User Onboarding
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New user onboarding is critical

This page teaches you to welcome new users or customers into your product so they're excited to become recurring, repeat customers for life.

This comes down to delivering a low-friction, delightful user experience.

You can have the world's best-performing landing page and the most valuable product, but if your user's onboarding experience is poor, truly nothing else matters.

Onboarding is the full set of interactions a new user experiences between:

This onboarding experience consists of two phases:

FTU is the realm of user acquisition. So we'll focus on that. We won't cover post-FTU, which belongs to retention optimization.

Neglecting user onboarding

When you consider that most users are skeptical and short on attention, your onboarding experience becomes critical to full-funnel conversion. 

Yet, it’s by far the most half-assed aspect of nearly every SaaS product I've used. Usually I just get spammed with self-evident tooltips then dumped into a dashboard. 

(Speaking of which, if you're not a SaaS company, you can skip to the next page.)

Onboarding is chronically overlooked because there’s no one on a typical tech or marketing team who's responsible for it. You either have marketers who acquire users or product managers who develop features. No one sits between.

But you’re not going to fall into that trap. You’re going to optimize onboarding as part of acquisition — because it is part of acquisition.

User onboarding strategy

After someone signs up, the in-product page they land on must answer:

What do I do to get value out of this product? 

There are three ways to answer this question: 

Regardless of which FTU implementation you choose, recognize it's a distinct experience separate from what returning users experience. In essence, user onboarding is a feature unto itself. 

So treat it with the gravitas it warrants; partition your engineering and product resources in earnest pursuit of making the FTU easy, enticing, and productive.

In fact, these are the principles of FTU design:

Let's dive in. This is so important.

FTU principle: Decrease friction

In an FTU, it must always be clear what the next step is:

Where do I go from here?

And that next step must appear low-friction. This is how you build momentum toward the end of the funnel — when users pay you.

So your first task in developing your FTU is to list every action users must undertake on their path toward the paid conversion event. For a website design tool, it may be:

  1. Enter their account details.
  2. Create a sample project.
  3. Invite team members.
  4. Publish their project.
  5. Enter their credit card. 

For each step, reduce friction by:

FormsExpand

Forms are where anxieties tend to surface. So here are two more form friction tips:

FTU principle: Make it enticing

FTU’s should never just be educational or enticing. They must always be both.

Whenever you educate new users, you must also entice them with your value props so they are willing to go through the education.

Tease them with how amazing life will be once they are fully onboarded.

To do this, think about the magical moment near the end of the funnel — when the user pays to get maximum value out of the product. Find a way to visualize this end state for them during the FTU.

For example, look at how "dating" site, Ashley Madison, does it. They visualize the end goal (“finding women”) through a blurred background photo while asking you to painstakingly enter your profile details.

How will you visualize your user's goal while asking them to fill out forms?

If you're unsure which end state you should entice them with, survey your customers:

"What is the feature you keep coming back for? What makes us so valuable?"

Minimize selling

The FTU’s priority is to getting users into the habit of regularly using your app. Not to hard sell them. 

Once they begin depending on you, they will organically want what you’re selling. At this point, it’ll be much easier to convert them.

For now, get out of their way. But, do keep pricing within view: Prominently link to your Pricing page and tease them with the benefits of upgrading whenever they start to bump up against the limits of their current plan. 

Write out your pitch if you have nothing to visualize

If you don't have anything enticing to visualize, at least write a pitch for achieving the end goal. And place it alongside your form.

For example, if you’re a subscription service that helps people quit smoking, tell users how many other users successfully used this service to quit smoking forever: 

“About 15% of the people who finish signing up wind up completing the course. Don’t be one of the quitters, because if you complete this, you then have a whopping 85% chance of quitting smoking for life. This is your chance.”

FTU principle: Make it productive

If your FTU is part of an integrated walkthrough, don’t leave users empty-handed. 

For example, if you’re an email app, have the FTU help the user clean up their inbox. This way they learn while accomplishing the goal your app helps them achieve.

Or if you’re a project management app, have the FTU leave the user with the scaffolding they need to share their project with team members.

Nothing feels better than getting value out of a product within the first few minutes.

FTU examplesExpand

Example: Webflow

When I was VP of Marketing for Webflow, we developed the following FTU.

First, we made sure we understood who we were onboarding so we could best customize their experience:

Next:

  • Once a user signed up, we threw them right in the designer so they could get their hands dirty experiencing the power of the app. We didn’t want to intercept this experience with a long, boring walkthrough video or tutorial.
  • But, after 30s, we knew they’d get overwhelmed by the complexity of the tool, so now we force a menu to automatically reveal itself. This menu contains a list of short, 60s embedded videos that walk you through each step toward becoming a power user. 
  • The first video is just a 60s timelapse of a site being built in Webflow. This shows the extreme power and simplicity of the app. This was the end goal on display. And the video is enticing to watch because you see a site go from blank canvas to beautiful landing page through a few simple motions. 

