If you’ve read any of our previous blogs it will come as no surprise that we’re diving in to take a deeper look at user onboarding. It’s actually difficult to find a blog post where we don’t at least mention onboarding because we believe onboarding is mission critical to SaaS success.

And we’re not the only ones. We asked SaaS leaders and companies known for great user onboarding, “For companies looking to improve user onboarding, what is the #1 tip you wish someone gave you early on?”

Reading the tips, there are some common themes that emerged:

  • Consider your customer. Don’t overwhelm them with everything upfront, and consider how they want to be onboarded (i.e. what is most important to them when they are first getting set up with your product?).
  • Get to the “ah-ha” moment ASAP. Help your new user understand the value of your product (that “ah-ha” moment) as soon as possible. User onboarding expert Samuel Hulick explains how he came to understand this principle early on and why more SaaS companies need to embrace this in their own onboarding.
  • Behavior-based communications. As we discussed in a previous blog on increasing free trial conversions, “gone are the days of sending emails based solely on the number of days they’ve been trial users.” The importance of action-based communications is echoed by industry leaders below.
  • Measure! Metrics are crucial when looking at whether your current user onboarding is successful and in figuring out where it needs improvement. Have you defined your activation metric? One onboarding expert explains below why the activation metric is an integral part of your onboarding success.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to share their user onboarding tips with us. We really appreciate it!

Leo Widrich onboarding tips
Leo Widrich
Co-Founder
Buffer

The #1 thing I learned is not to overwhelm new customers when you onboard them. As entrepreneurs we’re often so excited about the possibilities of our product that we feel like we need to show our customers everything the second they sign up for our product. Instead of doing that, at Buffer we focused on taking a step back and think about what the most successful customers did when they first joined Buffer. And the results were quite striking. It wasn’t to share on social media – which is Buffer’s main focus in terms of helping you with publishing and scheduling. Instead it was to optimize posting times, set timezones, connect all accounts, check if everything is ok and ready to go. Only then did they feel comfortable to share. So we rebuilt our onboarding process to focus on those items first and not push sharing and all other features instead. It made a huge difference in our activation!

Samuel Hulick onboarding tips
Samuel Hulick
Founder
useronboard.com

The #1 tip I wish someone gave me early on was given to me by Kathy Sierra in her 2009 Business of Software talk. The whole notion of winning new signups over by providing real-life value to them as early as possible was a mind-blower then, and, regrettably, continues to be far ahead of the way in which most products approach onboarding to this day. I would love to see more software teams approach onboarding as a way to provide a sample of the real-life value their products offer, rather than as an external experience stapled on long after the “real product” has been completed.

Alexander Aghassipour onboarding tips
Alexander Aghassipour
Chief Product Officer
Zendesk

It’s hard to directly apply tactics but it’s really important to follow the principles. Foremost being: Constantly iterate and measure everything. Most users don’t come back after the first session so it’s critical to ensure you keep investing here to help users find value and have them return.

Billy Kiely InVision onboarding
Billy Kiely
VP of Product
InVision

Follow three steps: Define, Determine, and Pace.

  1. Define and prioritize your goals for what you want the user to accomplish.
  2. Determine if you need to design for multiple user/role types. For example, if you’re building a holiday rental app, only onboard renters with what they need to achieve their goal of finding a place to stay. Create a different onboarding sequence for users looking to advertise their space.
  3. Pace your onboarding and create milestones—it doesn’t all have to happen upfront. Continuing with the holiday rental app example, if a user rents 3 places within a certain period of time, only then message them about advertising their own place.
Paul Boyce user onboarding
Paul Boyce
Co-Founder & CEO
Popcornmetrics.com

Try to get a 1-on-1 call with users ASAP. It makes an enormous difference. We offer a free 1-on-1 personal session to our free trial users because we’ve learned that a personal conversation leads to more successful trials, period. We jump on a call and review their setup, answer questions, we even improve their setup during the session.

Our goal is to to help users get value as quickly as possible – which is as essential today with B2B users as with B2C users. Plus we get a better understanding of user needs, iterate the product, and build trusting relationships with clients.

Right now we’re adding phone/Skype to our signup process and triggering a team alert, so we can proactively call trial users as soon as they have installed our product.

Jackson Noel onboarding tips
Jackson Noel
Co-Founder
Appcues

Early on, I wish someone had told us to plan past the first session. Let’s say you have a SaaS application and know that new users who take actions X, Y, and Z end up being really successful.

It’s tempting to build a linear new user flow that encourages them to take these 3 actions then call it a day. But that’s just not how humans evaluate software – most of them will hardly complete one of the three actions in their first session. So what happens when they come back 5 days later and they have completed Y but not X or Z?

Planning past the first session matches your funnel to your buyer’s decision making process. It means aligning your in-product experiences, email campaigns and sales/customer success outreach to reinforce the user’s success path.

