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Product-led Onboarding: From Trial Users to Loyal Customers Real Quick

I saw this hilarious thread about user onboarding I needed to share.

It starts with this:

But as it progresses, I found myself nodding, especially on these parts:

  • User onboarding isn’t just “Here’s the snack table”. It’s “Hey, we saw you eyeing the nachos. Want to try our secret salsa?”
  • When done right, it’s not about bombarding the user with EVERYTHING your app does. It’s about showing them the best bits that’ll get them hooked. It’s speed dating, not a marathon.
  • And remember, much like dating, the goal isn’t just to get a user to stick around. It’s to keep them coming back for more. Cue dramatic music 🎵

So it’s obvious. 

There’s a need for user onboarding to smoothly transition from “first-impression-trial-users” to loyal customers. And product-led onboarding is a proactive candidate here.


This blog post has the answers. 

We’ll explain what product-led is and how it’ll give your users an unforgettable first impression, increase conversions, and give them the best onboarding of their lives.

What is product-led onboarding?

Product-led onboarding is a user onboarding technique that puts your product at the forefront of the customer journey

That means less human intervention for you and more automation.

The ultimate goal is to create a smooth, engaging, and intuitive onboarding experience that converts trial or freemium users into loyal customers in no time. 

Why trial or freemium users? 

Because most product-led SaaS use these models as the entry path for acquiring new customers. 

This tactic is closely intertwined with the product-led growth (PLG) motion. A revolutionized go-to-market strategy that’s all about leveraging the product as the main driver of growth: it empowers users to navigate the product, learn its functionality, and, most importantly, experience its value firsthand. 

In short: Product-led onboarding serves as a catalyst for Product-Led Growth (PLG)

And many companies have already adopted this motion — especially those with high ARR (annual recurring revenue). Take a look at this report from Gainsight.

A smart way to support the product-led onboarding process that further nudges users toward a successful product adoption is using behavior-based emails.  Contrary to time-based emails, behavior-based are emails triggered to send based on user actions or inactions within the product, and a tool like Encharge lets you send them — it’s personalized and targeted to provide additional support, education, and encouragement so new users get the most out of the product fast.

6 perks of being product-led

So why go product-led? Let’s explore some key advantages of this kind of user onboarding:

1. It shortens time-to-value (TTV)

The “Time to Value” (TTV) is a super important metric because it quantifies how quickly your new customers start getting the real value from what you offer. 

When people buy your product or service, they want to see results ASAP. And the faster they get the value they paid for, the happier they’ll be.

Since product-led onboarding usually has an intuitive user interface and users are free to navigate inside the app, the TTV can be significantly shortened.

2. It improves user adoption

It’s the outcome of an accelerated TTV. The faster new users experience how the product solves their problems, the higher the adoption of the product.

When it does, the app becomes heavily integrated into their daily lives. Just as we’re programmed to check our emails several times a day.

3. It enhances user engagement

Product-driven onboarding delivers a more interactive user experience than traditional onboarding methods since it lets users get hands-on with the product immediately. 

Product-led tools use interactive elements. Fun tooltips show users exactly where to click. Product tours hook users to explore further. Also, checklists give new users a roadmap  instructed without feeling demanded.

4. It makes customers stay

Did you know that it costs 4 to 5x more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one? So might as well use your onboarding as an adhesive to make them stay with you. 

Users with a positive onboarding experience are more likely to continue using the product, renew subscriptions, and become advocates for the brand. Say goodbye to high churn and hello to higher CLTV or Customer Lifetime Value. 

5. It scales with your business and is cost-efficient 

Traditional methods of onboarding can be resource-intensive. They take more time from customer success teams, support departments, and sales reps.

Product-led is cost-efficient and highly scalable since it requires minimal to zero manual intervention. Plus, your SaaS can reach a larger user base while maintaining a high-quality onboarding experience.

6. It helps upsell existing customers

Product-led onboarding is actually not just for new customers. 

It can also be used to upsell existing customers. Since users turned customers already understand how your products work, they’re easier to convince to use more features or upgrade to a higher-priced plan. 

Also, you can offer personalized recommendations for upsell opportunities through the gathered insights about your customers’ usage behavior and preferences during onboarding.

To nail these onboarding perks, take what’s already working from our 28 SaaS free trial best practices to supercharge your growth.

Sales-led vs. product-led onboarding

Before we go deeper, you need to understand this: 

Product-led onboarding doesn’t mean there’s no human support for new users. 

