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User Onboarding: 27 Tips from SaaS Marketing Experts

The user onboarding is only the first step. 

But it spans beyond the one-time experience that we always treat it. Onboarding is also the few delightful interactions sprinkled throughout the customer journey. 

Not many realize this, but onboarding also happens when an expired trial *finally* upgrades to your paid plans. Or when you’re introducing a new feature.

But most SaaS miss these golden opportunities. Look at this:

  • 89% of SaaS businesses focus on acquiring new customers 
  • 59% mark “existing customer renewals” as a priority
  • Only 46% prioritize upselling and add-on sales 

Notice the heavy focus on new users, and only secondary attention is given to existing customers?

The better strategy is to take your onboarding from merely functional to downright enticing, not just to new users but to existing ones as well. 

It’s a consistent delight that makes SaaS users stay, anyway.

So how and where to start? 

In this post, we’ll share how you can bring quick wins during onboarding to the very first upgrade — and even the after-onboarding of customers.

To make this more actionable, we also include tips from 27+ SaaS marketing experts.

What is SaaS user onboarding?

User onboarding is the process of guiding and familiarizing new users with your product. It’s the pathway that connects your initial point of user acquisition to their successful product adoption, a.k.a. the AHA! moment. You should focus on designing an intuitive first experience that makes the new user feel at ease and welcome.

And this usually involves:

  • interactive tutorials
  • product tours
  • on-screen prompts
  • tooltips
  • contextual help (knowledge base, library of tutorials, FAQs)

If you look closely, this is a rather specific term for SaaS onboarding because we’re talking about new users (in other words, potential customers) here. 

So in the case of SaaS using freemium or free trial models, they signed up to try your product but aren’t paying yet.

The key to successful SaaS user onboarding is to make it as simple as possible and help first-time users understand how your product works fast. This includes navigating the product seamlessly and getting the most out of it in the shortest amount of time.

Why spend time perfecting your user onboarding?

User onboarding sets the stage for the user’s overall experience with your SaaS. That makes it an opportunity to make it positive and lasting so these users become happy, paying customers.

Plus, user onboarding does all these:

User onboarding accelerates time-to-value. This is the time it takes for new users to get value from using a product or service. And effective user onboarding expedites this with a structured introduction to the product, making the user comfortable with the app’s interface, navigation, and key functionalities—shortening the path to achieving their desired outcomes. 

It helps reduce churn. Churn happens when users stop using your product and prematurely abandon you to compete. A workaround is to give a memorable and value-based user onboarding process. You can reduce churn significantly by helping users overcome the early roadblocks.

It reduces support tickets. It’s normal to receive support tickets during user onboarding, but some tickets indicate important issues with your product. Besides the negative connotation of your product, that could mean your support team spends a lot of time responding to requests. A successful user onboarding process results in fewer customer support needs.

It provides a competitive advantage. A well-designed user onboarding is a huge differentiator. This is backed up by the fact that 74% of people will switch to another solution if the onboarding process is difficult. If your software is intuitive, users will recommend it to others over a competitor’s platform—much like word-of-mouth marketing.

It boosts customer satisfaction. If your onboarding is tedious or, worse, nonexistent, it’ll hurt user satisfaction. Instead, a user-friendly user onboarding process makes new users feel that your product is what they need and can use immediately! And that positive experience encourages them to use it frequently.

Understanding and mapping the customer journey 

To design your onboarding effectively, you must understand and map your customer journey first

If you want to perfect your user onboarding, choose a tool like Encharge, which helps you visually map out your onboarding. Use its drag-and-drop flow builder to easily map and connect the steps in boosting user activation. 

Eric Dalius, Executive Chairman of MuzicSwipe, shares they also start with the customer journey.

“Customer success is more than a buzzword; it is the bedrock of a prosperous SaaS business. Your SaaS customer onboarding procedure should demonstrate your dedication to assisting them in achieving their objectives as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Creating a customer success journey map is the initial step in nurturing a culture of customer success.

You can start designing your onboarding process when you know what the end goal looks like and what outcomes your users are after.

As Cath Brands, CMO of Flintfox said, 

Begin with the end in mind.  Onboarding SaaS users should always be approached with the end in mind, and for us, that end means customers with full confidence and mastery using our product. When the “end” goal is decided, you can craft your entire SaaS onboarding experience to support and lead to that end.”

