The Definitive Guide to User Onboarding: Part One

Editor’s Note: This article is Part 1 of a 3-part series that was first published on the Product Led Institute blog here.

This is Part 1 of the ultimate guide to user onboarding. And let me be clear about something:

This is NOT a lame “listicle” with 5 steps to do user onboarding right. Instead, I’m going to share the same tactics and strategies I use to help SaaS companies optimize million-dollar user onboarding funnels.

You’re going to see tested strategies that are working right now. The entire guide will take you well over 80-minutes to read and months to implement.

So if you’re looking to up your user onboarding game this year, you’ll want to bookmark this guide.

Let’s dive right in.

First off, what is the goal of user onboarding?

Although counterintuitive to what many people think, the goal of user onboarding is to NOT help people become better at using your product.

The goal of user onboarding is to help people become better at what your product enables people to do.

For Slack, this is communicating internally.

For Canva, this is creating beautiful graphics seamlessly.

For CrazyEgg, this is understanding how people use your website.

Why is user onboarding a means to an end?

The only thing your user onboarding needs to focus on is helping new users experience what your product enables them to do.

Take Google Adwords, for instance, one of the first things they do in their user onboarding is help you set up your first advertisement. It makes sense, people who sign up for Adwords want to generate more leads for their business. Creating an advertisement brings you one step closer to hitting your lead targets that month.

If Adwords had spent all their time simply walking you through the entire product and showing you all the bells and whistles within the platform, you’d (actually) be worse off.

To be great at user onboarding you need to understand the big context behind why people would even consider using your tool. If you don’t know why people use your product, stop reading and sign up for this free SaaS customer research course.

Let’s say your goal is to generate 1,000 leads for your business this month, you might need to use Adwords, Facebook Ads, SEO, and Remarketing in order to hit your goal.

As such, each of the platforms needs to help your lead target goal. As you can see in the graph below, each of the tools and channels can fit into the big context of lead generation.

Now, back to you, what big context does your product fit into?

Is it lead generation? Is it getting more fit? You tell me!

This may sound straightforward, but many businesses don’t know the big context behind their product. As a result, many businesses unknowingly force unnecessary steps onto users in the onboarding process.

It’s easy to do. If you don’t know the key outcome you want to drive your users to, what’s stopping you from showing users unnecessary features that “might be helpful?”

This happens to the best of us whenever there is confusion around what outcome to guide new users towards. Even non-trivial steps like activation emails can put a significant dent in your free trial to paid conversion rate if you’re not careful.

User Onboarding Mistake One: Activation Emails Kill Your Onboarding Flow

Let me tell you a story, I was having a conversation with Christopher the founder of Snappa who, at that time, required every new signup to activate their email address before logging into the product. This is what the activation email looked like.

Requiring users to activate their email address is common practice for many SaaS businesses. However, what Christopher didn’t realize was that 27% of all his signups never ended up activating their email address.

In fact, these new users simply signed up and never touched foot in the product, ever.

Once we did some simple math, we realized that if we removed the activation step from the beginning of the onboarding flow, we’d be able to generate a 6-figure ARR outcome.

In less than a week, Christopher’s team removed the activation step right at the beginning of the onboarding process and we started to see his MRR grow substantially.

For Snappa, just changing when users were required to activate their email address resulted in a 20% boost in MRR.

For those of us that still require new users to activate their email address before logging into the product, please do me a favor. Check your product analytics and let me know what percentage of new signups never touch foot in your product.

This can be very sobering as you’ll most likely see that 10-30% of your new users never touched foot in your product.

This should come as no surprise. The email activation step is comparable to telling a kid who just waited in line to ride a wooden roller coaster (your product) that he needs to go to the main ticketing booth (his email platform) to re-verify his ticket to make sure things “check out.”

It’s frustrating and that kid is very likely to check out another roller coaster on his way to the ticketing booth. If your wooden roller coaster (product) isn’t the main attraction in the park, you might never see that kid come back. He might just discover that there are more modern roller coasters that don’t require ticket reverification. Gasp!

Now, we’re not kids anymore, but how often do we get distracted when checking our email? We are human after all. If we see a more interesting email when we log in, we’re going to click on it and most likely forget about the activation email.

To fix this problem, all you need to do is require second-time users to confirm their account. That way when people first sign up for the product, they’re able to use it immediately and experience meaningful value. In other cases, I also recommend using a simple banner in your application to remind users to activate their account during their free trial. How you go about this depends entirely on your business. So, please, rethink when you require new users to activate their email.

