We all know how hard it is to get the attention of free users and even harder to turn them into paying customers.
To help you tackle this challenge, we decided to weigh in with a few practical tips. Follow these 11 best SaaS onboarding practices in your SaaS onboarding strategy, and your trial conversions will skyrocket.
Bonus: implementing these also tends to cure the desperate vibes in your follow-up emails.
But before we jump into the practical area, let’s cover what actually user onboarding is and why you need to nail it down in your SaaS business.
What is user onboarding?
User or customer onboarding guides new users in your SaaS product, helping them understand its features and how to use it effectively to solve their problems.
User onboarding aims to increase user adoption and retention rates by providing new users with a smooth and engaging experience. Effective onboarding can help users understand the product’s value proposition, overcome any initial confusion or frustration, and ultimately become loyal, engaged customers. User onboarding can include welcome messages, tutorials, interactive tours, and personalized recommendations.
Main benefits of user onboarding
- User retention rates could increase by 50% after implementing effective onboarding.
- People with a positive perception of the onboarding churn much less in the first 21 days of being a customer.
- 63% of customers believe that onboarding is vital in their decision to subscribe to a product.
- 40% of consumers favor the option of self-service instead of human touch.
- Effective user onboarding can reduce the support workload by answering questions during the onboarding process.
Good user onboarding can increase user adoption and retention rates by 50%
Research shows that the average app loses 77% of its daily active users within the first 3 days after the install. Within 30 days, that number is 90%, and within 90 days, it’s 95%.
This means that 77% of new users will leave a product within the first three days if they do not understand how to use it effectively or if the product is not a good fit for them.
To tackle the huge drop-off of new users, you should improve your onboarding experience. Localytics saw app user retention rates increase by 50% after implementing an effective onboarding strategy.
Users with a positive perception of your onboarding are less likely to churn
Good onboarding has a direct impact on your customer churn. A study by Profitwell found that: “when comparing the first 60 days of customers with poor perceptions of onboarding to those with positive perceptions, those customers with positive perception have much less drop off in the first 21 days of being a customer.”
This means that good onboarding nurtures customers and helps them understand the value of your product better than bad onboarding or no onboarding.
Good onboarding strategy can sway the decision to purchase your tool in your favor
A considerable proportion of customers consider the onboarding process a crucial aspect when determining whether or not to sign up for a product. A majority of 63% of customers believe that onboarding plays a vital role in their decision to subscribe to a product.
This emphasizes the significance of efficient and seamless onboarding for acquiring and retaining customers.
It’s easier to attract customers with a good self-serve onboarding experience
The era when phone calls were the only means to buy a software tool has faded into the past. Now about 40% of consumers favor the option of self-service instead of contacting a human representative.
It is essential to provide a user-friendly onboarding experience that enables people to complete the onboarding process independently. This implies that a straightforward, easy-to-use self-service option is necessary to facilitate a seamless onboarding experience.
Effective user onboarding can reduce customer support costs
The main goal of user onboarding is to help your users easily understand how your product works and help them reach the Aha moments faster.
You must implement different onboarding elements like onboarding emails, in-app guides, a welcome screen to help the user reach the desired outcome. By doing that, your onboarding experience will inevitably answer potential questions and objects your users have, thus helping you reduce the work of your support team.
Now that we have covered the basics of user onboarding, let’s dive into the practices you can implement today to improve your user onboarding strategy.
11 SaaS Onboarding Best Practices to Implement In 2024
- Remove friction from the signup and onboarding process
- Qualify trial users
- Find your users’ desired outcome
- Help users conquer the learning curve
- Reduce the time-to-value
- Reach out to unengaged users
- Find the biggest objection
- Make users act on your CTAs
- Implement a 30, 60, and 90-day post-trial follow-up
- Nail down your trial length
- Offer assisted onboarding
1. Remove friction from the signup and onboarding process
Do you have a multi-step signup process? How many people start signing up for your tool, and how many finish the registration process? How long it takes, on average, to complete your signup? Once inside the app, how many steps does it take for your average customer to experience value?
If you are attracting an adequate number of website views but struggling to convert them to signups, or if you attract many signups but only a few become customers, you should look into these numbers. A product analytics tool like Mixpanel can help you visualize your signup process and onboarding funnel.
In the example below, taken from our Mixpanel account, only 3.44% of signups finish registering in Encharge. This indicated we had to remove all signup steps and allow everyone into the tool. Reducing friction to a minimum enabled us to compare app engagement before and after the changes. Later, we gradually added back the critical steps needed for personalization and qualification.
