SaaS Onboarding: How to Automate Your Onboarding Process for New Customers

SaaS onboarding
Effective SaaS onboarding can reduce churn.
If you’re looking for the value proposition of SaaS onboarding—there it is. Because the SaaS business model relies on recurring revenue, reducing churn is a hugely important goal for SaaS businesses.
Outside of the actual product quality and features, optimizing your customer onboarding process is the best way to reduce churn—which can in turn lead to higher monthly recurring revenue and customer lifetime value.
As a SaaS business, we have some experience in reducing churn through customer onboarding.
From the goals of SaaS onboarding to the actual onboarding process, this is what we’ve learned about how to deliver the right message to the right users at the right time—and the most effective ways to onboard new customers.

What are the goals of SaaS onboarding?

There are three overarching goals of SaaS onboarding:

  1. Reducing churn
  2. Helping customers get the most out of your platform
  3. Generate additional revenue through upsells or cross-sells

Effective onboarding can help you create thrilled customers—the kind of customers that not only stick around, but become advocates for your product.
But in order to create an effective SaaS onboarding process, it’s important to break these overarching goals into smaller pieces.
To achieve the business goals of onboarding, there are two things you need to accomplish:

  1. Help users get started by completing basic tasks
  2. Help users reach their “aha!” moment—the instant where they understand why your platform helps them

Why these two?
The first task of getting people to use your platform is almost self explanatory—you aren’t going to retain users if they don’t know how to use your product.
The second is slightly more nuanced.
A user’s “aha!” moment is the first time they realize the true potential of your product. It’s more than understanding how to use simple features—it’s the moment they begin to fit your product into their lives to solve their problems.
With that comes a few corollaries.
A user can’t be truly considered “onboarded” until they have reached their “aha!” moment. If an account has been active for over a year with minimal significant activity in your platform, it’s unlikely that the user has reached their epiphany.
Which in turn means that they are in danger of churning out—and still in need of onboarding help.
At the same time, the key to an “aha!” moment is in how the user begins to apply the solution to their problems.
The more deeply you can integrate your product into their lives (and the more of a user’s existing systems you can connect it to), the less likely a user is to churn—the switchover costs become too high.
Looking at SaaS onboarding through this lens, we can see that we need to do both—teach users the basics of a product and help them apply that product to their problems.

Behavior-based onboarding: The right message, to the right person, at the right time

Understanding SaaS onboarding goals is firm theoretical ground. The next step is to move into practical application.
An advantage of the SaaS business model is that onboarding can be based on behavior. It’s relatively straightforward to track in-app behavior, making it possible to nudge users through the onboarding process.
The key to executing SaaS onboarding? Delivering the right message to the right person at the right time.
Two types of behavioral targeting—reactive and proactive—can help.

Proactive behavioral targeting

When you target users proactively, you are prompting them to try out new features.
Proactive onboarding is behavior-based for a simple reason—you don’t want to prompt people to try features they are already using.
Which features do you want to highlight? The answer depends on whether you have a linear or nonlinear SaaS product.
In a linear product, users are required to complete certain actions before they complete others.
If you sell a premium to-do list app, you need to prompt users to create a to-do before you can urge them to complete one—it simply doesn’t make sense to do it any other way.
For that reason, a linear onboarding process follows a pretty clearly defined set of steps.
In a nonlinear product, there are more options for users—the order in which they explore features isn’t inherently structured.
ActiveCampaign is an example of a nonlinear onboarding process—on entering the platform, users could create campaigns, build automations, import contacts, or set up site tracking. Any of these would be reasonable first steps.
So which features do you emphasize?
User testing, customer research, and internal conversations are going to give you this answer.
But the general principle is that the features you…feature…should be sticky.
What are the features that keep people using your product? Which features are people most interested in—their reason for signing up?
Put another way—which features will help your customers reach their “aha!” moment the fastest?
Those are the features you should highlight.