Reigan Combs Asana onboarding
Reigan Combs
Lifecycle Marketing Lead
Asana

New user onboarding starts before someone even enters your product. It’s collective of all the touchpoints that a user experiences— from the first brand impression to the first web visit, to their signup experience, to product setup and tours, to onboarding emails. It’s important that it feels like one, cohesive experience across all of these channels. This builds a user’s confidence in your product, reduces dropoff between stage of onboarding, and creates a positive first impression that will make users want to come back.

Israel Butson onboarding tips
Israel Butson
Head of Onboarding
Timely

It’s easy to fall into the trap of onboarding users the way you want to – how you feel your product should be set up when using it for the first time, where you feel the most value lies, the boxes you want to see ticked. This is a mistake and takes work to correct later. Get into your [potential] customer’s heads early – what are their primary business goals for using your service, and how do those goals translate to the way your app functions? Research, talk to your customers, and make absolutely sure anyone trialing gets to experience those ‘a-ha!’ value moments quickly. You want your customers to be successful – define what that means in relation to your service and get them there quickly. Make sure you’re collecting sufficient data to have complete visibility over their progress toward success, too.

Don’t consider the job done after that first iteration, either. Continue looking at your onboarding flow critically from your customer’s perspective and refine, analyse your data, refine, analyse your data, refine…

Sean Si user onboarding
Sean Si
Founder & CEO
SEO Hacker

The #1 tip I have is to have the least amount of friction as possible. If you have an engine of growth in the onboarding, remove it. If you have a request for social shares in the onboarding, remove it. If you have an email opt-in or a “special offer” in the onboarding, remove it.

Anything not related to the user finally saying “Aha!” about the benefit of your product (which onboarding unlocks) is friction. It’s in the way and it will drag your onboarding down to fail.

*Note: Si is also Founder & CEO of Qeryz, a survey tool for websites.

Kevin Dewalt onboarding tips
Kevin Dewalt
Entrepreneur, Angel Investor, Advisor at
MadKudu

Forget your 30-day trial – onboard and convert based on behavior. Few onboarding decisions cause SaaS founders as much consternation as “what type of trial should I have? 15-day? 30-day? Or should I have a free (freemium) offering?

At MadKudu we had the same question and decided to look for answers in the data. You can read the full results, but here are key observations from our study of 9 SaaS companies:

  • 80% of SaaS conversions happen in the first 40 days. This holds true regardless of whether it is a 15-day trial, 30-day trial, or freemium offering.
  • 50% of all SaaS conversions happen AFTER the trial ends.
  • SaaS companies which rely on the trial and as the primary conversion trigger are missing opportunities.

Bottom line: There is no “best” way to onboard because customers convert at different moments. There isn’t anything magical about a 15-day, 30-day, or 43.7-day trial.

Our onboarding recommendation is to convert customers based on behavior instead of an arbitrary X-day trial. This is easier than it sounds:

  • Offer early conversion incentives for customers who get value sooner.
  • Try to close qualified trial customers up to 6 months after the trial ends. Every company we studied had customers who took that long to convert.
  • Timed trials are great for creating a conversion incentive, but start them once customers get value from your product – don’t rely on a 30-day trial for all of your customers.
Rich Weborg user onboarding
Rich Weborg
CEO
OneReach

One of the most important things you can do when a customer signs up is provide immediate value. While it might take a while to fully onboard a client, it is possible to allow them to succeed with the software quickly. This can be in the form of a minor feature that is easy or fun to use like generating a report, creating an invoice or sending a text message. If the customer is successfully using some part of the software within the first few minutes of the onboarding process, they will be more likely to spend the time needed to learn the full solution. For some products, this will be in the form of a setup wizard or a walk through tutorial. What is most important is not the ultimate value of the specific feature but the ability for the customer to feel successful and establish some confidence that they can use the tool.

user onboarding andrew capland
Andrew Capland
Growth Team Lead
Wistia

I wish someone had told me to clearly define our activation metric and get serious about tracking the inputs to that metric ASAP. Many teams avoid this because it seems hard (and time-consuming) to define – which is a huge mistake. The clearer that definition is, the easier it will be to prioritize projects to increase it. Before we begin any new onboarding project we ask “how does this project increase our activation metric?” and “will this project increase our activation metric more than this other project?”. Clearly defining your activation metric will provide huge dividends to your users and your company.

improve user onboarding
David Schneider
Co-Founder
Ninja Outreach

Think about what it would mean to fully activate your software – what steps must the user complete? For example, we have 5 steps (run a search, create a list, create a template, integrate your email, send an email). If you do all those 5, then you’re more or less onboarded.

Now, target your emails based on where the user is regarding these activation steps, regardless of what day of the trial it might be. It’s much more targeted that way. The result is that you will have different possible emails that can go out on Day 5, for example, depending on what the user has and has not done.

Thank you, again, to everyone who shared their user onboarding tips with us (and you, our readers)!

What about you? What has your company done to improve your SaaS onboarding? What is the #1 tip you would give to other SaaS companies looking to improve their user onboarding? We look forward to your feedback in the comments below.