Other SaaS apps have also seen success by removing friction from the signup:
“We tracked our onboarding with Usermaven analytics to find the points of friction and measure how many users reach the activation point. We removed or optimized the steps with the most drop-off and simplified our onboarding process with fewer steps to increase the activation rate. Before introducing these changes, our trial conversion rate was roughly 9%. After optimizations, we improved it by 67%, which took it to 15.1%.”— Waqar Azeem, ContentStudio
Another common culprit for low signup/low conversions is requesting a credit card as a part of the signup process — also known as an opt-out trial model (the user has to explicitly cancel their trial). While the friction added from a credit card might reduce the number of unqualified trials to your tool, it might also put off many qualified signups.
“We used to ask for a credit card, but later we dropped that request and immediately saw a 71% increase in users wanting to try our software who previously dropped on the payment screen.”— Udit, First Sales
Similarly, our trials decreased drastically once we added a credit card to the Encharge signup process. Yet, we were still attracting unqualified users.
Just because something has worked for another startup does not mean it will work for yours. If you don’t have any data or are just starting out, the best approach would be to remove as much friction as possible and gradually add additional steps.
2. Qualify your trial users
Not all trial users are created equal. Apart from the obvious spammers that use temporary emails and gibberish names, a big portion of seemingly good trial users are not a fit for your tool. They might be too small, too big, looking for a completely different tool, or just curious and not genuinely searching for a solution at the moment.
As a founder with limited resources and time, you want to spend your efforts where they will most likely lead to conversions. You have to filter the good from the bad opportunities — this process is known as lead qualification.
To do that, you need to add friction. Yes, this tip is the opposite of our first suggestion. We said that there’s no one universal best approach.
To qualify users, you need to add an extra step (or more) in your signup process and ask 2-5 critical questions.
Use demographic and firmographic attributes (location, job role, company size), use cases (how the user aims to use your product), or any other information that can help you learn more about your users.
These questions will add additional onboarding friction but will help you build a more effective trial strategy and ultimately increase your trial conversion rate.
Waitwhile prompts the user to share their main use case
You want to qualify your trials to:
- Understand the results of your acquisition efforts and the quality of your website traffic.
- Learn how many are good and bad fit trials, and find out if you have a trial conversion problem or a TOFU (top of the funnel) acquisition problem.
- Understand how trial users intend to use your product.
- Understand what’s the users’ desired outcome. E.g., do they want to track live sessions to solve bugs or use surveys to understand their audience better.
- Provide a relevant onboarding experience and reduce the time to value based on their desired outcome.
3. Understand your users’ desired outcome
Before applying any additional guidelines mentioned in this article, it is crucial to understand the primary objectives of your users when utilizing your product. This involves recognizing your users’ core issue and the desired outcome they wish to accomplish.
Figuring this out can be challenging, as it requires talking with your existing clients, prospective customers, leads, and trial users. While this may be difficult when you’re just beginning and have limited data to draw from, once you gain a better understanding of your users’ goals, the rest of the recommendations in this guide become significantly easier to implement.
This step is about returning to the basics and identifying the perfect audience for your product. This includes understanding their needs and expectations, pain points and frustrations, goals and desired outcomes.
Pain points, frustrations, and goals of the Encharge ICP “Marketing Matt”
In the example below, Guru uses a customer quote to highlight the desired outcome when using their tool: “easily access the trusted information you need to do your job,” in the words of their ideal customer profile.
4. Help your trial users conquer the learning curve
One of the biggest challenges for every SaaS business is that new trial users have no clue how to use your tool when they first log into your app. Not only that, but usually, products get users to start with a blank slate.
Imagine you enter an airplane cockpit for the first time, and there are no labels on the panel buttons in front of you. You’ll most likely give up unless you have someone behind your shoulder to show you around.
With your SaaS, you don’t have the luxury of being in the same room as your trial users, so you better ensure your buttons are clearly labeled!
Here are some tips to make your app easier for first-time users
Use your dashboard
Your empty product’s dashboard screen is the most valuable piece of real estate in your entire product. You want to avoid having an empty state with little to no info on what the user needs to do when they are in your product for the first time.
While not terrible, the first page from the Pipedrive app misses the mark of being helpful. A couple of dummy deals or even a simple CTA button to create our first deal would’ve made this screen much more useful than a blank canvas.
The dashboard (or your first app page) is an excellent opportunity to implement a helpful welcome screen with clear next steps.
The example below is from a business dashboarding solution. They’re asking us to add data to start building our first dashboard — the next mission-critical step that we need to do to get value out of the product. While not radically different from the Pipedrive screen, this one provides a clear direction on what we need to do next.
