You’ve done the hard work of getting a new customer to sign up for your product. Along the way, that customer was swayed by your marketing messages and product promises. Now it’s time to deliver.
Your customer’s first experiences with your product are absolutely crucial to retention. If your business is operating in a product-led growth model, that onboarding experience could be make-or-break, determining whether or not your customer makes that all-important shift from freemium or free trial user to paid, high-CLV user.
What is SaaS customer onboarding?
SaaS user onboarding, or SaaS customer onboarding, describes the process that users go through when they initially sign up for your product. Think of it like the roadmap from sign up to ‘aha.’
Onboarding usually includes things like a product tour, a series of steps the user needs to take to get setup, and a library of resources that help them find solutions.
This phase within the customer lifecycle starts with sign up, and ends when your product has become part of their routine, when they’ve seen the value of the product, and/or when they can confidently use basic features of the product.
If you’re running on a free trial model, the onboarding phase should finish just before the free trial ends. You want users to experience that ‘aha’ moment before they’re asked to commit. In a freemium model, two to three weeks maximum is a good guideline, depending on the need your product serves.
Watch the video below to see how SaaS onboarding works in the Ortto platform.
SaaS onboarding best practices
For SaaS businesses, user onboarding is perhaps the most important part of your customer’s entire journey.
If you have a freemium or free trial model, it is the determining factor for conversion. Simple as that.
If you’re operating in a sales-led or marketing-led model, it’s time to deliver on your product promises. Fail to do so and you could lose a customer to one of your competitors.
The stats below show that onboarding is essential for reducing churn and increasing revenue. Plus, we’re increasingly seeing an expectation that customers will have the ability to self-educate throughout their onboarding journey.
SaaS onboarding statistics
For opt-out free trials (requires payment information), conversion rates are benchmarked at 60% (Klipfolio)
For opt-in free trials (does not require payment information), conversion rates are benchmarked at 25% (Klipfolio)
Onboarding is the stage of the customer journey with the highest churn. 25% of users abandon apps after just one use (Appcues)
Improving retention by just 5% will increase revenue by 25% (Appcues)
The biggest drop-off in usage (nearly 75%) happens during week 0 and week 1 (Appcues)
The ideal churn rate for SaaS businesses is 5% and only one-third of SaaS platforms are at or below that benchmark (Hubspot)
70% of customers say understanding how they use products and services is very important to winning their business. (Salesforce)
73% of customers want the ability to solve product/service issues on their own. (Aspect)
SaaS onboarding workflow
Every SaaS product is different, which means every SaaS user onboarding experience will be different. In this article, we’re going to focus on the onboarding experience a customer on a free-trial or freemium model will go through as these steps and tips will also apply to businesses operating on a sales-led model. After all, even if the customer has a sales executive to hold their hand along the way, the aim is to prove how easy your product is to use and to fast-track them to ‘aha’.
That way, your sales and customer service teams can focus on the bigger fish, while your customers go on a journey of self-discovery.
As we said, no two onboarding experiences will look the same. These five SaaS onboarding phases are designed to ensure you’ve dotted every i and crossed every t to deliver an onboarding process that is worthy of the incredible product you’ve built.
Phase one: develop a north star customer journey
Nudging your customer towards product-qualified lead status is the goal here, and getting there requires your customer to experience that magic ‘aha’ moment with your product. Before we get there, however, take a look at the actions users are taking before they reach ‘aha’.
First, you’ll want to jump into your customer data platform and start to map out all of the steps that commonly appear to give yourself a sense of the ‘average’ journey. From there, you can analyze the journey taken by your customers with the fastest time to conversion.
To do this properly, you will need to ensure that you have a single view of the customer. Ortto allows you to connect customer, transactional, and behavioral data from all of your data sources into one platform to ensure every action is tracked. From here, you can use our simple segmenting tools to get a view of those who converted, those who converted quickly, and your biggest spenders or most loyal customers.
By segmenting these audiences, you’ll start to see patterns of activity and can essentially build a north-star journey that will inform the actions you need to emphasize in your onboarding process.