And according to Openview, the user journey usually looks like this: 

Let’s jump into how onboarding aligns with the various stages of the customer journey in detail:

For the nth time, onboarding starts even before a user signs up. It actually starts during the discovery stage, where potential users become aware of your SaaS product. 

Take Twilio, for example.

Their Facebook ad prompts a Facebook surfer to visit their website. 

Clicking download to get the free guides redirects you to a form within their website — and that’s how you ultimately discover them. This starts Twilio’s onboarding: the homepage is carefully designed to get an initial glimpse of the product’s value. 

There’s even social proof and a case study to entice visitors to sign up for a free trial. 

The initial stage usually starts once a user signs up (whether for a free trial or a freemium plan). This onboarding process is kicked off with a simple registration process. 

And simplifying the way to register is a tried and tested strategy shared when we asked SaaS experts how they improved their trial conversions.

You can take inspiration from Encharge, where an email or a Google account is enough to sign up for the platform’s 14-day free trial. 

And after you finally sign up, Encharge’s new user officially enters the user onboarding process. You’ll be welcomed with a video introduction, walkthrough, and a quick checklist, all accounting for a smooth and seamless start to your journey.

Activation is the pivotal stage where users experience the core value of your product. And good user onboarding helps users understand how to effectively use your product and achieve their desired outcomes.

Look at this support trial email from Zendesk:

It’s an invitation for a one-on-one onboarding call or direct access to the customer support team that supports further user activation.

The conversion stage is obviously when you convert users into paying customers. Onboarding at this stage often involves showcasing premium features, offering trial upgrades, or incentivizing subscribers to upgrade to a paid plan. 

Trello is the best example of a SaaS offering trial upgrades. Here’s my dashboard after signing up for a free trial:

If you decide to get the premium trial, the exclusive features are listed here.

Even after users convert, the onboarding process doesn’t end. 

Enter the scale stage. This time, you must support users in scaling their usage and maximizing the value they derive from your product. It also includes ongoing educational resources to help users explore additional features and fully leverage the product. 

Here’s Avokaado sending me constant updates despite being a free-trial-turned-freemium user only. 

But there’s an important point you must keep in mind: 

Your onboarding is greatly affected by whether you’re product-led or sales-led business.

Here’s what I mean:

  • In the discovery and start phases of the customer journey, a product-led onboarding approach is based on self-service, so users explore and understand the product on their own. On the contrary, sales-led onboarding means the sales team assists you in earning the navigation to the product’s in-depth value. 
  • The activation stage is critical for users to experience the core value of your product. Depending on the complexity of your product and the user’s need for guidance, a mix of product-led and sales-led onboarding can be effective. 

But for more complex products or when users require personalized assistance—having a sales-led strategy, such as offering demos or access to customer support, can ensure a successful activation.

Here’s an example of a SaaS implementing sales-led onboarding. 

To get started with ServiceNow (a platform for tech management), you have to reach out to sales. The product is complex to fully learn its value from simply reading the website.

Finally, when it comes to converting B2B users and upsells, a sales-led onboarding approach often becomes more relevant. 

Because these stages that involve direct sales engagement, like negotiation of pricing plans and personalized demonstrations to showcase the value of premium features or upgrades.  

VisitUs is a good example: 

“At VisitUs, we offer our users an onboarding demonstration led by our sales team. Our best onboarding practice includes personalizing our demonstrations for a specific user. This gives us the opportunity to give them unique examples of how our visitor management system can help them.” 

— Alister Wood, Owner of VisitUs

Likewise, a product-led strategy can win users even without direct sales involvement. 

Unsure which to pick between product-led and sales-led onboarding?

Rafael Sarim Oezdemir, Founder and CEO of Zendog Labs had good advice:

“Typically, user onboarding would be led more through a product-led growth motion (for us and the startups I worked with in the past). The reason here is that users don’t pay and you need to keep customer acquisition cost under control. That said, if the lifetime value of a customer is high enough, it may be worth doing hands-on user onboarding as well. It really comes down to CLTV:CAC”

User onboarding IS NOT a one-time event

SaaS user onboarding extends much more than a single event or a one-time process. It’s a continuous effort. 