If you have a complex product with multiple equally important actions, you can still highlight the top 3-5 steps in your app like Kajabi does in their welcome screen popup:
Provide demo data
Give your users something to start with, like templates, example campaigns, and sandbox projects. This will help your users cross the value gap by visualizing how your app works in practice and jumpstarting their own projects.
Video survey platform Videoask shows a bunch of template previews for inspiration:
But you are not limited to your app. Typeform, for example, shares their templates in one of their awesome-looking onboarding emails:
Another approach is to use your own software to demonstrate how it works, by creating pre-made tutorial files. This approach is often used by design platforms like Figma or doc apps like Notion.
Playbook welcome tutorials
Implement an in-app onboarding
Build a simple in-app guided tour focusing on the 3-5 most critical steps your users need to do in your app. Eliminate any other distractions that get in the way. Use a tool like Appcues or Userguiding to build simple guided tours that walk the user through your software.
Add an onboarding checklist
Checklists have been demonstrated to effectively prompt users to complete essential steps due to their ability to tap into the psychological principles of the Zeigarnik effect — the compulsion to finish incomplete tasks — and the endowed progress effect. These principles help explain why onboarding checklists (especially when accompanied by a progress bar) are so successful in driving user activation.
HelpScout uses checklists to onboard new users
However, avoid overloading your checklist with tasks. Also, consider offering a reward for users who complete the onboarding process, such as a discount coupon, extra account credits, or simply sending them an encouraging reward email.
5. Reduce the time to value
Time to value is understanding how long it takes for someone to see the value of your product. Once you know the user’s desired outcome with your product, it’s your paramount goal to reduce the time to value as much as possible.
Take out any unnecessary steps in your signup and onboarding process. Take out distractions or anything that doesn’t help the user get one step closer to their goal. And, yes, that means removing that useless email confirmation step:
Do you know that 87% of SaaS companies require that you verify your email address? However, they do it at different times in the onboarding process. 61% verify the user’s email before creating the account, and 26% do this after account creation.
If you must verify the user’s email, you must do it after they are inside the app. This will significantly reduce initial friction and allow the user time to experience value in your product (or at least get a glimpse of the product) before investing in validating their email.
The next step is to guide the user to the first and most important action in your product. Hotspots, tooltips, and in-app guided tours are a great way to achieve this.
6. Proactively reach out to un-engaged users
Instapage uses a nudge email to proactively reach out to people who have created a landing page but stopped before publishing it live. This is the type of guidance you want to provide to your trial users to get them back on track and in your app, completing the next critical activity in their user journey.
To send behavior-based emails like this, you need a marketing automation platform like Encharge that supports receiving events (a.k.a actions) from your app. Once the events are received in Encharge, setting up an automation flow with a nudge email is as easy as this:
In the example below, taken from our own Encharge account, we check if the user has performed the event “Flow Created” 3 days after they sign up for our tool. If they have failed to perform the event we send them a proactive help email:
7. Find the most common objection for your trial users
If everything fails, learn why people are not converting.
Do you know why your users are not converting? Use in-app surveys and email surveys to figure this out.
Below’s another example from Instapage that asks me why I haven’t upgraded.
You want to send this email a few days after the user trial has expired. Once you gather some responses, you should start to see patterns. Use this data to handle the most common objections for your users.
- People using a competitive solution — ensure mention your USPs and compare your tool to alternatives.
- Too expensive — offer discounts to your most engaged users.
- Too difficult to learn — ensure you have a good knowledge base and offer personalized help.
Alternatively, you can embed a platform like Churnkey and display a series of questions to your users when they start the cancellation in the app — also known as Cancellation flow.
Here’s what ours look like:
8. Make users act on your CTAs by demonstrating value
Don’t want to sound desperate in your follow-up emails? Then, demonstrate value across your copy.
Ensure that you demonstrate the significance of your product and its ability to aid your users in achieving their objectives. Users may have yet to encounter the value of your product, but it’s essential to establish the perception of its worth in line with their desired results. If not, you’re merely inundating them with unrelated emails.
Getting users to take actions = getting users to risk (in the form of time or money spent on their end.)
When you send trial follow-up emails, write landing pages or even in-app copy, state why people need to return to your app, activate that feature, upgrade, etc. In other words, why should they take the risk (think about their desired outcome)?
The email below does a good job of showing me how to upgrade but completely neglects to demonstrate why I need to upgrade.
Instead, they should mention:
- How Buglife has helped more than 300 development teams save hundreds of hours on bug fixing
- How Buglife has prevented Instacart’s website from going down and losing tens of thousands of dollars, and so on.
This would make me interested in learning more about their premium plans!
