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How to Improve Your Onboarding and Activation Strategy


August 18, 2021


August 18, 2021

You’ve gone through all the work to acquire new users. You’ve tested your way to a winning message, optimized your channel mix, and reduced CAC. You’re bringing in new users every week, but you’ve got a problem. The users you fought to acquire aren’t using your product. And they're churning as quickly as you can get them to register. 

What’s going on?

You’ve likely got a problem with your onboarding and activation strategy. Looking at many SaaS companies, plenty of attention gets put on the acquisition phase of the customer lifecycle—often to the detriment of the onboarding and activation phase. If you’re going to work hard to acquire users, you should apply the same type of focus on onboarding those users and activating them on your product. If not, your users will continue to churn and your LTV metric will continue to trend down. 

Defining Your Onboarding and Activation Marketing Strategy

Onboarding and activation is where product meets marketing. Your product needs to be intuitive to use. And your marketing message needs to reinforce that idea by providing tips, tricks, instructions, and insights to your users. 

Before we go any further, let’s define what onboarding and activation means in the context of SaaS products and companies. Onboarding and activation is the process of

  • Introducing users to your product…
  • so they can start using the product…
  • thereby experiencing value from the product…
  • in order to build toward habitual product usage.

While that might sound like a lot of distinct steps, onboarding and activation really boils down to making your product easy to use. This helps people quickly feel confident that they know what they are doing while experiencing the underlying value of the product.

From a marketing perspective, that means showing users exactly what they need to do to get started with the product and eliminating any unnecessary noise that might distract or confuse them. In addition to implementing a strong in-app or in-platform onboarding experience, it's crucial to pick the right marketing channels to accomplish these goals.

Why Email Marketing Works

Enter email. Every few years, some marketing blog or trade publication breathlessly declares the death of email as a marketing channel. Despite these efforts to give email a premature demise, it's consistently shown to be one of the highest performing channels. In fact, SaaS companies see an average ROI of 40:1 when they invest in email.

What’s behind these high returns? Email is one of the few channels that users explicitly opt-in to. Everyone has experience providing their email address on an account registration form or online order page. Users have come to expect that companies will interact with them in their inbox. If you ask for an email address in your product’s account creation flow, you should use that information to surprise and delight users in their inbox. 

When it comes to onboarding and activation, email is often the only channel (besides the product) you can use to reach your users. If your users aren’t logging on to your app or platform, the inbox is where you can find them. 

Developing Your Strategy 

We’ve established that onboarding and activation are important and that email marketing is an effective marketing channel. Now, let’s combine the two to develop an onboarding and activation strategy using email. 

To begin, determine what concrete steps users must take to get started with your product. Let’s say you have a note-taking app. After creating an account, the next logical thing for users to do might be creating a sample note to explore the note-taking features. Whatever that first task is, the point is to have your users do something with the product that is easily achievable with limited knowledge of how the product works. This is not the time for lots of text, lengthy videos, or anything else that requires heavy brainpower. Most people learn by doing, so make the path to doing something with your product obvious and distraction free. 

Let’s think about what role email might play. What email you send here depends on your user’s actions. In the best case scenario, your users will sign up and immediately start using the product. In that situation, you might trigger an email to go out a few hours after the account is registered with tips and tricks or feature highlights. 

But the best case scenario isn’t the typical scenario. It’s not uncommon for users to sign up and only spend a few seconds with the product before they get distracted and move on to something else. This situation is where email really shines. You can use email to get your users back into the product by creating an automatically triggered email that goes out if the user has created an account, but not taken any of the setup steps. You want to make this email as clear and actionable as possible. 

Using the note-taking app example, if the user hasn't created a sample note, craft an email with a message hitting on why they should create the sample note. Feature a clear call-to-action button directing them back to the product. Ideally, your CTA button will have a deep link to take the user directly into a sample note. If deep linking is not possible, be sure to include instructions in the email directing the user to where you want them to go within the product. If you have an in-product messaging tool, this could also be used to guide the user. Just be sure to trigger the message based on the email open.