And Tracey Adams, Chief Operations Officer of Rocketseed agrees. She shares, 

Just because a customer has had training doesn’t mean the onboarding is finished. Post-training check-ins are equally important to ensure customers have all they need and ultimately get the best results from the tool they have paid for. This also provides insights into any additional explanatory content required to help optimize future onboardings.”

So is onboarding totally new users the same as onboarding newly paying customers? Let’s see!

User onboarding vs. customer onboarding

First, user onboarding is typically associated with the initial stages of a user’s journey, where the primary goal is to create a positive, lasting first impression. Your onboarding process should reflect the quality and reliability of your product.

And right here, it’s the chance to introduce customer onboarding

When users become customers, the focus now is more on nurturing and retaining them. And this requires delivering ongoing value, maintaining engagement, and identifying opportunities for upselling or expanding the customer relationship. 

To sum it up:

During user onboarding, you aim to:During customer onboarding, you aim to:
Introduce users to the product and help them navigate and understand your product’s key features.Help customers fully leverage the product’s capabilities, explore advanced features, and optimize their workflows to maximize the value they’re already getting.
Highlight the value proposition to demonstrate how it addresses users’ pain points and improves their workflows.Provide continuous support and assistance to address any questions or concerns that arise during their journey.
Engage new users through personalized interactions, proactive support, and educational resources that empower them to achieve their desired outcomes.Monitor customer usage patterns, identify expansion opportunities, and provide tailored recommendations to encourage customers to upgrade, add-on features, or explore higher-tier plans.

When we asked SaaS experts whether they have a separate and distinct process, we got different opinions.

Let’s hear first from those with different user and customer onboarding processes:

“There’s definitely a shift in onboarding when users mature into customers. The [user] onboarding focus is more toward high-level features and benefits. The customer onboarding process, on the other hand, is more detail-oriented. There’s a focus on advanced features, hands-on training, goal setting, usage habit creation, and ongoing support.”

— Daniel Chabert, CEO and Founder at PurpleFire

“User onboarding focuses on familiarizing users with the basics of the product, while customer onboarding addresses their specific needs and goals. The main difference is the level of customization and personalization. We aim to provide a tailored experience for each customer to ensure their success with our SaaS product.”

— Don Vacal, CEO and Co-Founder of AltPayNet

For those who treat it the same, here’s what they have to say:

“At Rocketseed we do NOT do another onboarding when users become customers as any “trial” users receive a full onboarding at the start of their trial. At any point, our account managers can recap any onboarding steps and also proactively keep in touch with clients to ensure they continue to get the most from our email signature management software.”

— Tracey Adams, Chief Operations Officer at Rocketseed

“When it comes to turning users into customers, we do NOT necessarily conduct another round of extensive onboarding.  This is because our initial user onboarding process includes all the necessary steps for users to understand and utilize our product effectively. However, we do provide ongoing support through customer success teams who are readily available to address any questions or concerns that may arise during their journey as paying customers.”

— Vaibhav Kakkar, CEO of Digital Web Solutions 

Again, this decision boils down to several factors: whether you’re sales or product led, simple or sophisticated SaaS, and the stage of your SaaS among others.

Designing the onboarding process

We listed some best practices to help you design the “perfect” onboarding and score quick wins asap for both user and customer onboarding. 

We won’t dig deep into the how since we already talked about designing free trial onboarding a lot here. We’ll instead focus on the practical tips you can test and implement right away.

Best practices for quick wins during user onboarding (+ examples)

1. Try ungated demos 

Ever found software only to be greeted by a sign-up form requesting all your contact information before giving you a chance to play around and see if it’s right for you? It kind of feels off, right? 

I think Reprise gets this. They give users the option to schedule a demo — or just try the product for themselves.

Choosing to see it in action lets users explore and interact with their product before requiring them to sign up. And it’s thrilling to have a hands-on experience! 

For more hands-on ideas, listen to the pros:

“Demos play a vital role in highlighting the advantages of your B2B SaaS product.  By showcasing your product through demos, you can facilitate faster and smoother client engagement, making it easier for them to grasp the user experience and desired outcomes. In essence, demos act as a powerful tool to communicate the unique value proposition of your software and guide customers towards a successful adoption.”

