Key Activation Events And The Secret For Bloody Brilliant Low-Touch SaaS Onboarding

Fraser Deans
Published in
7 min readAug 2, 2016


People want low touch but they also want guidance. They don’t want to talk to you but they do want to be hand held until their job is complete. This puts you in a bit of a dilemma really.

Users have to find success with your service before they’ll hand over any money. People do many things with your application but only a handful of those actions result in a user achieving success.

So what are these ‘key activation events’ (KAEs) in your application?

They aren’t always obvious. And sometimes they are completely counter-intuitive but they are there. Believe me.

Take Groove for example. They found that customers who emailed customer support during their trial period were 9 times more likely to stick around! 9 times!

Finding your key activation events

Identifying possible key activation events

Of all the actions a user can take in your application only a handful lead to success and even fewer actions lead to payment. So where do you even start looking which actions are key to activation?

First make a list of all the possible actions in your application e.g. updating profile, invite team members, number of team members invited, writing a post, number of posts written, sharing articles. Now if you’re tracking user actions (as all good SaaS companies are) you’ll be able to speed this up by pulling out a list of all recorded user actions. Google Analytics, Amplitude, Mixpanel and Intercom all track your users to some extent.

Which events lead to sign ups?

Now examine the actions that your perfect customers performed during their trial phase. With this information you can create hypotheses to investigate.

For example, if all your perfect customers wrote 2 or more blog posts, ‘Creating 2 or more blog posts’ is a potential KAE.

But which customers are your perfect customers?

They are the customers that have found the most success with your service and are paying you money (consider the ideal customer profile if you don’t know).

With your hypothesised KAEs you can use cohort analysis to prove or disprove your hypothetical “ideal customers”.

A guide to cohort analysis

Get out your calculators kids, its time to jump into the murky world of cohort analysis.

Cohort analysis is a technique that groups a subset of users that share a common trait over a period of time. You then compare the impact of that shared trait on a desired outcome.

Let’s run through a really simple example of how you can use cohort analysis yourself.

Imagine we run a website that helps small businesses build their own websites; something like Wix, Wordpress or Squarespace. Below is a table showing a subset of users in one day who started a trial. The table also shows if they added their company logo to the website and whether or not they signed up (and started paying) during their trial period.

There are 20 users who started a trial. Overall, 11 users signed up. A trial-to-paid conversion rate of 55%.

Let’s see how adding a logo effected conversion. We’ll split our users into two cohorts: those who added a logo and those who did not.

Added a logo: 12 users. 9 of those signed up. A conversion rate of 75%.

Did not add a logo: 8 users. 2 of those signed up. A conversion rate of 25%.

Users with a logo were 3 times more likely to convert than those without. Therefore adding a logo is a key activation event.

Your application could have many key activation events, it could have few. Cohort analysis and a little creative thinking will unpick those events from your data.

Now we know what our key activation events are how do we persuade people to actually do them?

The secret is… ‘because’

People’s habits are hard to break. Even though they’ve expressed interest in your service it’s going to take a lot of effort to make your business part of their routine. And, don’t forget, this new user is probably trialling a handful of competing services right now — so yours needs to stand out.

Make it clear WHY your user should take action and complete a key activation event.

“A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do,” says psychologist Robert Cialdini in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

The word ‘because’ makes it crystal clear that completing an action gets your user closer to their goal. It gives them a reason to do what you’re asking.

“Because” helps you make a perfectly rational case for why. And it helps your potential customers make the case for you too. So be really clear about this: “You’re changing your process because…” “We’re using these terms because…” “You’re performing these new actions because…”

Putting this together: how to activate every user

The three stages to activation are (1) pre-signup, (2) first user experience, and (3) post-signup. Think about each for bloody brilliant low-touch onboarding.


With your new understanding of your key activation events, your pre-signup communications need to prime your user. This isn’t to say your users need to be told everything required to go live but if your application needs an integration with a 3rd-party app, or a code snippet needs to be added to their application, let them know about it ASAP.

First user experience

This stage is arguably the best chance you have to activate your user. Your onboarding in-app flow should be built around the key activation events in a sequence that is so easy and enjoyable to follow they new users would be crazy not to complete it.

If a key activation event is adding a logo, make this part of the flow.
If a key activation event is inviting a team member, make this part of the flow.
If a key activation event is connecting a social media account, make this part of the flow.

You get the picture.

Your on-page copy is important here too. Remember the ‘because-bridge’ we spoke about earlier? Use it. Give your users a clear and compelling reason to complete each stage of the work flow.

Try these examples…

90% of users who add a picture sell their car in 2 weeks.
Invite your team because accounts with 3 members or more reduce their email by 20%.
Link your social media accounts to tell your customers how well they’re doing.

Clear AND compelling.


Often, onboarding can not be completed in the first sitting. Maybe your application needs to crunch data or your customer needs to speak to others in the team. Other times your customers just need a reminder what they signed up for. In both cases develop a strategy to extend a hand to your users outside your application. Pull them back to your application.

Emails are great for pulling users back to your application as 7 out of 10 customers check their inbox MORE than once a day.

With services like Intercom and, target new users depending on which key activation events they have (or haven’t) completed. If users STILL haven’t uploaded that elusive logo, (1) remind them they still need to (2) let them know why (because-bridge).

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Pushing users to complete additional key activation events will lead to confusion, so avoid sending emails about other key activation events. Keep it clear and simple. Let them know what they have to do next, and keep repeating it until they do it. Do this next. Do this next. Do this next.

Repetition is ok.

Or is it?

As Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Nickelled step-by-step guides in action

If the first email did not persuade someone to take action, don’t expect that sending the same email again will deliver different results. Remember: your emails are competing with your user’s friends, colleagues and customers for attention. Be creative. Repeat the same message but not in a repetitive way. Use a method that grabs attention. Animated GIFs, Nickelled step-by-step guides and videos are all great ways of delivering the same message (e.g. “add your logo”) but in a clear and creative way.

Write onboarding emails that work

Stop writing mediocre onboarding emails. Take these tips one step further and learn how to write onboarding emails that inspire your SaaS users to take action. Get our free book: ‘The Elements Of The Perfectly Persuasive Onboarding Email’.

Get your copy.

Brought to you by the SuccessHack-tivists at SuccessHacker. Your go-to partner for Customer Success. Follow us on Twitter @success_hacker.

Want more inspiration, advice or just to connect with thought leaders like Fraser? Join OUTCOMES: The SuccessHacker Customer Success Community.

Subscribe to the Customer Success Journal. Read by 1000+ Customer Success professionals around the globe, The CSJ gives you the competitive edge to stay ahead in Success. Insights you need. Guidance you can trust.



Fraser Deans

Digital Product Designer. Founder of The Wholesome Technology Company, organiser of Humane Tech London , Co-founder of Nickelled.