It’s nothing like that. The support team is just strategically placed throughout the entire onboarding. Ready one call away whenever users need them. 

There are 2 primary onboarding approaches: sales-led onboarding vs. product-led onboarding. Let’s examine the key distinctions between these two.

  • Sales-led onboarding is the traditional, high-touch onboarding model where the sales team takes a hands-on approach to guide customers through the onboarding process. As part of this method, the sales team engages with customers through demos, calls, and other channels to educate them about the product’s features and benefits. Usually, enterprises and large SaaS businesses employ this model.
  • Product-led onboarding, on the other hand, is a self-service approach. The process empowers users to independently discover, explore, and onboard themselves without extensive support team involvement. It’s often used for products or services that are easy to understand, user-friendly, and intuitive — and not suitable for products that are complex or have a higher learning curve.

Here’s a quick comparison of the common characteristics of each approach.

Sales-led OnboardingProduct-led Onboarding
The sales team works closely with customers where personalized attention and customization are crucial. Mostly used in ABM (Account-Based Marketing).
Customers are empowered to explore through the onboarding process since the product is designed to be intuitive and simple.

Includes direct communication with the SaaS representatives through one-on-one training sessions, demos, and ongoing support.Users have the freedom to explore the product at their own pace, accessing resources such as trial access, tutorials, documentation, and knowledge bases.
Since high-touch onboarding is most suitable for complex products, it can be expensive and time-consuming, requiring substantial resources and coordination.Enables businesses to efficiently serve a larger user base by using automation technology such as automated follow-up emails or in-app messages to guide the customer through onboarding.
The sales team must do active manual outreach and email/phone follow-ups. The end goal is to establish strong relationships with customers and ensure they understand the product and how it can help them achieve their goals.Onboarding is straightforward since the product is the primary guide leading the users forward.
It requires an excellent user interface (UI), intuitive design, and comprehensive documentation.

So, which type of onboarding should you choose?

They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. 

In reality, most SaaS businesses use a hybrid approach to onboarding — combining elements of both sales-led (high-touch) and product-led (self-serve) approaches, especially when they have different product tiers. 

The onboarding to use is based on customer segments and product complexity level, among other factors. We have discussed how to choose the right strategy in detail in our post on product-led onboarding vs. sales-driven onboarding.

3 examples of product-led SaaS businesses

#1 Encharge

Let’s start with Encharge. The homepage is neat and immediately informs you that it’s a marketing automation platform built for B2B SaaS

From the homepage, you are offered to “see how it works,” so you won’t need to contact them for sign-up support. 

Besides, that is easy — just use Google or any email address. If anything, answering the two questions (for segmentation purposes) just takes a few seconds to complete the sign-up.

And once inside, you’d be presented with a quickstart checklist so you can start — quickly! 

Their automated support? The behavior-based email you’ll receive depending on what you did or didn’t do inside the app.

#2 Ahrefs

Another SaaS worth mentioning is Ahrefs. If you’re an SEO writer, it’s self-explanatory that this is a good candidate (even without you signing up). 

The homepage showcases many resources to check out if you ever need help. There are free courses, a YouTube channel, guides, and blogs to get unstuck and help you get running.

And here’s a sneak peek of Ahref’s tool, too. You can watch it in action when you click their free demo.

#3 Canva

Maybe it’s obvious why Canva is on the list. Signing up, you’ll be asked to choose from the options for Canva’s personalized recommendations.

When you are inside the app and are a newbie to designing (or just have no creative juice yet), don’t worry — Canva has the templates for you.

How is product-led onboarding different?

If you’ve reached this part, you already understand that product-led onboarding is for SaaS with free trials or freemium plans.

It differs from traditional and sales-led onboarding approaches, and here’s how product-led onboarding should set itself apart. 

Clear ownership of user onboarding

Traditional Onboarding: Different teams assume that someone else is responsible for user onboarding. For some, the sales and marketing teams are responsible for educating users, providing demos, and setting up accounts. Others think that responsibility shifts to the product team since they’re the ones who design the onboarding experience and create tutorials. 

Product-Led Onboarding: In product-led onboarding, there’s a designated team responsible for coordinating the onboarding process. And this team is a cross-functional collaboration among the product, marketing, sales, and customer success team.