One thing I hope you’re not thinking is that you should eliminate the email activation step altogether. Verifying emails is still important but you should ask yourself this question, “When is the best time to ask new users to activate their account?”

Next up, if you think onboarding starts in the product, please think again.

User Onboarding Mistake Two: User onboarding does not start in the product

User onboarding starts the second someone interacts with your brand.

As such, acquisition plays one of the most critical parts in user onboarding.

For instance, if your product offers video hosting but people are signing up thinking it’s a video marketing agency, they’re doomed from the start — no wizard or product tour can save that. Period.

Oftentimes, it’s not quite this black and white. One of my coaching clients was the founder of an SEO tool that had next to no users convert into paying customers. From his product data, you could see that new users were using the product once they signed up and experiencing the “aha moment” in the product, but they never upgraded. From the data, it would look like this was an activation problem, but, when we looked at who actually paid for the product we noticed a big clue.

The only people that upgraded were consultants and agencies as they used the product multiple times and got ongoing value out of it.

The problem with the business owner’s targeting was that the majority of users signing up for his product were solo business owners who only wanted to audit their website once, make the changes, and then never use the product again. In hindsight, this seems like an easy problem to fix, but, believe me, when you’re running the business it’s often easy to miss.

One of the big problems with thinking that user onboarding starts as soon as you enter the product is that you need to create an experience that delivers on people’s perceived value of your product.

For instance, if you see a Facebook ad promoting accounting software that takes less than 30 seconds to sign up, we’re going to have a hard time spending 30 minutes setting up our account. In this scenario, you experience a value gap. You thought the product could solve your accounting problems in 30 seconds or less when, in reality, it took you well over 30 minutes to set up.

This brings us to our second point. You need to keep your promise. Or else, a value gap is going to eat your conversions.

User Onboarding Mistake Three: Having a Value Gap

We all have that friend or family member who exaggerates their experiences. After a while of hearing them talk, do you find that it is hard to trust what they have to say?

I can hear your “yes” from a mile away.

The same thing applies when selling your software solution.

What we promise in our copy is the perceived value. What we deliver is the experienced value.

Ideally, the perceived value lines up exactly with the experienced value like in the graph below.

But, this is rarely the case. Most companies struggle with overpromising and under-delivering. That’s one big reason why free trial and freemium models are booming.

People want to see for themselves if an application can do what it promises. If you keep your word, this is a great way to build trust. If not, your users will lose trust in you and your value gap grows bigger.

If you want to identify value gaps in your organization, I’d recommend asking your support team for some pointers.

Oftentimes, support teams are sitting on a treasure trove of common complaints that can tell you how big your value gap is when people sign up.

Even if you have an outstanding product that delivers on its promise, many new users might not be able to experience the product’s value unless you structure a quick win for them in the product.

This quick win is the light at the end of the tunnel that shows people just a glimpse of what the product is capable of. It brings them in. It shows them why your solution is powerful. And, most importantly, it gives them a damn good reason to come back.

User Onboarding Mistake Four: Not Delivering a Meaningful Quick Win in Your Product

Have you ever signed up for a product that had a walk-through like the picture below that went through the entire product?

It might have gone something like this:

      • Hey, Welcome to the product!
      • Here’s a feature
      • Here’s another feature
      • Why look at that, here’s another feature, my friend
      • And it just kept going on and on until you explored every inch of the product

Have you experienced the never-ending walk-through yet? If not, it’s only a matter of time.

Often when companies use tooltips to walk through the entire product experience, it can feel like a real estate agent is showing you around a home that you’re contemplating buying. The agent wants to show you around and point out certain things that you might not have otherwise been aware of. This is extremely helpful so that you can make an informed buying decision about the house.

But when it comes to software, the “real estate agent strategy” can hurt your conversion rate more than it can help.

Your user onboarding should not be like a real estate agent showing you a home you’re about to buy. We are not making the biggest financial investment in our life when we sign up for a free trial or freemium model.

A free trial or freemium model’s whole point is to show you the value of the product fast so that you see if the product is a good fit for you.

A free trial or freemium model should be like a fitting room at a retail store. It should give you a quick sneak peek of what it will be like with the product. Does it fit your needs or not?

The sooner you help people experience a meaningful quick win in the product, the sooner your users will come back to your product and eventually turn into customers.

The problem, however, is that most businesses treat their users like they’re customers and it’s hurting their free to paid conversion rate.

