The User Onboarding Funnel

Despina Exadaktylou
Jun 29, 2018 · 11 min read

Editor’s note: This guide is the forerunner of “The State of Product-Led Experience- The most comprehensive research on Product-Led Growth to date”. Claim your free copy here.

Authorship: Despina Exadaktylou founder of ReinventGrowth-the Product Experience Agency.

Exemplary research participants were:

HubSpot, Typeform, Segment, Pendo, Gainsight, Intercom, Drift, Filestage, Appcues, Viral Loops, Chargebee, Vidyard, Lemlist, Supporthero, Salesflare, Close, GoSquared, Autopilot, TravelPerk, Yesware, and so many others.


In the fast-paced, constantly evolving SaaS landscape, Growth tends to change ownership every once in a while. From Sales, to Marketing to (eventually) the product itself. Truth to be told, it was always meant to be that way. Product superpowers should be those driving customers towards retention and expansion.

If you take a minute to think about it you will realize that there is a common trend among brands that have managed to expand their user base. Brands that have created a community around them, which consumes their products over and over again. They deliver have products, which a customer will think twice -at least- before actually becoming unfaithful to them. Think Coca-Cola or Pepsi for example. If they were SaaS solutions what would be their one, unique element?

The answer comes in a single word. Experience. Well no, it actually comes with two. Customer experience. You see there is a particularity related to the SaaS industry that you don’t meet in any other. The customer leaves money on the table only after he gets a taste of the product first. Not the other way around.

So, no matter how cool your features are or how competitive your pricing is, if you don’t offer your product’s magic for free you will never scale. More likely you will become another product piled in the dust.

The before…after!

So what do you do next? 9 out of 10 SaaS owners would most probably answer: “Let’s create a product tour to get the ball rolling”. The truth is that a product tour will give you some benefits. No doubt there. If the user actually gets there. But what about the before and the after?

Product tours- if successful- they just concern the In-app onboarding experience. What is the process you follow until then though? “I will offer a free trial” would be the next answer. Awesome!

I guess then that every user who stumbles upon your site sign-ups immediately right? Even more, your users don’t bounce immediately after they subscribe, but they stay there in order to reach the so special of yours aha moment.

No? Does perhaps the opposite happen? Do you get a fair amount of visitors, that somehow even if they get to become qualified leads they never engage & convert? I won’t even dare to mention those users that do purchase a plan of yours and need refunding or experience churn within a matter of the first 5 days.

The User Onboarding Funnel is actually the story of a successful user journey- translated to the format of a guide. It is also the forerunner of a comprehensive research on Product-Led Experience with actionable insights from 40 Product-Led organizations.

In a few slides, you will be able to learn -in high level- how an onboarding strategy is being divided into five unique parts, which outline the user experience before, during and after a visitor has become a customer or -as we say in the SaaS world- a paid user.

You can get the full guide here 👇👇👇

✔️Stage One: When creating your user onboarding strategy

The ignorance stage.

Stage one is characterized as the ignorance stage. Best case scenario you have launched your product. You have a product market fit and in your mind, you think this is going somewhere — without being actually able to pinpoint where this somewhere is.
So you make wild guesses at first as to what exactly the user wants. After a while, you realize that those guesses prevent you from actually getting users to use your product. Scaling — at least for now- is just a goal you don’t really know how to reach.
The first step to putting ignorance back to bed is to actually start creating a process to welcome users — a manual one of course, for now, your product is a newborn after all.
Congrats! You just made your 1st step towards creating your user onboarding funnel.

The user onboarding funnel pyramid

User onboarding as a concept!

So what is user onboarding? How many of you actually know its definition?
Originally, user onboarding was characterized as the action or process of integrating a new employee into an organization or familiarizing a new customer or client with one’s products or services.

Of course in the SaaS world, we keep the 2nd part. Now have a closer look at its definition. Familiarizing a customer with one’s products!
So where does this familiarization in question does really begin and where does it end?

The answer to the 1st question is the very first time a user lays his eyes on your product — aka in the acquisition stage. The second answer though is a bit more complicated as if you want to retain your user, onboarding NEVER REALLY ENDS. Let me repeat that once again. IT NEVER ENDS. Except if you don’t plan on upscaling your customers and you are not afraid at all of the effects churn will have on your business.

What to except.

There is not really an easy way to say that. But when you are in the beginning, the only thing you should expect is infinite pain until you get the data you need.

Your product is not even on the map yet. So even if you have an acquisition strategy in place, the odds are against you, as you probably don’t get much out of it.

Unfortunately, the same situation stands for your user onboarding strategy too. As nothing is or should be automated at this point. The only way out of this situation is to dig as deep as you possibly can, to better understand your prospective customer.

✔️Stage Two: User is aware of your product but has not signed up

Leads reach your website and your service is fairly a newborn

So, you have managed to create some awareness and the first signs of traffic have just appeared in your analytics. So far, so good. You can take a breath and relax a bit. Just a bit though, as you have a long way ahead of you. You are not yet in the position to tell if this traffic is circumstantial or if your visitors actually are the personas you target.

Not enough incoming leads that turn into trials

So the problem remains the same. You don’t have the number of visitors your heart desires aka you don’t have enough trials and at the end of the day your ROI doesn’t increase.
Ignorance again. You don’t know the next step. There are days, that a maze seems less complicated than the thoughts in your head. Panic though is not the solution to your problem. Evaluating your efforts so far and finding further ways to expose your product is.