Cross-functional team focuses on making the user onboarding as frictionless as possible

Traditional Onboarding: Executives believe that onboarding start after signing up for a product. That leaves the product team alone to take part in improving user onboarding—overlooking perspectives from other teams. 

Product-Led Onboarding: Product-led onboarding promotes cross-functional collaboration and that engages teams beyond just product development. Besides the product team, marketing, customer success, and sales teams contribute their expertise to enhance the onboarding process.

Standard definition of user onboarding 

Traditional Onboarding: Organizational teams may have varying definitions and understanding of user onboarding, which leads to inconsistent approaches. Different departments may have different ideas of user onboarding, resulting in confusion and a less effective process.

Product-Led Onboarding: Product-driven onboarding stresses the need for a shared and aligned definition of user onboarding across teams. It takes a more holistic approach by concentrating on getting uso their desired outcome as quickly as possible. Teams agree on specific milestones or metrics that indicate a user has successfully completed the onboarding process.

Agreed-upon criteria for fully onboarded users

Traditional Onboarding: Traditional onboarding may lack clear quantitative criteria to measure the success of user onboarding efforts. And this makes it challenging to assess the effectiveness of the onboarding process.

Product-Led Onboarding: As the onboarding team sets specific milestones or metrics to indicate that the onboarding process has been successfully completed, product-led onboarding defines the specific key metrics such as user activation rate, feature adoption rate, or time to value. These metrics provide quantitative benchmarks to evaluate the success of the onboarding process.

Comprehensive strategy to continuously optimize user onboarding

Traditional Onboarding: Traditional approaches often lack a clear plan to improve the onboarding experience continuously. Once the initial onboarding process is implemented, there may be little focus on ongoing optimization.

Product-Led Onboarding: With key metrics defined in a product-centric onboarding, you’ll know where to focus so you move the needle. There’s a clear strategy to reach that onboarding goal, but you’re aware that it is also a continuous approach to improving the onboarding experience based on user feedback and data insights.

Five factors that make product-led onboarding great

1. Compelling public-facing content

This includes everything your SaaS website has to offer to the public, such as the homepage, pricing page, features page, and resources like blog posts, tutorials, documentation, and videos. 

These materials all provide users with valuable information about the product during onboarding. With product-led onboarding, this content should be easily accessible, well-structured, and tailored to different user personas and needs. 

Ideally, it should:

  • communicate the unique value proposition of your product
  • offer product demos that demonstrate your product’s functionality
  • use high-quality visuals, including images, videos, and infographics
  • showcase user testimonials, success stories, and case studies
  • include clear and compelling calls-to-action

Check out Softstart’s homepage, which contains the mentioned concepts:

2. Clear welcome message

It’s what compels new sign-ups — a clear welcome message that’ll set the tone for a positive onboarding experience. 

It should clearly communicate the product’s value proposition, highlight key features, and guide users on how to get started. Making it easy for users to understand what they are getting into and what benefits they will receive from your product.

Front does this, BUT in a more compelling way — a video welcome message!

3. Smooth feature adoption

Easy feature adoption is getting the customers to keep using the product after signing up, and that’s what product-led onboarding is really all about. 

So the way to do this is to guide users to explore the product’s features so they integrate it into their daily routine. 

A guided tour, contextual tooltips, or interactive tutorials can be implemented to demonstrate how to use the features and their benefits. It’s *always*  important to provide users with a clear pathway toward success within your product. 

4. Great customer support

Positive experience in your product isn’t only while navigating your app. It’s also giving excellent customer support. Microsoft surveys suggest 96% stay loyal to a brand because of customer service. 

Users should have access to timely and helpful support throughout their onboarding journey. A product-driven support team is knowledgeable about the product and responsive to user inquiries through live chat, email, knowledge bases, help centers, or dedicated customer success managers. 

When you respond promptly to user concerns and provide help on demand as needed fosters user trust and satisfaction.

5. Effective communication

In a product-led onboarding process, communication should be timely, clear, and informative. Communicate using onboarding steps, tooltips, or in-app messages that let the user know what they need to do and how to do it. 

That’s how you keep users informed and engaged through personalized and targeted messaging. Product-leRespondingntains user interest and connection with the product by delivering relevant information, updates, and prompts at the right time.

How to successfully onboard new users to your product-led SaaS

Note: This section is highly inspired by the EUREKA framework from the book Product-Led Onboarding by Ramli John with Wes Bush. But instead of the framework itself, we turned them into actionable tips that you can use for your own user onboarding.