David Bitton, Co-founder and CMO, DoorLoop

“The quicker the customer gets to ‘aha,’ the better.” You know that moment when you’re trying a new product, and you suddenly see what it can REALLY do, even though all you did was press a key or write some text? ChatGPT is a great example — they weren’t the first AI text generator out there, but they were the most intuitive. You could literally type anything and see the results.”

Denise Hemke, Chief Product Officer at Checkr

2. Relentlessly find and eliminate friction points

Streamline the sign-up process to make it as effortless as possible. Minimize the number of required fields, offer social media login options, or enable single sign-on (SSO) integrations.

SurveyMonkey is another software with an easy signing-up method — an email will do!

Signup is usually the biggest friction point. To spot other areas where users have a hard time going through, here are what the pros suggest: 

“We were surprised at how many new and existing customers got stuck at adding profiles to the queue (initial to-process list). We had dozens of tickets from people who did not understand how to add profiles to the queue. This forced us to extend the onboarding to this stage.”

— Daria Erina, Managing Director at Linked Helper 

“We regularly assess user behavior, identify pain points or bottlenecks, and iterate on our onboarding materials and workflows.  By staying proactive and responsive to user needs, we can enhance the onboarding experience, improve user adoption rates, and drive customer satisfaction.”

— Max Shak, Founder/CTO at nerDigita

3. Plan a customized onboarding

Tailor the onboarding experience based on each customer’s industry, use case, and specific behavior. Onboarding journeys can be personalized and resonate with users by leveraging data and insights. 

Here’s an example from Productboard. 

It’s part of the onboarding after you’ve created a workspace.

Another way to provide customized onboarding experiences is by sending behavior-based emails. They’re targeted and only triggered by the user’s actions. 

A tool like Encharge is the perfect option to let you do this. With it, you can easily build custom-tailored campaigns with this platform so every onboarding email feels relevant. 

“Ask open-ended questions, like ‘What were you attempting to accomplish when you originally signed up?’ and group the answers into three to five value themes.  You should know the major objectives or results consumers hope to achieve with your product before you start improving [and customizing] the onboarding experience.”

Tristan Harris, Demand Generation Senior Marketing Manager at Thrive Agency 

4. Implement different onboarding style options

Not everyone learns the same way. As such, you need to offer different styles of onboarding to accommodate varied learning styles. This could include videos, text-based tutorials, product tours, self-paced options, or customer support. 

Spline offers a product tour to get started, or you can simply choose tutorials and a library for in-depth explanations.

“My best advice for onboarding SaaS users is to provide a variety of interactive and self-serve options.  At any point in the process, a new user or customer should be able to contact a real person for support, or jump ahead if they are already familiar with similar products.

— Stanislav Khilobochenko, VP of Customer Services at Clario 

“Users learn by doing as they are guided through an experience using an interactive tutorial. The user’s progress through the onboarding flow (or tour) should be conditional on their actual completion of each preceding phase. Provide dynamic product tours, not linear ones.

—  Faizan Ahmed, Sr. Content Marketing Specialist at UBUY Kuwait 

“But make it worthwhile by asking them a couple of questions about what they want to achieve (their goals, jobs to be done), or by adding buttons that would allow them to ‘choose their own journey’ — select the action they want to do first.  It can be a game-changer if you use the first screen a user sees after signing up to categorize them according to their desired outcomes”

Te Wu, CEO at PMO Advisory (Headshot

5. Divide complex concepts into bite-sized tutorials

Break down big, complex tasks and information into bite-sized, digestible chunks to avoid overwhelming new users. Present information in a clear and concise manner, focusing on the most essential aspects of your product. 

Clearbit simplifies their tasks by presenting them as a checklist of to-dos.

“We provide clear instructions, breaking tasks into bite-sized steps that are easy to digest. We take it one step at a time, introducing advanced features gradually as users get comfortable. With interactive tutorials and demos, we make learning a hands-on adventure.”

Tariq, Head of Digital  Marketing and Business Leader at FlexiPCB

“User onboarding focuses on breaking down complex processes into digestible steps with clear and concise language in the user interface.”