That's how you design an FTU for a complex SaaS product.

Example: Twitter

Twitter studied their users' onboarding behavior and discovered that if a new user doesn’t Follow at least a handful of Twitter users immediately upon signing up, they’re much less likely to return.

So, they redesigned their FTU to force users to follow a minimum of five people. And they ensure this process is really low-friction: They show you celebrities you're likely familiar with from topics (e.g. sports, movies) you indicate you care about.

Example: Duolingo

Here's one more example: this Duolingo FTU. It’s by far the best I’ve ever seen for a complicated SaaS product.

Onboarding conversion optimization

To optimize your FTU over time, you must record your users in action. Yes, you can literally record people's screens as they use your app. Use a tool like Full Story

Watching recordings allows you to witness the best and worst interaction patterns users fall prey to when using your app.

Here's an example of a bad pattern: When a user regularly creates a project before immediately deleting it. Hmm. What are they really trying to accomplish? Was there a middle step they just wanted to access? 

If so, how about extract that feature into a standalone one so they don't have to waste their time with your high-friction interface?

You can configure Full Story to track full-funnel conversions so you can compare the FTU interaction experiences of users who convert with those who don’t.

Videos versus analytics

The reason I’m recommending recordings instead of looking deeply into your analytics data is because that data lacks the context of app usage: You won’t get the full picture you'd get from someone engaging with their mouse or finger.

And, analytics require you to pre-configure all app event tracking a priori. This leads you to false conclusions and diminishes the possibility of unexpected discoveries.

So, always start your FTU optimization process by watching a significant sample of recordings. Then, rely on analytics to prove hunches you're forming from the videos. 

If you don’t have the time to watch recordings, pay someone to. This is low-skill labor. They just need to be familiar with your app and its objectives.

High-touch user onboarding

This section discusses semi-automated sales. If you don’t have a high average revenue per user (ARPU), skip to the next page as you will not be able to justify the expense of the sales labor involved below.

If a customer is qualified to convert into a high-revenue account, you should proportionally respond with greater support and sales resources.

For example, you could proactively reach out to them via live chat, email, or phone to discover and address the objections they have to converting.

Just like a great FTU, high-touch onboarding isn't a nicety. It's a necessity for any B2B business operating in a small, but valuable, market.

Here's how you extract maximum value out of every valuable visitor.

The high-touch onboarding process

Step one is determining the likelihood of a user being high value. 

This is domain of lead scoring, which consists of assessing company and job role data to determine the visitor's market fit, financial resources, and readiness to purchase. 

Lead scoring is considered part of sales, but it’s equally as relevant to onboarding if you have a product with high ARPU. Say, $2,500 per year or more.

There are many businesses dedicated to maintaining complex lead scoring models for you. They’re generally a waste of money — unless you’re drowning in thousands of leads and have extensive data on each one of them.

For most SaaS companies, only a few data points are needed to meaningfully qualify a lead for sales outreach:

Let’s consider how we'd interpret each data point to guesstimate a lead’s potential.

Lead’s role (job title)

If the lead works at a company who'd be a perfect fit for your product, but their job title is, say, HR intern, then they’re not going to be worth the sales outreach. They don’t have the appropriate buying power within their firm.

Company employee count 

Let’s say their company has 15+ employees. This might qualify them as large enough to get value out of your B2B SaaS product that helps with team collaboration

Further, let’s say their company has 30+ employees. This might mean they’re earning enough to afford your expensive Enterprise plan of $2,000/mo. They’re therefore worth dedicating extra sales labor to.

Company location

Only focus on countries you’re actually able to service. Or narrow it further to only Tier 1 countries that are more likely home to companies with sufficient purchasing power.

Sourcing quality signals

To source all this lead data, use Clearbit’s Enrichment API to automatically retrieve it from any user that signs up.

All you need to do is ping Clearbit’s API with the user’s email address, then Clearbit will respond with an up-to-date and instantaneous demographic and firmographic report. 

Enrichment costs $0.01-0.04 per API request. Or, you can use Clearbit's handy Salesforce plugin to sidestep code integration.

Here’s a small sample of the data Enrichment returns:

What you're looking at above is a screenshot of Clearbit's Slack plugin: Whenever someone purchases bonus content on Julian.com, the plugin pipes Enrichment data right into my #purchases channel so I can learn about my customers!

If you’re a SaaS company targeting developers, data scientists, product managers, or growth marketers, Clearbit also reports which third-party services (e.g. DigitalOcean, Facebook Ads, Stripe) a company’s site uses.

This provides a picture of A) the site’s technical sophistication, B) which parts of their development stack are missing, and C) how your technical product fits in. 

Qualification process

Pipe the data Clearbit returns through a basic set of heuristics to rank (out of 10) how high potential a lead is. Design this simple formula based on the characteristics of your current highest-paying customers.

