Your Guide to Product-Led Onboarding

January 31, 2023

Whether you’re implementing a PLG strategy for the first time or optimizing from a strong foundation, odds are you’re thinking about product-led onboarding. You might have questions like:

  • How do you get new users to see value as fast as possible?
  • How do you enable users to try and buy via self-service rather than through a rep?
  • Which experiments should you run to improve product activation and conversion?

You’ve come to the right place. I’ve covered this topic before—highlighting seven common mistakes in self-serve onboarding—and now I’m turning to an expert, Esben Friis-Jensen, who thinks about onboarding 24/7. Esben is co-founder and chief growth officer at Userflow, the maker of low/no-code user onboarding software.

Not only does Esben bring insights from Userflow’s product and customer base, he’s a practitioner himself. Userflow is a bootstrapped, PLG-first company that has grown to 500+ customers and millions in revenue—all with only three employees. In this guest post, Esben walks through how to build and optimize effective product-led onboarding including real-life examples from his experience at Userflow. Let’s dive in.

This is a guest post in collaboration with Esben Friis-Jensen, co-founder and chief growth officer at Userflow.

What is product-led onboarding?

To this day, most SaaS pre-and post-sales onboarding occurs via human interaction, such as meetings or emails. But this kind of onboarding adds friction and can be expensive to scale. Especially if you have a trial or freemium entry path, you want to ensure that human interaction is only used for the most high-value trials. Additionally, modern buyers and users expect to try and learn about products without having to attend meetings.

With product-led onboarding, you use your product as the primary vehicle for customer onboarding. By allowing customers to self-serve, you can convert and retain them with minimal human interaction (and as a result, lower CAC).

But how do you build a product-led onboarding setup that can convert more free trials and freemium users? Below is my recommended approach.

10 steps to effective product-led onboarding

Step 1: Know your ideal customer profile(s)

While we are focusing on effective onboarding, it is critical to recognize the value of knowing your ideal customer profile(s). Having an ideal customer profile sets a baseline for building personalized onboarding content that drives attention, conversion, and retention to your product.

Step 2: Look at what others are doing

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Hundreds of SaaS businesses have fantastic product-led onboarding. So before you start building, seek inspiration. A great place to start is the or the Userflow SaaS Onboarding Reviews video series, where you can see teardowns of the onboarding for popular SaaS businesses.

To experience it firsthand, you can also sign up for popular SaaS tool trials yourself. And even more important: try to sign up for your own product to see the baseline for your onboarding today.

Step 3: Start from public-facing content

Onboarding starts with the first impression, and for most users, the first impression is your public marketing content and website.

Great marketing initiates onboarding by attracting the right audience to the website. The most important thing from an onboarding perspective is to ensure your marketing messaging aligns with what users will experience on your website. You’ll want to continue this throughout their first time trying out the product as well. This will help you attract the right audience and avoid misaligned expectations.

When users arrive on your website, you want to grab their attention as fast as possible. A great PLG website has the following four components:

1. Clearly explains the problem being solved. This captures the attention of the right person to explore more. It is essential to focus on this main message, avoiding any unnecessary pop-ups and announcements that take too much attention.

screenshot of onboarding examples.

2. Shows the product. A great website should focus on outcomes. But in a product-led growth world, the “how” (the product) is also important. Users expect to see screenshots, click-throughs, or video demos of your product.

3. Transparent pricing. The modern self-service buyer expects transparent pricing. If you don’t have it, you force the user to take an extra step and reach out to your support or sales personnel.

4. Free trial/freemium as primary call-to-action (CTA). In a product-led onboarding model, the natural next step is a trial/freemium. This should be the primary CTA instead of the sales-led “Request a demo.” At Userflow, we furthermore make “View a demo” the secondary CTA, and requesting a demo becomes a tertiary CTA.

Step 4: Welcome and understand your users

Your website has attracted the right user to your free trial or freemium offering, and they sign up. Now it’s time to show how great your product is.

Common mistakes at this stage can include:

  1. Having too much of a blank slate where users have no clue what to do after signup, or
  2. Throwing the user into a dashboard with a lot of notifications, information, and graphs, resulting in similar confusion.

Instead, a great product-led onboarding experience welcomes the user on a focused and clean dashboard with clear CTAs to get started.

Such a “welcome message” can either be part of a dedicated get started dashboard as Merge does it below.

Or you can do a modal on top of your main landing page as we do at Userflow. Make sure that the background does not take too much attention by having either a backdrop or showing the welcome message on a clean dashboard.

Either before or during your welcome, you can also ask a couple of questions to better tailor the onboarding to the specific user. A simple use-case question is a great starting point.

Users are eager to see your product in action, so keep questions to a minimum. Focus on questions that bring benefit to the onboarding process. For example, many onboarding processes ask about who you are and more, and then do not use that information further down the line.

If a user selects surveys in the use-case question above, we at Userflow will show them a different onboarding experience focused on surveys. That way, we personalize the experience based on user interest.

