’t.

It’s a little more complicated if you offer software-as-a-service.

There’s a grace period between getting a new customer, and that customer becoming profitable. If the profit you’re making from recurring customers is exceeded by the cost of acquiring new customers, you’re in trouble.

This is why onboarding is the most important growth lever for SaaS businesses (or any company that depends on customers signing up and sticking around). You need to get them to your site. You need to get them to convert. And then you need to keep them coming back.

Let’s talk about this in a little more detail…

Onboarding sets the tone for each customer’s life with your product and brand. An initial positive experience significantly increases the odds that a customer will remain with you long enough to become profitable. Customers who have a positive experience early on are also likely to be more forgiving should they run into problems with your product in the future.

Conversely, if a customer’s initial experience with your product leaves them feeling confused, annoyed, or disorientated, you’ve got a problem.

The fact is, it doesn’t take long for a potential customer to make up their mind about your product. This means it’s essential that their first interactions with it are positive, or, more specifically, simple and productive.

A customer is generally excited when they first sign up for a new product or service, especially if it’s promising big things. Unfortunately this excitement quickly fades when they realize they actually have to work to use that product.

I know this from onboarding users at Mailshake. Mailshake’s a simple solution for streamlining the process of sending cold emails, and it’s really easy to get an account set up and ready to go, but once that’s done, users still have work to do – they still have to write and send emails.

To help, we offer templates they can use.

But new users need to know that these templates are available, and they have to understand how to get the most out of them. Making our product as easy to use as possible is an essential part of our onboarding process.

In other words, we’re helping our customers overcome their initial pain points so they’re able to get more out of the product, making them more likely to stick around. This doesn’t cover the onboarding process in its entirety, but it does tackle the biggest friction point.

Why New Users Don’t Stick Around

Obviously, I can’t speak for every user since each case is unique. However, a user typically leaves before learning how to use a product – and gaining any benefit from it – for one of two reasons:

  1. Their circumstances have changed – generally, they don’t need the product anymore, or they’ve realized they can’t afford it.
  2. Their initial experience lacked value. This might mean that they couldn’t figure out how to use the product, didn’t understand how to get the most out of it, or it wasn’t immediately obvious how the product fit their needs.

Needless to say, there’s not much you can do if a user leaves because they’ve had a change in circumstances, so we only need to worry about users that fall into the second camp.

Here’s how to create an onboarding process to target that group…

Establish where your turning point is

Every product has a turning point. Once that point is reached, the odds that a customer will stick around dramatically increase. You need to figure out what that is, and use it to inform your onboarding process.

Let’s say there are 5 steps a new user needs to complete as part of your onboarding process. If they get past step 2, they’re likely to get to step 5, but if they quit after step 1, they aren’t likely to get to step 2. Getting them past the hump – the turning point – is the first part of onboarding.

Create an “aha” moment

The “aha” moment tends to come before a user has gotten any real value from your product. Instead, this is the moment at which a user realizes the potential value of your product.

Take this example from Buffer:

Image Credit

Before a user has even signed up, Buffer boasts about its USP. It’s smarter than the average social media scheduling tool because it shares your content at the “best possible times throughout the day.” This is a potential trigger for an “aha” moment. The customer has not “achieved” anything yet, but they’re more aware of the product’s potential.

Figure out your customers’ definition of success

Odds are your customers don’t share the same definition of success as you do. You might, for example, think a customer is “onboarded” if they upgrade their free trial or it lapses into a paid account.

But that isn’t their idea of success – it’s yours.

If you don’t think you know what your customers’ definition of success is (and realistically, you probably don’t), ask them.

Help new users get a quick win

It’s critical that a new user gets a sense of achievement as early into their relationship with your brand as possible.

This doesn’t need to be a significant achievement. It isn’t the same as getting the customer fully onboarded; it just needs to be easy to attain.

Take Twitter. The platform forces new users to follow others as part of the sign-up process.

This is essential to the Twitter experience, so the act of following people serves as a quick (and easy) win. It ensures new users get something out of the platform immediately.

Putting this into the context of a SaaS product (or similar), a quick win might mean taking a customer’s data and automating a report that details how that customer could immediately make a positive change to their business.

