Customer Success

The Power of Intentional Onboarding for Product-Led Companies

June 3, 2019

The vast majority of SaaS companies are missing out an important growth opportunity.

Recent research found that one of the things the top 10% of SaaS companies have in common with each other is a retention rate that’s 20% higher than the median. More to the point, the typical drop off that led to a decrease in the competition’s retention happened within the first week of use. It’s not hard to connect the dots and figure out that onboarding plays a central role in influencing short- and long-term retention rate.

The critical misstep many SaaS companies make is failing to be intentional about their onboarding experience. Done right, the onboarding experience is a gold mine of opportunity. Done wrong, it can sink your customer relationship before it’s even gotten off the ground. In the same way that it’s easier to retain or upsell an existing customer than it is to land a new one, it’s easier to get a new user to develop a new habit than it is to reengage a lapsed user who failed to develop the habit in the first place. Nailing your onboarding experience is crucial to getting users on the right path right from the start.

My company, Appcues, works with product managers, growth marketers, and customer success teams at bottom-up, product-led companies to help them iterate more quickly and effectively on their onboarding UX. We enable folks to create a superior customer experience that’s personalized to each and every user. This helps them drive adoption, retention and overall customer satisfaction.

And really good UX isn’t just something we do for our clients; it’s something we think about all the time for our own company. Experience has shown us that even a moderate level of effort can deliver huge returns, and a strategic effort can shift a business’ growth substantially. More than just a way to get your customers started with your product, onboarding is a powerful tool that helps you deliver value, provide support, and improve ease of use, all of which results in happier customers, improved activation, increased retention, and higher profitability.

The Onboarding Opportunity: Get Intentional

With its ability to deliver all those game-changing benefits, a well-structured and customer-centric onboarding UX should be high priority; but the sad truth is that most products have no intention behind their onboarding experience. In far too many cases, the product just drops the user into a dashboard with all zeros and no instruction about what to do next. This is the biggest low-hanging fruit I see—to just put some focused thought into how your onboarding can improve the customer experience.

The next-biggest opportunity is to think about the onboarding experience for invited users—what we call ‘the nth user problem.’ Ten out of ten companies that we talk to at Appcues never consider what happens when someone is added to an existing account. In a lot of cases, there’s no onboarding at all, and even when there is some level of invitee onboarding, it lacks the depth of what initial users see. Invited users are rarely driven to webinars, connected with their CSM, or alerted to features that they might like. If a company does think to bring some of this content to invited users, it’s usually via email or a blog post and hardly ever embedded into the product.

As you can see, there is a ton of opportunity to do better.

The problem is that the traditional approach to iterating on your onboarding experience is not built for speed or ease. Frankly, it’s an outdated process that involves getting changes added to the backlog and working with engineering to implement even the tiniest optimization. It eats up a lot of time and makes it almost impossible for product teams to respond to user needs in a timely manner.

We built Appcues to help solve that problem by creating an entirely new, fast, simple, code-free process that allows anyone—product managers, growth teams, marketing staff—to iterate on the user experience. We have a couple of goals for our customers—speed and personalization. Accelerating improvements to customer UX helps companies achieve a much more competitive time to value. Shifting from a one-size-fits-all to a personalized UX with contextual experiences based on who the user is and how they have engaged with a product can make a major difference in engagement and, ultimately, retention.

Easy Ways to Get Started with Intentional Onboarding

If you’re just getting started with a more intentional approach to onboarding, it’s important to know that there’s no universal onboarding solution that will fit every type of product. There are, however, a few things that can be adapted to pretty much any company.

To start, just welcome new users to your product. Not only does this humanize their experience, it helps them remember how they got where they are and why they signed up in the first place. In most cases, they probably came from a marketing website that touts the product’s benefits. They’ve gone through however many steps there are in the signup process, and then they land in the product. Take a moment to say hi, thank them for being there, and close the loop on the conversation you started in the marketing materials. If they clicked through from a landing page about a specific feature, use that information to get them started with that feature. A big part of onboarding’s role is to help people orient themselves within your product so that you can help them build momentum toward getting the value that you promised. Make sure you take every opportunity to guide them.

At Appcues, we use a variety of other tools and techniques to address the cold start issue that exists in any product, and many of these tactics can be adapted for other kinds of products as well. For example:

      • Tool Tip Tour with Video: As soon as someone signs up for Appcues, they get a welcome module that asked if they’d like a walk-through of the product. If they say yes, the product takes them through a “tool tip tour” that teaches them about our editing experience. This presentation ends with a video from one of our product managers who talks about the context the user is about to enter, and from there the user can jump right into building their initial experience.
      • Experience Templates: We also have some templates built into the welcome experience. These templates will actually try to pull in data from the user’s site—logo, metadata about the company, etc.—in order to do some initial customization of the template. This potentially allows the user to just hit publish and they’re off and running.
      • Chrome Preview Extension: We have also implemented a Chrome extension that allows a user to preview—without installing anything—an Appcues module as if they were an end user. This means that someone can see what the product will look like on their site before ever talking with a salesperson or inserting a credit card or involving the in-house dev team. It’s a great way to help remove friction from the process.