Reactive behavior targeting

Proactive messaging prompts people to use new features. Reactive messaging helps people get more out of the features they are already using.
In our example of a to-do list app, proactive messaging could prompt users to create their first to-do. Then, once the to-do is created, reactive messaging can help teach people to create better to-dos.
This kind of reactive message could provide simple productivity tips, even if they don’t inherently relate to the function of the platform. The message could, for example:

    • Teach users how to make their to-dos more specific and actionable
    • Explain how to “batch” smaller to-dos and get more done
  • Talk about how creating a deadline makes completing to-dos more likely

These kinds of messages don’t necessarily need to relate to the actual function of a SaaS product. A reactive message about to-dos could also prompt users to schedule that to-do on the in-app calendar (thus being simultaneously reactive and proactive).
But they don’t need to. Helping someone use their to-dos more effectively increases the success they have with your product—and increases the chance of them reaching their “aha!” moment.
Reactive targeting is also especially helpful for nonlinear platforms. Proactive targeting is useful, but the features a user chooses to explore provide some information about their interests—and are outstanding candidates for automated, reactive follow-up.

Methods of follow-up: Reaching users across channels

Email is the most natural and commonly used method of SaaS onboarding, for the simple reason that it’s easy to plan and automate.
We definitely do recommend using automated emails as part of your SaaS onboarding—there’s no easier way to map out the desired behavior flow for new users.
That said, the exact format of your onboarding messages isn’t necessarily important—as long as they help users get started with your SaaS product.
For SaaS products with very high average revenue per user, it probably makes sense to have a welcome call (from a non-automated human person) as part of your onboarding sequence.
But there are many methods of follow-up that can be automated. You could, for example:

    • Use Facebook Custom Audiences to automatically show messages based on user behavior
    • Use retargeting to deliver prompts in search engines and YouTube
    • Use site messages to remind your website visitors to log in
    • Follow up with helpful texts that urge users to try out certain features
  • Notify your support or success teams when there’s a high-value account that isn’t onboarding properly

All of these systems can be set up to run, automatically, based on user behavior. And in each case, these practices can help activate users, facilitate “aha!” moments, and reduce churn.

Advanced SaaS onboarding: User attributes and actions

As your SaaS onboarding becomes more sophisticated, you’ll want to more precisely use customer information to create a customized onboarding experience.
Customer information—whether it’s demographic information, job title, industry, or some other characteristic—can help you predict what types of features people will be interested in.
This is especially important for nonlinear platforms, where there are multiple options for users to take. The more information you have about a user, the more effectively you can match the message to the time and person.
In nonlinear platforms, user information is a particularly valuable tool for your proactive targeting.
But even for linear SaaS products, user information can help guide onboarding.
In our to-do list example, it’s possible that a stay at home parent and marketing executive have different needs from the same service. In reactive follow-up, we may want to provide different advice to each type of user. For example:

    • A stay at home parent may benefit more from information on how to batch a series of small tasks to free up time
  • A marketing executive might prefer advice on creating realistic deadlines and reminders for new to-dos

When you know your users, you can analyze events in your app based on user characteristics. What types of user are using which features in your app?
That knowledge can help improve and iterate your onboarding.

How to learn more about your SaaS customers

You can learn more about your SaaS customers from implicit means, or explicit ones.
When you infer information about customer needs based on their behavior, or review the conversations and trends in your industry, you are doing implicit research.
Implicit research is helpful because it can uncover things that customers wouldn’t necessarily tell you—whether that’s because they don’t want to or they don’t themselves understand it. Monitoring in-app behavior and industry trends are valuable ways to study your customers.
On the other end, explicit learning means that you are going out and asking your customers’ about their beliefs and needs directly.
Whether you collect information through forms your customers fill out, focus groups, or direct one-on-one interviews, explicit research is based on customers answering your questions directly.
Customer research and interviews are an outstanding way to collect information. In many cases, there’s no substitute for letting your audience tell you exactly what they want.
In fact, the insights from customer interviews can sometimes be lifted directly and used as copy in a customer onboarding sequence—as they were when Wistia increased their paid conversions by 350 percent.
Finally, usability testing can be an effective middle-ground between implicit and explicit approaches. With usability testing, you get direct interaction with customers combined with the advantages of watching them work through your platform.
Although it is of course useful for product development, usability testing can also teach you where customers need help during the onboarding process.
Implicit and explicit approaches have their respective pros and cons. A mix of the two can help you optimize your SaaS onboarding, help customers reach their “aha!” moment, and reduce overall churn.

Conclusion: Best practices for SaaS onboarding

The capabilities of your product don’t matter if your customers don’t know how to use them.
If your customers don’t appreciate the power of your product, or if they never learn to apply your product to their problems, they’re likely to churn.
That’s what makes customer onboarding such an important part of the SaaS business model.
By targeting your users based on their behavior and attributes—using messages across multiple platforms—you can reduce churn, grow your user base, and help them make the most of your product.   

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