Alternatively, it could be something like this:

As part of its onboarding process, Basecamp presents new users with checklists. Every time a user ticks something off that list they get a sense of achievement and a quick win.

Again, this shouldn’t be confused with getting a customer fully “onboarded,” but it is an important step in the process.

Manage expectations

Let’s say you have a product that’s quite advanced, and you know it takes awhile for the majority of new users to fully get their heads around how to use it.

What do you do?

You might be tempted to underplay the work involved in getting a handle on the product.

Don’t do this.

If they think they’re going to be pro users of your product in 5 minutes, and an hour later they’ve only mastered the basics, they’re going to give up.

Set realistic expectations and be honest with prospective users about the learning curve. If the product’s worth it (and you make a point of pushing its value), lengthy setup times shouldn’t be an issue. It can take a couple of months to fully understand how to use Salesforce, but it hasn’t held the product back, because it’s worth the effort.

Walk users through the sign-up process (and beyond)

If you’re leaving new users to figure things out on their own, you’ve got a problem – however simple you might believe your product to be.

Instead, you should be holding users’ hands throughout the sign-up process (and, where appropriate, beyond that).

Take Twitter again. Anyone with even a little technical know-how can probably figure out how to use it, but Twitter still guides new users through each step (getting them that quick win along the way).

It’s foolproof, and your sign-up process should be, too.

Create resources (that again, are foolproof)

While there’s much (much) more to successful onboarding than providing resources, ensuring the information is there for users who are looking for it is essential. When doing this, make sure you’re:

  • Breaking your product down into sections and creating resources for each one. Don’t confuse users by combining guides for separate features.
  • Offering resources in different formats, i.e. text, images, and video.
  • Using simple, jargon-free language that pretty much anyone can understand. Aim to write at an 8th-grade level or below (you can check this using the Hemingway App).
  • Making the resources really easy to find. Put a link to your resources page in your main menu and ensure new users are directed to it at every appropriate opportunity.

Leverage email

Use email sequences to tempt users back to the site, offer them tips, and point them to appropriate guides (based on their behavior so far). You should also encourage them to contact you with questions.

Here’s a good example from Evernote. New sign-ups receive a series of emails that highlight features and offer “tips” to help them learn as much as possible about how the product can benefit them.

Talk to your customers

I’ve left this point til last, but that’s not to say it’s any less important than the others. If anything, being available to your customers when they need you is the most important element of effective onboarding. This is because very few customers want to know how to help themselves – they want to know how you can help them.

If that sounds like a lot of effort, so be it. It’s well worth your time.

“No startup has ever died because they spent too much time talking to customers.” Patrick McKenzie, writing for Customer.io

Ideally, you’ll want to be available to your customers via a variety of different channels, such as:

By no means do you have to use all of these, although I’d recommend that at a minimum you’re available by email, phone, and live chat. If you’re a startup, it probably goes without saying that you can’t be available 24/7. That’s okay. Just be sure to make it clear when you are available (and which time zone you’re in).

Do you have any other tips for creating an effective onboarding process? Comments are below if you can spare a second to share your ideas:

Image credit: Pixabay

  1. Hi Sujan,
    A well-narrated post.
    Onboarding experience should be a user-friendly one to bring back the users again and again. In some cases, it is too complicated and the users just leave the platform.
    The Twitter experience shared in the post is really worth notable. You twice pointed out its user-friendly use.
    Thanks for sharing this informative piece.
    Keep sharing
    Best Regards.
    ~ Philip

  2. Really useful article Sujan , thank you . Its given me a lot to think about. This is an area that we have not focused as much attention as we should.
    Once customers “get” how powerful our system is then they love it but we lose too many along the way. Instead of spending more money on acquiring customers we should be ensuring that our existing ones become loyal users.
    Interesting comment about using WhatsApp, never thought of it. One thing that we have done that is useful is creating a Facebook Group for our users so they can ask questions and share tips with each other

  3. Hey Sujan, I also like an automated personalized email to first-time signups so it seems they have a connection with someone immediately at the company. Nice post!

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