Phase two: create a great sign-up experience
Your onboarding experience starts the second your customer hits that sign-up button. You want to make the experience simple and representative of your brand, but, in many cases, you’ll also want to get a bit of information out of your new customer so that you can cater your welcome experiences to their needs.
Here are examples of how an information-gathering sign-up process looks in a B2B and B2C environment.
B2B: Ortto’s Sign Up Process
At Ortto, our sign-up process is incredibly simple. We ask the individual for some information about their business. We need this information to ensure that our welcome series is personalized and relevant.
Plus, our AI can generate email templates and other campaign materials in your brand’s style using the website URL, creating a more personalized experience.
B2B: Notion’s Import Options
Many B2B companies (including Ortto) will need their customers to connect other products or import data before they can really get the most out of the product. There are several ways to do this.
At Ortto, we cover this off in our welcome email (see below). Notion opts to do it during the sign-up process, while making it clear that the customer can choose to do it later on if they don’t have the time right now or want to further explore the product before any decisions are made.
You might notice that importing data from Evernote to Notion earns the user a $5 credit — possibly because the data has shown Evernote integration is a fast-track to ‘aha’ for existing users.
The advantage of having this pop up during sign-up is that the customer will land in the product with a lot more information and they’ll be closer to qualified lead status. The disadvantage is that it may deter some people from getting to the end of the sign-up process — but the ability to skip does solve that.
Whether your data import process comes at sign up or later, it’s important to make the connection easy (we have one-click integrations on Ortto) and fast. If it can’t be fast, let the customer know that they can go away and do other things and set up a campaign that alerts the user when the import is complete.
B2C: Headspace’s sign-up process
Headspace is a meditation app designed to make meditation simple and accessible. Most people who sign up to Headspace have never meditated before, or have tried and given up. Helping their users make a habit of meditation is crucial to reduce churn, so they use behavioral psychology to create an onboarding experience that’s designed to make a habit stick.
First up, the user is asked why they want to meditate. We’re more likely to stick to healthy habits if the habit is anchored to a larger reason.
Next, they ask about timing, but rather than a simple ‘morning, noon, or night’ prompt, Headspace asks users to select an existing habit, like brushing their teeth.
This is a clever churn-busting tactic. We know that habit stacking — the act of connecting a new habit to an existing one — helps us stick to our new healthy habits, so Headspace is setting the user up to stack meditation with an existing habit.
Finally, users are given a little recap before being prompted to Meditate Now or Explore the App. The sooner the user mediates, the sooner they’ll see the benefits, so that’s the option our eye is drawn to.
Phase three: plan your welcome email
A welcome email is, at this point, table stakes. Your user expects it, and welcome emails are the most opened email you’ll send, with a staggering 86.03% open rate.
Before you even think about the content of the email, consider how you can segment your new users to ensure they receive a relevant message. At Ortto, we’ve set up three different campaigns, each of which is triggered by a different sign-up entry point:
Generic onboarding to freemium product
Shopify app installation
Free trial to our pro tier
Each of these emails serves a slightly different purpose.
Generic welcome email
In our generic onboarding, we recommend six steps to help the user get their account set up and ready to go. As we mentioned above, this is where we ask our customers to import their subscribers and add tracking codes so that they can immediately start seeing the benefits of our platform. We’ve used custom Reports in Ortto to identify the steps users who convert take to reach their aha moment, and those steps have informed our setup list.
Shopify welcome email
For customers who signed up via the Shopify App Store, these steps are tweaked to ensure they are relevant to our ecommerce customers. Our steps are very specific — Ortto offers a huge variety of capture campaigns, but we’ve chosen to highlight the ‘spin wheel’ to grow subscribers because we know it has a high success rate for our customers and it’s a more memorable experience for both our customer and theirs.
Free trial of product
In our free trial model, the user has already used our freemium product and most likely has worked through the steps above. They may have also had a product demonstration with our team. So, we skip the steps and get straight to the point, outlining what you’re getting and for how long, offering a helping hand, and reminding the customer that they will be charged after the 14-days unless they downgrade their plan (transparency is everything!).