— Blake Smith, Marketing Manager at ClockOn 

6. Use onboarding tools

Integrate onboarding software to optimize the onboarding experience and empower users. These tools may include chatbots, in-app guidance, interactive checklists, progress trackers, tool tips, user behavior trackers, or data analytics software.

Some tools you can use are Userpilot and Appcues.

Here, experts share how they use these tools to improve their onboarding: 

“We analyse data and metrics related to user behavior, conversion rates, and customer success to identify areas for improvement.”

Shaan Nicol, CEO and Founder of ChillyBin

“Using A/B testing and tracking, we can find out what your customers are looking for. Over time, this helps us improve the customer experience and the onboarding process. We run tests for at least two business cycles (usually two to four weeks).”

— Stoyan, CEO and Co-founder | Dreamix

7. Polish the process

Flexibility and adaptability in the onboarding process are a must. 

It’ll let you explore options to change what’s not working and optimize what is, enhancing the user experience. 

View user onboarding as a scalable solution that should always adapt to your product pivots or changes and the needs of the users. To do so, you’ll need to evaluate your current onboarding regularly. 

But how often should you optimize? Which ones should you change? 

Let’s learn from our experts: 

“The user onboarding experience should be kept open and changeable for it to be a huge success.  If you could add manageable tweaks, you make the process easier and more efficient. The users feel safe and comfortable with you, with more of their concerns met.”

— Daniel Ufland, Co-Founder at With Flitch

“Onboarding process optimization, therefore, should never be an afterthought. I liken it to visiting a doctor for a regular check-up. It’s a preventative measure ensuring the process stays healthy and effective. While there’s no set frequency for these “check-ups,” consider them a continuous, ongoing process. Regular audits, feedback analysis, and data-driven improvements should be part of your optimization arsenal.”

— Goran Luledzija, CEO at Localizely 

“As a rule of thumb major overhauls should happen every 6-12 months, allowing for ideas to percolate and consistent user feedback to come in. Don’t let that stop you from making minor changes on a weekly basis, however, particularly when they’re backed by the data.”

Denise Hemke, Chief Product Officer at Checkr 

Best practices for quick wins during customer onboarding (+ examples)

Now, this is how you hook those users in and keep them until they become long-time paying customers and your SaaS advocates.

1.  Personalize upgrade recommendations

Use data and customer insights to deliver personalized upgrade recommendations. Start by analyzing usage patterns, customer behavior, and specific needs to identify opportunities for upselling or offering higher-tier plans. 

SaaS experts practice this, and they share how:

“Onboarding existing users as customers presents an opportunity to introduce them to other relevant products, upgrades, or add-ons that can enhance their experience. This can be done through personalized recommendations or targeted messaging during the transition.”

— Harshit Singh, Business Head at VPN Guide

2. Ensure a smooth plan-switching process

Make it easy for customers to switch between different plans or upgrade/downgrade their subscriptions. You have to create a clear and intuitive interface that allows customers to modify their plan preferences with minimal effort. 

Look at Zoom, which offers a simple way to change and configure a plan. Also, you can view the plan’s full comparison to see the features included in each tier.  

And along with the switch, support should be top priority. 

“Recognize how important the transition from sales to customer success is. This is when new customers are at their weakest. They wonder whether they’ve made the right decision to spend money on your product. That’s why it’s extremely important to get in touch with new customers immediately and show readiness to help and overdeliver early.”

Rafael Sarim Oezdemir, Founder and CEO at Zendog Labs

3. Emphasize exclusivity (and perks) for paying customers

You should offer exclusive features, resources, and support to your paying customers to demonstrate the value they receive for their investment. You can add advanced functionalities, priority customer support, dedicated account managers, or access to premium content. 

Most of the time, the exclusive features for each tier are indicated on the pricing page, just like HubSpot. 

Other SaaS also entice paying customers with extra account credits to keep them using the product:

“Don’t forget to throw in a little something extra at the end to thank your new users for finishing the tasks, like a discount voucher or extra account credits.”

—  Bob Smith, Founder at Starlinkzone

4. Establish an active feedback loop

Set up a feedback loop with customers during the customer onboarding process. Encourage them to share their thoughts, suggestions, and concerns. Then actively listen to customer feedback and take action to address their needs and improve your product or service. 

