Time-based Vs. Action-based Onboarding Emails. Can they work together?

Kalo Yankulov

Kalo Yankulov

Co-founder and marketer at Encharge.

After figuring out the perfect trial length in a SaaS product, the debate of “time-based vs. action-based emails” is probably the hottest topic when it comes to email onboarding.  

Based on our experience, 80% of SaaS products send time-based emails only. Bigger SaaS companies in the growth stage are not an exception either.

Why so few products use action-based emails? Does that mean that time-based emails are more effective than triggered emails? Which one should you use? Is the hassle of setting up triggered-based emails worth going through?

I try to answer these questions and more in this post.

Why so few SaaS companies send triggered emails?

Before we dive into the differences between each type, it’s worth exploring why so few products have action-triggered emails in place, and time-based sequences are still rampant among tech startups.

After working with SaaS companies for over a year building onboarding flows for them, we have concluded that setting up action-based emails is a real challenge for the majority of SaaS companies.

What makes it that difficult?

  1. Trigger-based emails are complex to understand. You need to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve with them. The majority of the startups don’t have a clue what their goals with onboarding emails are.
  2. Most of the startups lack an understanding of their product’s value moments, which makes it hard to map a concrete success path for their customers. Therefore it’s easier and “safer” to stick with a one-size-fits-all onboarding that neglects the personalized customer journey.
  3. They’re technically difficult to set up. Input from the developers is required. This creates significant bottlenecks for the marketing or product person in charge of setting up the emails. We have found that marketing-related development is usually put on the back burner, and almost always overshadowed by product-focused tasks such as building a new feature or fixing a critical bug.
  4. Decision making is long. As triggered emails are closely tied with the infrastructure of the product, the decision-making process usually involves both the developer and the CEO of the product.
  5. Popular marketing automation tools don’t support triggered campaigns out of the box or have a steep learning curve.

All these make building triggered emails a pain. That’s why SaaS companies default to sending simple, time-based email sequences with little to no segmentation, but this has little to do with the effectiveness of the two types of emails.

Which type of onboarding email is more effective?

To evaluate the effectiveness of your emails, first, you must know your goal. What do you want to achieve with your onboarding emails?

  • Convert free trial users to paying customers through a self-serve onboarding model.
  • Get leads on a demo call.
  • Onboard paying customers.
  • Collect product feedback, and so on.

Once you set your target, you can track how well your emails are helping you achieve that target. Do changes in your emails correlate with an increase in trial conversion, more bookings, higher retention, etc.

Since you have probably started with time-based emails, you should already have a baseline to evaluate against. As you implement your first trigger-based campaigns, you can begin comparing the numbers.

What about stats and reports?

There are a ton of reports on triggered vs. time-based emails like this one and this one, but the truth is that no SaaS-specific reports exist to date. The majority of these insights are based on numbers from retail businesses. Moreover, the studies compare mass emails (i.e., newsletters/broadcasts) vs. triggered emails, which is an entirely different thing.

That said, we have seen a significant increase in the email engagement and trial conversion rate with some of our customers when trigger-based emails are implement compared to only using a time-based sequence.

Time-based onboarding emails Vs. Action-based onboarding emails — which one should you use after all?

The question here is not one or the other. A well-executed email onboarding would implement both time-based and action-based emails without overwhelming users with too many messages.

In fact, this is one of our go-to strategies when we’re tasked with creating onboarding campaigns for our customers. We like to create two different onboarding flows — one for the action-triggered emails and another one for the time-based emails.

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Veremark’s onboarding flows.

Action-based onboarding emails

Action-based or triggered-based emails are sent when users interact (or fail to interact) with your product.

For example, online payment solution Payfacile sends a reward email when a user connects their Stripe account, as well as drives the user to Switch to “Live mode”.

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✅ Action-based emails are timely and in pace with the user journey. The user receives the information when they care and are ready to engage with it the most, which leads to higher open and clickthrough rates.