Demonstrating value is not limited to your email copy. Here’s an example of Pipedrive’s enticing copy used in the app. Compare this to a bland screen saying, “Upgrade to use this feature”. The difference is night and day.
9. Follow up 30, 60, and 90 days after the trial has expired
Half of SaaS trial conversions happen after the trial window.
That’s why you must go after post-trial sales and follow up with users after they churn through your trial.
If a user has signed up for your tool, it means they have shown some interest in what you offer. Still, life happens, and good timing often becomes bad. The goal of your 30/60/90-day follow-up email sequence is not to sell but to find out if the user still has the same problem.
Here’s a quick conversation starter that can help with that:
Some time ago, you signed up for
[Product] helps people
[solve #1 problem].
Is this problem still relevant to you, or have you already found a solution?
Let me know? 🙂
The Trial Ends trigger step in Encharge is the easiest way to trigger emails X days after a trial ends. It dynamically takes the trial end date of the user and sends the emails at the right time. Just set up the step to send to fire 30, 60, or 90 days after the trial ends like this:
And connect it to a Send Email step:
Last but not least, you want to remove people from the flow when they become a customer using the End Flow step.
If you need help setting up follow-up trial emails, don’t hesitate to book a demo call with us.
10. Nail down your trial length
A widely held belief is that a 14-day free trial strikes the perfect balance. This duration is neither too brief, allowing users ample time to appreciate your tool’s value, nor too lengthy, ensuring some urgency to familiarize themselves with the platform. A lengthier trial might be necessary for intricate systems with a more extended time-to-value, while simpler platforms could consider testing a 7-day trial or even shorter one.
For example, resume building platform Enhancv takes an interesting approach to their trial. There’s no signup required to start building your resume, but you need to sign up for an account to save your work, and they only offer 7 days to try it out.
“It is essential to ensure that your risk-free trial period is acceptable, meaning it is neither excessively short nor excessively long. This helps ensure that users have sufficient time to get acquainted with the product and make an informed decision while preventing them from abusing the trial period and wasting the company’s resources.”— Kal Dimitrov, marketer at Enhancv
We asked 18 SaaS experts what’s the ideal trial length. If you plan on optimizing your trial length, we encourage you to start with this post.
11. Offer assisted onboarding
Product-led growth has been the talk of the last few years, but it’s by no means the be-all and end-all solution to onboarding.
In a competitive landscape where everyone is fighting for the attention of each user, few businesses can rely on self-serve onboarding alone. Most SaaS businesses use a combination of PLG and assisted onboarding.
Note that assisted onboarding is different from sales-led growth. With assisted onboarding, your goal is to help the user by guiding them in your tool via support calls and chat while still offering free access so that they can explore on their terms. On the other hand, sales-led growth relies on high-touch sales calls and limited access to the tool to convert and onboard trials.
PLG, assisted onboarding, sales-led growth, or a hybrid model? What is the best model?
Unfortunately, like with most other things, the answer is — it depends. Various factors can influence the effectiveness of the model on your business. We’ve explored sales-driven vs. product-driven onboarding in more detail for the ones who are interested in the topic.
However, it’s safe to conclude that if you are currently offering a free trial, you will see an improvement in your conversion rates if your CS reps assist with the onboarding process.
That said, It’s also important to keep in mind that the most popular (or exciting) approach is not always the most effective strategy for your startup, as Trevor Longino from Summary.legal can attest:
“One of our biggest improvements on trial conversion rates was removing the free trial option on Summary.legal. It makes sense when you think about it, but it’s quite counterintuitive to your average SaaS marketer: lawyers aren’t going to upload client videos to some random website. ‘Book a demo’ sees a 788% increase in signup conversion over ‘free trial’.”
SaaS OnboardingStrategy Best Practices — Conclusion
Getting people to convert is hard, but what’s easy in SaaS anyway? As you can see, there are no growth hacks and 5-minute quick fixes here. However, if you follow these rules, you are setting up your onboarding foundation for success in the long term.
At Encharge, we have helped dozens of SaaS companies increase their trial conversion rates with behavior-driven emails. Book a quick call with us now if you need personal help with your trial conversion.
More resources on product onboarding
- 28 SaaS Free Trial Best Practices to Supercharge Your Growth In 2024
- 16+ Onboarding Emails You Can Steal in 2020
- 10 SaaS Startups (Like You) Share Their Best Onboarding Emails
- You’re Using Trial Expiration Emails the Wrong Way. Let’s Fix it
- 45 Effective Welcome Message Examples Analyzed
- [Webinar] User Onboarding Emails — Examples & Best Practices