Here’s an email from Spotify after helping with my issue with their charges, here’s an email from Spotify. They sent a quick survey to review their customer support. 

“We do an [optional and free] intro call and once the users become customers.  In this call, we help the customers with queries like account setup, training of a module, customer support, and relationship building. At times, we also use this opportunity to do upsale of services like do a complete setup for them.”

— Abhay, Agile Coach and Project Manager at Teaching Agile

5. Migration support

If customers need to migrate from a previous platform or system, you can support to ensure they have a smooth transition to your app. Help with documentation, tools, or even personalized assistance to guide customers through the data migration process. 

Here again, is Encharge software offering dedicated data migration support, assisting customers in seamlessly transferring their data from previous platforms.

“Make the switch to Encharge by simply flipping the switch. We handle the hard work for you — import your contacts, build your email templates, recreate your email content, and design your flows. Just lean back and enjoy your tea while we migrate you to the most powerful marketing platform for startups and digital businesses.”

7 metrics to track your onboarding process

Tracking your onboarding process involves monitoring key metrics that tell you how effective and efficient it is.

The experts agree:

“My advice to onboarding users is to ensure the alignment of goals and expectations is agreed to upfront. It’s critical that the SaaS vendor understands the customer’s KPIs for measuring success.”

— Mark Jamensky, Chief Growth Officer at Trellis

“Our optimization efforts include analyzing user behavior and engagement metrics to identify areas of improvement. We closely monitor conversion rates, user drop-off points, and customer feedback to identify the pain points and optimize the onboarding flow accordingly.”

— Gowri Ramkumar, Vice President – Sales and Customer Success at Kovai.co

Here are 7 metrics to analyze:

  1. Time to first value (TTFV): This metric compares the efficiency of your SaaS user onboarding process by measuring how quickly users can understand and derive value from your product. It’s directly proportional to the user experience and customer satisfaction with a streamlined onboarding journey.
  2. Time-to-adoption: This metric measures the time it takes for users to adopt and incorporate your product into their regular workflows fully. A shorter time to adoption indicates a successful onboarding process that effectively guides users toward becoming proficient users.
  3. Activation rate: The activation rate measures the success of your SaaS user onboarding by measuring the percentage of users who complete important actions or milestones. It reflects how effectively your onboarding process guides users to become active and engaged.
  4. User engagement: Measure user engagement metrics, such as time spent using the product, frequency of logins, feature usage, or the number of interactions. Tracking user engagement lets you get insights into your product’s adoption level and ongoing usage
  5. Conversion rate: All onboarding process includes conversion goals. So track the conversion rate to measure the percentage of users who complete desired actions, such as upgrading to a paid plan, making a purchase, or subscribing to additional features.
  6. Number of support requests: You must keep tabs on the number (and type) of support requests or inquiries during your onboarding process. An increase in support requests may indicate that the onboarding experience could be improved or that users need more help.
  7. Customer lifetime value (CLTV): CLTV measures the total value a customer generates over their entire relationship with your business. So watching CLTV helps assess the long-term impact of your onboarding process on customer retention, expansion, and revenue generation.

Important note: Don’t just directly compare these numbers. SaaS free trial conversion rates need a deeper look as a lot of underlying factors affect it. Here’s how to interpret these numbers.

User onboarding is not a set-and-forget process 

The reality in SaaS is that it’s not an uncommon occurrence to have sign-ups, log in once, and then never log in again. Or after a free trial period to abandon an app. 

But should you just let them go without a fight?

Heck, no! 

Onboarding solves this and MORE.

It has a huge influence on conversion and has a bigger influence on your churn. Post-onboarding is not really a thing and it’s high time that it should.

You should still nurture the relationship with even users after they have completed (or prematurely ended) the onboarding process, so there’s a chance for them to come back and finally get your high-tiered plans.

Whether it’s new user onboarding or onboarding a newly paying customer or even re-engaging inactive users who dropped off after onboarding, constant, but relevant communication helps
Use Encharge to constantly communicate with the right users and customers at the right time. Nurture, convert, and onboard customers with advanced behavior emails. Try it free.

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“Encharge helped us visually redesign our onboarding flow resulting in a 10% increase in our trial activation rate."

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