✅ It’s possible for activated users to receive the whole onboarding in less time, and upgrade before the end of the trial window.

✅ Users only receive what is relevant to them.

Important: A single irrelevant email could jeopardize your whole onboarding efforts. Let’s say you run a tool like Payfacile and send a nudge email prompting a user to connect their Stripe account. The issue is, this user had already connected their Stripe account a day ago. This will not only create redundancy but will build a negative perception in your user’s mind, as the user could perceive their whole onboarding experience as irrelevant from that email onward.

✅ Targeted and customized. Action-based emails work like segments of one, as each user receives a customized email based on their experience with your app.

How to set up action-based onboarding emails?

Action-based onboarding emails are great but as we discussed in the previous section, they might be extremely complicated to get live.

Here’s a brief cheat sheet to help you with that task.

  1. Take the lead on and plan the whole project.
    Treat action-based emails as a project. Put your project management hat and devise a clear plan on how you’re going to implement them, with timeframes and deadlines. Make sure to have clear instructions for everybody involved in the project — the C-level people, developers, email copywriters, and so on. Without a well-defined action plan, the action-based emails will never see the day of light.
  2. Start with 3 critical actions only.
    Start with the 3 most critical user actions. Those should be based on the most important value moments in your app. Do not go overboard designing the most sophisticated action-based onboarding campaign with dozens of action-triggered email. Done is better than perfect in that case, and you can always expand the flow in the future.
  3. Create an event tracking plan for your developers
    More on this in the following resources.

Action-based emails further resources

Time-based onboarding emails

Time-based onboarding emails is a sequence of emails (also called an autoresponder sequence) that sends emails based on the passing of specific periods or waiting times.

This is how a part of a time-based onboarding looks in Encharge:

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The best part is that you can set up some very specific time periods. Like wait for 1 day and then wait until Monday between 9 AM and 5 PM in the timezone of the user.

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Time-based emails are super easy to set up — all you need to do is sent your users to the marketing automation platform, and you can start creating your onboarding sequence.

Here are some of the use cases of time-based emails:

✅  Welcoming new users. The welcome email is obviously something you’d want to send to all of your trial or freemium users. You can still segment based on user attributes to make it more relevant.

✅ Notify users about trial expiration. Trial expiration emails are sent at a specific time, usually, 1-3 days before a trial is over.

✅  Case studies, testimonials, feedback emails, and others

How to use triggered emails with time-based emails effectively

You might be reading this and starting to think that you’ll overwhelm your users if you implement the two types in your product onboarding. And you’re right, if not executed well an onboarding campaign that employes the two kinds of emails could annoy users.

There are a couple of tactics that you can use to make sure you’re not over-emailing your users.

Use Wait times wisely

As I previously shared, Encharge has a neat Wait feature that can help you send emails at the right time. I like to use that feature to make sure that emails are sent evenly.

Action-based emails are sent when a user does or doesn’t do something in your app, but you still have some control over the time when an action-based email is sent. What you want to do is delay the triggered email until a specific time.

For example, let’s say you’re sending a nudge email when a user starts doing something in your product but doesn’t finish it. Instead of just waiting for X days before you send the nudge email, you can set up your Wait step to “Wait for X days and then wait until Day is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday”. This means that the nudge email could only be sent on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.

This leaves Tuesday, Thursday, and the weekend open for your time-based emails. So you’ll want to use “Wait until Day is Tuesday, Thursday, etc.” for your time-based sequence. That way, you can spread your time-based and action-based emails evenly.

Use End flow to eject users from flows

You want to make sure you’re not sending irrelevant emails to people. You can use the “End Flow” step in Encharge to eject users from flows.

For example, let’s say a user converts. You want to avoid sending them any trial expiration emails. To achieve that in Encharge, you’d use a trigger like “Entered Segment Customers” connected to an “End flow” stop, which will automatically eject people from the whole trial expiration sequence.

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