User Onboarding Mistake Five: Onboarding Users like They’re Customers

Ty Magnin said it best when he stated, “The problem is the terms: users and customers often get used interchangeably when in fact they are distinctly different. The situations of the user and customer are entirely different. Their motivations are different. Their abilities are different. When you look at it, they’re on the opposite ends of the scale. Users don’t have the time and patience to consume everything about your product. They’ll cozy up with the first tool that shows them progress and value with ease. But customers need more. Left unsupervised, they will stagnate and churn. You need to keep them moving forward with your product or they’ll start to look elsewhere for their next “aha” moment. Thus, onboarding users like customers, and vice versa, is not a smart thing to do.”

It’s helpful to understand that when someone signs up for a free trial, we need to help them change their current behavior so that they can experience the new and better way of doing things.

For instance, if you’re selling a business intelligence solution like Grow, your users are most likely using spreadsheets or some system they’ve cobbled together themselves to understand their business metrics.

It’s up to you to help them solve their pain points, but, more importantly, leave their old way of doing things behind.

One of the most effective models for helping people transition to a new way of doing things is the BJ Fogg Behavior Model. The best part is there are only three elements to help people experience a new target behavior in your product.

The three elements we can influence in the BJ Fogg Behavior Model below are:

  1. Motivation. The general desire or willingness of someone to do something
  2. Ability. How easy or hard people find it to use your product
  3. Triggers. Tools you can use to prompt a certain behavior

One of the key differences that Ty Magnin pointed out is that the motivation and ability of users and customers could not be more different. Customers, on one hand, are highly motivated to use your product and exploit the full value of the solution. While users just want to see if your product is a good fit for their business.

Customers are often well-versed in your solution and have a high ability to use the product. Whereas, users take time to get up-to-speed and experience the full value of the product.

As you can probably start to see, the motivation and ability of whoever we’re helping place a crucial role in onboarding success.

User Onboarding Mistake Seven: Sending Nagging Emails

When it comes to user onboarding emails, nobody likes receiving nagging emails as they aren’t based on where users are in their customer journey.

Often times, we send nagging emails without thinking twice. For example, say one of our users creates a dashboard in our platform and then the next day receives an email prompting them to set up their first dashboard. What do you think the user is thinking when they read that email?

Since you’re still thinking, I’ll answer this one for you. The user can sniff out your automated emails from a mile away and now thinks that your emails aren’t that helpful.

Nagging emails are devoid of personalization make users hate opening your emails.

OK, that last part may have just been my interpretation of what nagging emails are but I promise you that people really do hate opening these emails.

For Sapenta, here’s a perfect example of a nagging email.

Sapenta doesn’t know I already downloaded the app and yet I’m still receiving this email.

To avoid sending nagging emails, here’s what I recommend doing:

  1. Don’t assume the recipient already knows the product is worth their time
  2. Don’t assume that since someone signed up for a trial, they’re immediately ready to buy
  3. Make each email specific to where the user is in the user journey
  4. Only focus on how the reader will benefit, not you
  5. Don’t be impersonal, cold and solely concerned with making a sale

Top User Onboarding Mistakes Overview

User onboarding is not about helping your users become proficient at using your product.

The goal of user onboarding is to help people become better at what your product enables people to do.

As such, everything we set out to do in our user onboarding should be focused on helping users experience meaningful value in our product.

To recap, please make sure not to make these 6-figure user onboarding mistakes:

  1. Force users to activate their email at the beginning of your onboarding flow.
  2. Treat onboarding like it starts in the product. Onboarding starts the second someone interacts with your brand.
  3. Have a value gap. When a user thinks that the perceived value of the product doesn’t line up with the experienced value of the product, you have a value gap. The bigger the gap, the more users who won’t return to use your product.
  4. Don’t walk your new users through your entire product. Instead, focus on helping them achieve a quick win in your product.
  5. Don’t treat your users as customers. Users have far less motivation when it comes to using your product. They want to quickly explore if the product can work for their business.
  6. Avoid sending nagging emails that are devoid of personalization.

If you avoid these seven user onboarding mistakes, you will be well on your way to improving your activation rate and be ready to implement advanced user onboarding strategies.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss several advanced user onboarding strategies you can implement within your organization. Stay tuned!

Wes Bush
Wes Bush

Wes Bush helps B2B SaaS leaders acquire and convert more users at Traffic Is Currency. If you want to learn who your best customers are and, more importantly, what frustrates them to action, you can steal his free course at
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