The Bigger Picture: Value, Support, and Ease of Use

Onboarding is one element in a broader strategy that focuses on delivering tangible value, providing appropriate support, and always improving ease of use.

Value: Bring It or Go Home.

Our mission at Appcues is to help teams create products that their users love. Everything we do—both in our product and outside of it—is in service to that mission. In addition to working hard to create our own excellent UX, we provide a lot of education through our User Onboarding Academy and our website ReallyGoodUX. This educational content helps us teach people—customers and non-customers—about how to do onboarding really, really well. This valuable content empowers our customers to think about onboarding in a better way.

Another way we provide value is through our full-featured usage-based trial model. Like a lot of startups, we initially tried a limited-time trial. We gave people fourteen days to check out our freemium, but soon figured out that fourteen days wasn’t enough time for people to experience the value Appcues could deliver. Instead, because our price point is relatively low, people would hit the end of the trial period and just buy the product, with the intention of testing it out later. Unfortunately, a lot of people apparently got distracted, didn’t circle back to fully test out the product, and churned. By switching up to a usage-based trial (which included having 100 flows seen by end users), we ensure that a) prospects are going to put this into production, and b) they will get the chance to see the real value in the real world.

Support: Sales Is Not a Dirty Word.

Onboarding is clearly an important support tool that helps your customers get started with your product and—over time—deepen their engagement by adding features or users, etc. Support, however, comes in a variety of shapes and sizes—even for a product-led self-serve company like ours.

Take sales. Internally, we have a lot of debate about the role of sales in our product-led organization. While it’s pretty typical for product-led folks to view sales as—best case—a crutch and—worst case—something that reflects negatively on the product, we’ve always tried to keep an open mind. We’ve found that customers who talk with a salesperson consistently close at a higher rate compared to customers who are left to their own devices. If you can hone in on the economics of these two scenarios, you can create a very effective strategy that combines self-serve and sales-enabled tactics. One of the best ways to clear the usual aversion to sales is to reframe it as a method of helping prospects solve their problems and get the most value out of your product. Flipping the script in this way helps remove the stigma associated with “pushy” salespeople by replacing it with a sincere desire to help people find the solutions that will make their lives easier.

At Appcues, we design our product to be as intuitive as possible in terms of features and functionality. Where sales comes into play is when a customer who is using our product and sees the value it delivers needs to navigate their own organization to get additional buy-in or pitch our product to another internal group. Our salespeople are uniquely situated to be able to empower that champion with sales collateral or to hop on a call to help explain the product value in very concrete terms, illustrated by case studies. Stepping in this way is just another method of supporting our customers’ efforts to get the most value out of our product.

Ease of Use: Always Be Reducing Friction.

All product-led companies struggle with achieving the right balance between handling feature requests and focusing on building out the product led growth engine. There’s no simple answer to this delicate equation, but the bottom line on both fronts is that you need to improve ease of use. It’s almost a chicken-and-egg scenario—the easier it is to use a product (UX and features), the more effective and efficient the product led growth model will be.

At Appcues, we’d like to think of the product and the PLG engine as one and the same, but in reality, we know that’s not true all the time. To help us manage the constant push and pull between these two demands on our resources, we categorize growth projects into three buckets: long-term platform building (which supports our long-term vision), automation (which is particularly important in the free trial experience), and segment-specific work (to address the needs of specific customers like enterprise or mid-market).

No matter which area we’re working in, we’re always focusing on making things easier for users because that serves everyone. It helps customers get more value out of the product while saving them time while at the same time reducing the number of support tickets we have by simplifying and streamlining tasks.

What’s Next: Don’t Get Left Behind.

There’s no question that more SaaS brands are moving toward a self-serve/PLG/freemium model, and it’s a trend that keeps growing. As more companies enter the space, it’s going to get more competitive in all areas, including onboarding. The companies that succeed in this new paradigm will be the ones who understand the importance of integrating the product-led approach into everything they do. It needs to be part of the company’s DNA, permeating all functional areas.

To get to that point, companies will need to execute a cultural shift away from the more traditional sales-driven growth model. While there is, as we’ve noted, a place for sales within a product-led company, it’s important to create an environment that encourages everyone on the team to look at their work through the lens of the product and think about ways to embed tasks in the product. There are opportunities across all areas of product, from the trial experience to onboarding to feature adoption to driving users to webinars and so on. Companies need to be set up in a way that enables people from any team to take advantage of those opportunities. That’s a big part of what we’re working to do at Appcues—to help everyone on the team take ownership of growth.


Jonathan Kim is the CEO and Co-Founder of <a href="">Appcues</a>, a software that adds an experience layer to your product that lets you easily build, instantly publish, and frictionlessly optimize in-product experiences your users will love. Prior to starting Appcues in 2013, Jonathan built user interfaces as a front end software engineer at HubSpot, which he joined by way of Performable. He grew up in Hawaii* and has a degree in journalism from Boston University. *He does not know Obama but does know how to surf.