Each of these variations is necessary for us to ensure that the customer is getting the information that is relevant to them. It’s a surefire way of giving the customer a good first impression without wasting any of their time.
Phase four: the first login experience
Your customer’s first login experience is incredibly important. It’s the time to prove what your marketing messages or sales team promised.
Think of it like this — you met someone on Hinge and you’ve had a bunch of great conversations. Then you meet IRL for the first time and it feels as though your relationship has been redefined. Your expectations are high, and you’re really just hoping that they’ll be met.
That’s what’s happening when your customer logs in to your product for the first time.
Your customer already knows what your product does. They’ve seen marketing messages, positive reviews, your brand’s personality and values, and your product’s promise. You don’t have to re-sell it to them, just like you don’t need to re-tell your story to your Hinge date.
You need to deliver on what was promised and guide them to ‘aha’.
To do this, you’ll need to plan out that first login experience focusing on the critical action points along that north star customer journey you set up. There are so many ways to do this, and plenty of inspiration from SaaS brands doing it really well.
Below we’ll take a look at just some of the different ways your product tour could be set up, along with some best-in-class examples.
Product tour or product walkthrough
This is a popular one, using sequential messages to guide your users through the platform and highlight the most important features a newbie should know about.
You should aim for about 3-5 steps in a product tour, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule — it’s all about matching the experience to your customer’s expectations. For example, if you’re signing up to a tool like SEMRush, you’re going to expect the onboarding process will be a little more complicated than signing up to Slack.
In the best practice examples below, you’ll see how they may vary in length and style depending on what the user needs to get out of the product.
Webflow’s tooltips product tour
Webflow’s product tour uses tooltips to guide you through the onboarding experience. Given Webflow is all about building a website, the tutorial does have a few more steps than the average, but Webflow keeps it easy with clear prompts and interactive elements along the way.
The UX here is all about delivering on their promise that you can build a responsive website without a single line of code.
Pitch’s modal window gif product tour
Pitch is another business all about creation, but, unlike a website, most people who have signed up would have used a similar product like Google Slides or Powerpoint before. Pitch’s tour aims to prove that their collaborative presentation software is faster, easier, and creates more impressive presentations. For this reason, the product tour is delivered via a modal window with a gif that demonstrates just how easy it is to build a deck with Pitch. Simple as that.
The checklist is a great way to get your users to start doing, guiding them through those critical action points and closer to their ‘aha’ moment.
Box’s free trial extension checklist
Box has outlined four clear steps that users need to get through in order to reach product-qualified lead status and, rather than just laying these steps out in a checklist, they actually incentivize the user to take each step by giving them additional days in their free trial. The first two steps are worth just one day, then things get more heated…
The user can then see how they’re progressing towards their full 14-day free trial and every time a checklist task is complete, Box prompts the user with clear tooltips to ensure they have a clear sense of the next steps.
Evernote’s basics checklist
Evernote guides their new users through four simple prompts in a checklist styled in the same way as the checklist on their note-taking app. This means the user is already learning how to use a checklist as they move through the steps.
From there, the user is prompted to create a note, set a reminder, save web articles, and sync their notes to their phone and computer — four simple cues that will get their new customer well on their way to ‘aha’ status.
The learn-by-doing approach
We see a little bit of this throughout Webflow’s tooltips-based onboarding, but some SaaS businesses can lean entirely on a learn-by-doing example to guide their users through a product.
Grammarly is a great example of this approach. When the user logs in for the first time, they are prompted to check a demo document that teaches users how Grammarly works. It’s incredibly simple and effective, showing off the value of the product efficiently and effectively.
Phase five: on-going support
With a product tour done and dusted, your customer will be inspired to get started with your product. But they’ll need some nudging in the right direction to reach their wow moment in that 2-3 week period.
Start by thinking about the crucial steps in your product tour — the ones that can’t be missed — and set up campaigns that are triggered by inaction to remind your customers to take those steps. For example, at Ortto we have a Complete Account Setup campaign sent to customers with Shopify integration to ensure they complete the setup wizard.