If a lead scores high enough to be a VIP (say, 8.5 or above), immediately partition sales labor to talk to them: have your qualification algorithm alert someone on your sales or support team.

Or, and this is where Clearbit gets particularly interesting, you can use all this data to automate your outreach to VIP's.

Let’s take a look.

Emailing leads

Whenever your lead data qualifies a user as VIP, write a custom email for them as quickly as you can after they sign up. 

Data shows shorter sales turnaround times drastically increases conversion.

So, to make outreach quick and scalable, have at least 90% of your email pre-templated. And to make sure it's high-conversion, leverage Clearbit's data to select a variation on the template that's most appropriate for the lead's job role (e.g. developer or marketer). 

Based on this role, proactively link to relevant resources they need to get started:

Look at an example of this in action. On the left, there's an email sent to a developer. Look at the prioritization of a code sample. That's what a developer would care about.

On the right is an email sent to a different role: a marketer. For marketers, we prioritize non-technical integration guides:

Had we instead sent every VIP a singular, generalized email, it could have been a lengthy email because we’d be addressing all the potential value props that may interest them. 

This wordiness and lack of specificity would have hurt clickthrough and response rates.

Beyond brevity, there's another benefit to knowing a lead's job title: you can reference it so they feel like you know who they are and that you're capable of catering to them.

It also makes it look like your email was sent manually.

In fact, if you want to double down on your level of customization and further improve responses rates, read up on their company and inject a few insightful remarks about how it's a great fit for your product.

Emailing: Going above and beyond

Once you've qualified a VIP, there are quite a few ways to go above and beyond to get their attention.

First off, include a genuine offer of support: Since these users are VIP’s, make it clear that you’ll respond to them within X business hours and that you’re providing your direct line if they want to talk any time.

Next, consider going extremely high-touch if you really want to convert them: Create a 2 minute fully personalized screen recording that walks the lead through your product from the perspective of their job role and company. This means talking about which features that would be most relevant to them.

I learned about this technique when I was on the receiving end of it. I was blown away. There’s no way I wasn't going to respond to their email after noticing how much time he took. Check it out. (It was for an SEO agency wanting to sign Webflow as a client.)

Emailing: Bypassing spam foldersExpand

Keep your VIP outreach emails as simple, raw text; don’t use fancy design templates. 

Fancy designs look like automated email marketing spam.

Further, if you go the raw text route, your email is much less likely to be automatically sent to Gmail’s Promotions tab, which kills open rates

And while we’re on the topic, here are a few other tips for staying out of someone’s Promotions (and Spam) folder:

High-touch trick: Live chatExpand

High-touch onboarding extends beyond just emails. It also includes the in-product experience: Namely, live chat. I recommend Olark.

Most companies hastily throw live chat on their homepage and call it a day. But, if you have significant traffic, you should restrict chat to VIP’s after they've already signed up.

This laser focus permits you to treat each conversation with extreme attention-to-detail and above-and-beyond support. This entails proactively messaging VIP's with comments tailored to them instead of “Hey! How can I help?”

Instead, you want to say, “Hey, I noticed you work at X and are browsing page Y. Can I answer any questions about relevant topic Z?”

High-touch trick: Phone callsExpand

The highest-conversion form of VIP outreach is phone calls. This is why you should always ask for a phone number on a B2B customer signup form.

Turnaround time is especially critical to phone calls. I’ve seen calls placed within 5 minutes of a VIP sign up lead to 20x conversion improvement than a 30 minute lag time between signup and call.

Heck, there’s a good chance they’ll still be on your site if you call them within 5 minutes. You'll be top of mind and they'll have questions they want answers to.

(Or, they’ll just startled and uncomfortable — but still likely interested in chatting! Either way, it’s enough of an opportunity for you to briefly dazzle them and setup a proper 20 minute demo for later.)

The call script is simple: Within minutes of a VIP sign up, call the company and introduce yourself: “Hi, this is Julian.” [Pause a second] “I work at X.com, where someone on your team just signed up.” [Pause a second] “We’re the company that does Y. Is this a bad time for a quick chat so we can make sure you get the most value out of our tool? I want to help you make sure you don’t waste your time.”

Phone call fear

Most small companies without sales teams don’t leverage phone tactics because their employees aren’t comfortable picking up the phone to cold call people. 

But post-signup VIP calls move the needle. They really do.

So it’s worth spending time breaking out of your cold calling shell. Start like this: Challenge yourself to purposefully fail your first 5 cold calls. Meaning, don’t worry about pitching well and talk kind of slowly... and with low excitement.

The point here is to remove all expectations from yourself. 

Because, the more you familiarize yourself with failure, the less you’ll fear it.

Then when you no longer care about failing, begin confidently going into calls with a strong desire to get better at pitching every time.

Next page: Ad channels

The next page demystifies running high-performance ads

This is what you came here for.

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