Step 5: Identify your aha moments

Product-led onboarding is about using your product to have your users experience a series of value realizations known as “aha moments,” so they buy and stay around.

Examples of “aha moments” could be:

  • A user touches “feature x” and finds out that it is 10x better at solving their problem than what they have seen before.
  • A user creates an integration successfully in two minutes, showing efficiency and ease of use.
  • A user creates a piece of content and finds out they can do it in a way that perfectly fits their needs.

You might already have a good hunch of what your aha moments are based on qualitative feedback from customers and prospects. You can validate these hunches by doing a quantitative analysis.

For Userflow, the key initial aha moment is when users realize how easy it is to build an onboarding flow, followed by experiencing the level of sophistication of themes, triggers, and more. We discovered this based on qualitative feedback from new customers and trial users. We further analyzed with a session recording tool and conversion data to decide on a simple activation metric: “ICP spent 30 minutes+ building content.”

By keeping the aha moment research and activation metric simple, to begin with, you avoid analysis paralysis, and you can learn and iterate as you advance.

Step 6: Drive towards the aha moments

When the user has been welcomed to your product, the next step is to drive them to the aha moments as quickly as possible.

Showing off all your product’s features in a boring next, next, next intro won’t drive users to value realization. It may just annoy them. But with action-driven onboarding focused on key aha moments and tutorial guidance, you will drive conversion and retention.

A simple yet effective way to do this is to have:

  1. An initial guide/CTA to get the user to their first aha moment. At Userflow, we drive the user to a step-by-step guide, where they get to build their first onboarding flow in less than five minutes.
  2. A checklist with additional jobs-to-be-done that will drive to additional aha moments. At Userflow we have additional tasks such as Creating a checklist” and Customizing the theme” (look and feel). A checklist is a powerful tool as it gives users a structure for their onboarding, as well as a desire to complete the tasks (for more, see: the endowed progress effect).

Throughout your onboarding, your copy should be aligned with the messaging and be as clear and concise as possible. Don’t expect that users will just intuitively understand what to do. You need to be very clear about the value propositions as well as the actions they need to take.

In general, being focused, clear, and concise is essential for your onboarding to be effective. Do not include too many steps in your guides and checklists. The longer you make them, the harder they’ll feel to complete—and the more likely users will abandon them.

Step 7: Remove unnecessary friction

Removing all friction from your onboarding is not necessarily a good thing. It’s important for users to realize the value themselves, but in the same vein, you want to remove unnecessary friction.

40-60% of new free users leave your product without ever coming back, and annoying friction will lead to an even higher likelihood of this.

A common example of unnecessary friction can be found in the sign-up process. For most SaaS tools, security typically requires email validation. A smart way to simplify this is by using one-click signup mechanisms such as “Sign up with Google” or similar. In that way, you both get validation and a smooth sign-up.

At Userflow, we technically require our customers’ developers to install a JavaScript snippet to load the content for end-users. To remove this friction in the trial, we created a Chrome extension that allows non-developers to build and preview the onboarding content without involving developers at first. That way, they can experience the aha moment of ease of use faster and easier.

Step 8: Don’t forget about support

Great product-led onboarding will reduce the need for support, but as highlighted in a prior post, the goal of PLG and product-led onboarding is not to have zero support tickets.

No onboarding flow will ever be perfect. Having support via a website chat, a support email, and a knowledge base are all great ways to enable customers to ask questions after they have been onboarded.

Despite being product-led, I believe support via chat and email should always be done by real humans to show integrity and trust. It gives you an opportunity to give a human touch to your process, which can help push conversions to the finish line (it can also be a source of high-value customer support qualified leads).

Step 9: Combine in-product onboarding with email onboarding

While the first onboarding experience inside the product is the most critical, you can use emails as a smart way to bring users’ attention back to your product.

Similar to welcoming the user inside the product, you can send a welcome email with helpful resources for getting started. Make sure the copy, content, and structure of the onboarding outlined in the email align with your in-product onboarding.

Another great example of recurring onboarding emails comes from Superhuman’s CEO Rahul Vohra. He shares proactive tips on how you can get the most value from Superhuman. These emails drive attention and ensure users discover the value they might not know about.

Step 10: Never stop onboarding

Just as onboarding starts with the first impression of your marketing and website, onboarding never ends. It is key that you don’t forget about onboarding post-purchase. Customers will have new users that need onboarding, and you will eventually introduce new features that require onboarding to drive adoption and retention.

Another great thing to do is to always allow users to re-run a checklist or onboarding guide despite having completed it in the past. Users may not understand everything the first time they run through the onboarding. One way to do this is to keep the “Get started” dashboard available or have a resource center/self-help widget as we do at Userflow.

Want to learn more? Here are additional resources

Kyle Poyar

Partner at OpenView

Kyle helps OpenView’s portfolio companies accelerate top-line growth through segmentation, value proposition, packaging & pricing, customer insights, channel partner programs, new market entry and go-to-market strategy.