Next, consider the other critical action points your users need to take that haven’t been covered in your product tour or the more flashy, fun features that you could make a splash about with some content.
Semrush does a great job of this. As a fairly complicated product with a lot of tools, they use email to drip-feed features to their new users. Each email includes the feature, along with some information on how to use it and, of course, a CTA.
This phase of onboarding really will look different for every product. It may include popups, tooltips, or chatbots to guide your user along the way.
You’ll also want to ensure your new customers are directed to your knowledge base so they can search for answers on their own as they arise. Keep your documentation up to date, add different formats like video and visual to cater to a wider array of customers, and ensure that your knowledge base is easy to search.
SaaS onboarding metrics
Nothing measured, nothing gained. To ensure your onboarding experience is doing what it’s supposed to, track each action through your CDP and pay attention to both the positive and negative actions your users take throughout the journey.
Here are some of the most important metrics to track:
Time to value (TTV)
Value is the moment that the customer sees the value of your product in their business context, it’s the ‘aha moment’ we keep talking about. You will want to measure the time it takes for new users to get there to get a sense of whether you may need to extend your free trial period or provide more support at a certain point of the journey. The sooner your customer realizes their first-time value, the better. But some products just take longer than others!
Free-to-paid conversion rate
In a product-led growth model, a free trial or freemium version of your product is essential to growth and the onboarding experience for customers on your free plan will play a major role in this metric.
If you have both a freemium model and a free trial of a premium offering (like Ortto does), you’ll want to track both freemium to free trial and free trial to paid conversion rates. There are two types of free trials: opt-in free trials where the customer can start without a credit card or opt-out free trials where the customer needs to share payment details and will be charged at the end of the free trial if they do not opt-out.
Since Ortto has both a freemium (opt-in) product, our premium tier free trial is an opt-out trial. For products without a freemium tier, opt-in is usually the go-to, but it’s worth testing both to see how your conversion rate changes.
Completion rate and customer progress
As you’ve seen in the examples above, onboarding happens in phases and, within those phases, there will be individual steps that are taken.
Track Completion Rate to see how many of your customers make it through the entire process of onboarding, along with Customer Progress.
In a tool like Ortto, you can track specific actions to get a clear understanding of which parts of your onboarding process are causing drop-offs and which are generating the most engagement. You can also see which onboarding steps lapsed customers did or did not take before they lost interest.
Product adoption rate or engagement rate
This allows you to measure the level of engagement your customer has with your product by looking at data around how often they use it, how long they use it, and, in some instances, how many people in their team have been logged as users.
Since this takes a few different metrics into account, it can be a difficult one to calculate. In Ortto, we use a star system to give each customer an Engagement Score. This makes it easy to segment customers based on engagement and drill down to see actions or inactions that occurred throughout onboarding.
Feature adoption rate
In addition to product adoption rate, it’s worth tracking the adoption of different features within your product to spot opportunities for optimization.
There are several ways this will need to be tracked. For example, a customer encountered a feature but did not use it, a customer interacted with a feature one time but did not use it again, or a customer used the feature at least two times. It may also be worth tracking — through customer surveys — whether any features were encountered within your onboarding process, but the customer did not understand how it works or what it does.
Support tickets logged and customer satisfaction
Take a look at how many support tickets are logged through the onboarding process to ensure customers are not encountering too many issues along the way or to spot the most common themes and get ahead of them with an additional pop-up, email, or chatbot.
Customer satisfaction surveys can also be a great way of getting a gut-check from your customers at the end of their free trial. Even if they do not decide to stick with your product, their feedback can help you fix issues within your onboarding process or you could get a support representative on board to help your customer navigate any issues they faced.
The final word
Whether your SaaS company is operating in a product-led growth model or not, having a remarkable customer onboarding process is crucial. You want your product to prove itself, rather than having your customers have to work hard to understand what your product has to offer.
Get started with Ortto today to start uncovering the data that will inform a strategic, effective onboarding process and activate your welcome and onboarding email campaigns with ease.