Showcase your solution, the problem it solves and your brand identity

If you are not new to this you must have got my point so far. If on the other hand, this is the 1st time your launch a solution, highlight this moment with a marker somewhere. Now, it’s finally the time to start creating your brand’s identity by showcasing the solution of the pain you resolve.

How? By revisiting your content for starters. By exposing it in every single way you possibly can. Webinar’s, AMA’s and product-related explainer articles or videos are just some of those ways.

Yes, you got it right whether or not you are still in the manual onboarding stage you need to start automating things and create the best basic funnels which will constitute the fundamentals of your overall user onboarding strategy afterwards.

✔️Stage Three: User has signed up for a free trial but has not paid YET

Improve your funnel and user experience

You have done everything great so far. You have defined your identity. You have explained in every way possible what pain you do resolve and finally, you got your first round of paid users. What’s next? Well, imagine this process as a football match. The players see the ball during the game, they focus on it, they even flirt with the idea that they will win the game but they don’t score until they are warmed up enough- and are certain of what move to do next. Simply because they need to save their strength for later when the game will become more advanced!
The same happens with your SaaS product. You must save the best move for whenever you are ready to level up your game.

Having that said, I mean that you by now you know in some depth what your users’ needs are and what experience they desire. Also — please put an asterisk here somewhere- this is the point where you perform an extensive competition research. Not terms of what features your competitors have. But in terms of what experience they do offer.

Level up your onboarding by creating a user experience that will lead to quick wins

There are a million ways to do that. But before you decide into them, let’s make one thing clear. Your product needs to have a solid UI & UX if you want to get the most out of any user onboarding plan. The related solutions do not perform some kind of magic. Neither can they transform a product’s flow that doesn’t make sense to one that does.

Another thing to consider, before actually starting to design and execute any practices, is to reassure that your solution sticks to the basics by itself.

There is no point to hide your aha moment behind a funnel that essentially complicates your solution. Make your user get there sooner than later and A/B the right way to do that until the earth stops moving.

✔️Stage Four: Free users convert to paid

When starting to get dedicated users

Officially, this is the moment where you should feel proud of yourself as a SaaS owner and of your team. You are slowly getting where you are supposed to. You may have already experienced some short-term churn and know how it feels or how to deal with it.
Long story short, you have ROI at some point. Most of you must watch your analytics every single day. Writing down and pinpointing what works best and what not.
Yes! Finally, it’s time to go one step further and actually come closer to your paid user. Make him understand your value even more and create a personal bond with your team first and consequently with your product.
Establishing a usage pattern, habit information
This is the only part of your onboarding strategy which cannot be completely automated. Your customer success plan, no matter what tricks have in its hat, should always incorporate the human element inside it.

Follow up calls should be the 1st and last point of contact with any customer. You don’t actually need a reason to check that everything goes smoothly, do you? Plus no customer will ever complain about exceptional proactive customer service.

Now, when it comes to automating this part the list can be infinite. Creating a personalized bot flows on your site and/or via your email marketing strategy is just two of them.

Your success here does not lie exclusively in the practices you will choose to execute. It lies on the points of engagement that you will establish with your user and on the segmentation you perform. Common examples can substitute to segment and engage with your users based on their profession, behaviour and persona they belong to.

✔️Stage Five: Paid users become dedicated customers

When you have your first dedicated(!) customers.

Ok. Here is the real deal. You have adopted the processes you need to. You have customers that actually love you and some perhaps that are somewhere in-between. This is where officially you start saying hello to long-term retention!

If you have customers that are into your product for the long run, you have a chance to make them stay dedicated to you no matter what.
The simplest way to do that is by simply reminding to your customer why he has chosen you in the 1st place. It’s common knowledge after all that users get tired of using the same product at some point. To overcome the aforementioned barrier customer success should literally take the user by the hand here and show him how he can use your product via any possible integrations you may have.

So far, its practices were mostly concerning how to make the user understand your product. Now, its time the feedback your customer success manager have into his one hands to be translated into advanced onboarding practices.

What those practices may mean for each brand, takes different interpretation each time. User onboarding is not a common practice that you plug and play after all. It is unique as it is every product out there- no matter the common points of reference.

If you want to go one step further though, you should definitely consider creating a context around your brand. Consider Grammarly here. They have created an extension that familiarized hundreds of thousands of user with their product for free. Another successful example here can certainly be Hubspot. Their content makes the brand a leader when it comes to inbound marketing. They simply created relevance by educating their users to the maximum degree.

Wrapping it up!

User onboarding as a concept is not yet another fancy hype to adopt in order to stay in line with the recent digital trends. Your onboarding strategy constitures a necessity. If you want to retain a sustainable base of faithful paid users that is.
As a concept, it has to do with anything related to your users’ experience. In practice, though things are far more complicated. Even if you think that you have created the funnel that actually brings you a respectable number of conversions this is just today’s reality.

Tomorrow though, it won’t suffice your users’ needs. Not at least to the degree it does today. Why? Because as your product’s features keep getting more sophisticated and advanced, so do your users’ needs for a better, more optimized, awesome product experience.

So, the next time you don’t actually hit the targeted ROI take a step back. Think again and decide if you actually need to execute another yet paid campaign or just to redesign your funnel’s elements.

Keen to learn more about product experience? Claim a free copy of the extensive report here.

At ReinventGrowth we are convinced that Product-Led GTM practices are the future of SaaS. Keen on making the transition to a Product-Led GTM model? Contact us today and let us know how we can help your organization get there.

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Despina Exadaktylou

Written by

Product-Led Growth Consultant | Onboarding Expert | Founder @ReinventGrowth

The Startup

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