Let’s take this specific tactic and zoom out to your entire onboarding and activation strategy. What steps do your users need to take and where are they getting stuck? Partner with your analytics teams to find the drop-off points for users and start prioritizing the most important ones. 

Be careful though. The idea is not to trigger an email for every single missing user action in your onboarding and activation strategy. You can quickly annoy users with too many emails causing them to unsubscribe from your marketing emails, or worse, churn completely.

Here’s what your automated email flow might look like based on three user actions:

sample email onboarding and activation flow

Although you should be mindful of not over-emailing your users, there are still opportunities to capitalize on email to nudge users along. Maybe you want to build in some reminders for the most crucial user actions. You can and should think about adding some conditional logic to your email marketing flow for this reason.  

Here’s what your automated email flow might look like with some reminders:

email onboarding and activation flow with reminders

With reminder emails, be sure to add some time delays to give your users breathing room between the initial triggered email. This can be as little as one day and as much as a week. If you have an ESP (email service provider) that supports triggered emails based on user engagement, e.g. if the user opened the initial triggered email, that would be good to experiment with when building your time delays.

Setting Metrics and Goals

Now that you have a strategy complete with specific tactics, it’s important to set metrics and goals. You want to know if your emails are indeed resulting in more users completing onboarding and actively using your product. This should be straightforward to do if you’ve created emails tied to specific actions. Let's return to the note-taking app example. If you have one email triggered to let users know to create the sample note, measure that email based on if users take that action. Ultimately, this down-funnel focus on metrics is the most important way to assess the effectiveness of the email. Yes, you should also look at the open, click, and unsubscribe rates as well. They're important metrics, though they won’t tell you if the email was successful in driving the intended action. 

With this focus on metrics, you can start setting goals for each email. Start small with a 5-10% intended lift in the intended user action. Once your emails start consistently hitting that goal, you can devise new content and trigger strategies to aim for higher lift. 

Keep Getting Better: Experimentation and Optimization

In this entire process, never lose sight of the importance of experimentation and optimization. You should continuously run experiments against your onboarding and activation emails to discover if you can unlock higher levels of lifts. 

Experimentation comes in many forms. The simplest would be testing different email subject lines, copy, and CTAs. But you can go much further. Try out different email layouts, trigger conditions, sending cadences, and reminders. Be systematic in your experimentation. Keep a sheet running of different experiment families, subject lines for example, and track what you’ve tried, what has worked, and what has failed. While it’s tempting to combine multiple experiments, like CTAs and layout, resist the urge. Keep your experiments down to a single variable so you can be confident in your results. 

Don’t forget to apply experimentation best practices either. In addition to testing a single variable, be sure to have a control and test group when you design your experiments. This will give you the ability to make accurate statements about lift. When it comes to how long you should run your experiment to have confidence in the results, look to MDE (minimum detectable effect) and statistical significance to guide your way.

Go Beyond Email

Once you establish your email strategy for onboarding and activation, start exploring other channels. For SaaS companies, there is potential to weave SMS, push notifications, phone or video calls, live chat on your website, webinars and training modules, and/or paid social advertising into your strategy. Just be sure that you are not overwhelming your users and turning them off with too many messages. 

Wrapping Up

Growth marketing is all about the synergy of the user lifecycle from acquisition to onboarding/activation to retention and re-engagement. By investing in a well tested onboarding and activation strategy, you can increase your ROI across the lifecycle by continually delighting (and retaining) users.

Interested in stepping up your onboarding and activation marketing strategy or hiring a growth marketing expert to improve your customer retention? Reach out to us at hello@rightsideup.co, we'd love to chat.

Dillon is a growth marketer with a passion for product-led strategies. Coming from a background in email marketing, he knows the value of reaching customers at the right time in their journey with personalized content. He currently works for MongoDB collaborating cross-functionally with product and analytics teams to drive growth. In his free time, he consults for SaaS and e-commerce companies to help them unlock the value of their email marketing programs.

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