1. Form a dedicated onboarding team.

The task is simple: create a cohesive user experience from start to finish. 

To deliver an onboarding experience like that, it’s important to form a dedicated onboarding team that collaborates across functions within your organization. 

Pick members from the product, marketing, customer success, and sales departments — and stop believing that each department is okay working in isolation when it comes to user onboarding. Let each team member bring their unique expertise to the table so that onboarded users champion the process.

2. Determine what’s important to your users and use it as your compass.

Before creating an effective onboarding process, you must first understand your user needs. 

  • What made them sign up?
  • What are they looking to do inside your product?
  • How can you align your onboarding process to meet their needs?

To successfully onboard new users, think of your onboarding process as the bridge to help users reach their desired destination. 

So take time to conduct market research, surveys, or interviews to gather valuable information about their needs, pain points, and expectations. Sort sign-ups into different user segments or personas and understand the “jobs they want to do.”

Look at this onboarding survey that Kajabi uses.

3. Identify realistic criteria for onboarding success.

Once you’ve designed your onboarding process, be sure to build systems to measure its effectiveness. 

But first, you need to choose metrics that are achievable. It’s important that you define what success really looks like for your user onboarding experience.

Some quantifiable metrics include: 

  • Sign up rate
  • Time to first value
  • Feature adoption rates
  • Conversion rates
  • Churn rate
  • Onboarding completion rate

Use proper data analytics tools to monitor these metrics on your SaaS product. 

Additionally, the concept of Product Qualified Leads (PQLs) can help you identify users who show potential for conversion based on their engagement and usage patterns.

4. Experience your onboarding.

Assuming that everything is QA’d and live now, a good strategy for evaluating and identifying areas for improvement is to experience the onboarding process yourself. 

Put yourself in your new user’s shoes and be unbiased. Sign up and go through your own onboarding. Pinpoint the areas with the most friction as you move through the onboarding process. 

Doing so can help you identify areas of confusion or frustration and allow you to make changes to improve the user experience. 

Your subtle goal is to tweak the onboarding path so it’s more intuitive, seamless, and efficient.

  • Is your sign-up form frictionless?
  • Have you segmented users into buckets?
  • Do you only show users what they need to know to get started with your product?
  • Are your steps simple enough to follow and bring them to the value of your product?
  • Were there complex instructions and long-winding tutorials that may overwhelm new users?

Here’s an example of a SaaS with a simple signing-up form. You can just use your Google account or an email — no credit card is required.

5. Motivate users to use your product again and again. 

When it comes to your onboarding process, simplicity is key.

However, make sure it’s engaging too. Video tutorials, interactive tours, and tooltips can help deliver your product message and educate users on how to perform tasks. 

The best way to get users quickly involved in your product is to SHOW rather than instruct. Take a stab at fun, interactive elements.

Also, behavior-based prompts are helpful for communication at the right time. 

A tool like Encharge helps deliver targeted and relevant emails based on what your onboarded new users need at the exact time. It’ll let you design a behavior-based onboarding email flow that further nudges users to important milestones you’ve identified.  

A clear and personalized welcome email for newly signed-up users can provide guidance and set their expectations like this one geared towards agencies specifically:

6. Never stop spotting onboarding improvements.

The final step is to improve and optimize your onboarding process continuously. 

It’s an evolving technique, so it requires continuous tweaking. This simply means measuring and tracking user engagement and behavior, gathering user feedback, and regularly updating your onboarding materials, then repeat. 

When you identify weaknesses, act fast, and make the necessary adjustments. A/B test to validate that your tweaks are for the better. But don’t forget to share every insight with your onboarding team so you emphasize their work matters. 

Is product-led onboarding for you?

With product-led onboarding, you put your SaaS on the winning side.

It shortens time-to-value, improves user adoption, up user engagement, and busts churn. Best of all, it scales with you while being cost-efficient.

But while it’s true that product-led user onboarding is a transformative strategy, it’s not for all SaaS. For one, complex products with steep learning curves may not benefit from being fully product-led.

To support your product-driven flow, consider behavior-based emails to keep user engagement high.

Encharge is the platform to help you do that. Not only is it for emails, but it’s also a holistic marketing automation platform enabling seamless user onboarding with automation and personalization.

Start using Encharge for your personalized behavior-based user onboarding journeys.

Read next: The Use of Product-Led Marketing Strategies to Empower Users and Drive Growth

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Founder Payfacile
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