Jul 12, 2019

Read Time 12 min

How to Create a Great User Onboarding Experience That Leads to Product Adoption and Customer Success


This is a guest blog post by Andy Mura, the Head of Marketing at Userlane.

When you think of the reasons why churn happens, what immediately comes to mind? Perhaps product problems, loss of a key user in the account, a bad use case… 

Sure, these are some reasons why customers may churn, but the reality is that your churn rate is deeply connected to the quality of onboarding journey your users go through. 

And I’m not only talking about desired outcome churn or low trial-to-paid conversion rate that occurs when new users abandon your platform before turning into customers. I’m talking about long-term churn. 

Does this sound surprising to you?

Bear with me for a second while we go through the user adoption journey and you’ll see how customer success is tightly linked to the user onboarding journey and proactive support you offer.

Onboarding: the beginning of the customer journey

Your user adoption journey starts long before users actually interact with your product or platform. 

Your promotional activities and the educational content you share with your audience need to raise awareness about a specific issue and then link the solution to that problem with the capabilities of your own solution. 

User adoption involves making sure that every time an individual or an organization needs to tackle a task, they consider your solution as the go-to application. 

Outstanding brands create connections between customer needs and their solution. 

Do you need to improve team communication? Check Slack. Do you want to share large files with external parties? Dropbox. Helpdesk? Freshdesk. Online meetings? Zoom…

The examples are plenty. And in some cases, the same question might spawn two or three different answers. Nevertheless, the consideration pool for specific solutions is usually quite limited. 

When I give talks or hold seminars, I often ask people to connect a specific need to an application. The answers are normally quite homogenous in B2C (e.g. Music on the go: Spotify. Movies and shows: Netflix. Messaging: Messenger – or Whatsapp, especially in Europe – …and so on). 

When it comes to B2B solutions, answers may vary depending on the audience (for example, their growth stage, market they tackle, company size…), but the answers always point to two or three specific providers. 

User adoption and activation starts with making sure your solution is the first one that pops to mind when your users need to perform a specific task. 

This is the very initial stage in the onboarding journey that happens outside of your premises before prospects even engage with your assets (such as content, ads, website). 

Provide immediate value to the customer

The second most important element of user and product adoption is value. 

The subscription-based business model is rooted in the value your solution offers. 

One of the main differences between the old and the new economy is the fact that companies are required to design for value, not for profit or efficiency. 

The market for online applications is open and relatively easy to enter. Customers are very well informed about who the players are and what they can offer. 

Successful applications can easily prove the value they provide (from the onboarding phase on), keep reminding users of what they’ve achieved and how their situation has improved while accessing a particular service, and lead customers to success by effectively impacting metrics and KPIs. 

Value leads to success and, in turn, to advocacy. The key characteristic of successful companies is the fact that after reaching an ARR of approximately $1m to 1.5m, they witness logo growth without additional acquisition costs or activities. 

The success of your customers is the main driver of growth. Companies that focus their growth on customer acquisition will have a hard time balancing out their CAC over time and will ultimately fail. 

Proving value is linked to success. Success is linked to renewals, upselling opportunities, account expansion, and advocacy. These four channels MUST outperform other sources of MRR. And this only happens if customers see (and most importantly understand) the value they’ve been given. They have to realize that your solution is making a true impact on their operations. 

Focus on feature adoption

Another main trigger of user adoption is feature adoption. 

I’m creating this article in Google Docs. And I can imagine many of you also work with Google applications instead of using the most popular Office package. 

Why is that? 

Both solutions are cloud-based. Both solutions cost pretty much the same (if you only consider price per user for apps). Using Google apps is not perceived ‘startup-y’ anymore. Many large organizations work with Google instead of Microsoft too. 

In my case, I’m fully aware that Microsoft Word has tons of useful features that Docs maybe doesn’t. But I don’t know exactly which ones are useful, and I don’t know how they can actually positively impact my workflow. 

I’m sure that if I had a Microsoft Word expert next to me, they’d be able to wow me with some unique tricks. And maybe I’d get to the point of thinking, “How did I even work before knowing about this feature?!”

Right now, though, I don’t feel any urge to explore other solutions to find features I’m not even aware of. 

And that’s the key. 

YOU have to make users aware of a particular process that will improve their workflow. 

Before using Calendly (with existing contacts) or Drift (with prospects), it was perfectly normal for me to send out emails with four to five options to schedule a phone call. I didn’t think things could be different. But now, I would never want to go back to that “primitive” stage anymore! 🙂 

User adoption happens when users see the true potential of your solution and perceive its value. And this process is triggered by leading customers to adopting key features in your application or platform that differentiate your service from existing alternative processes or your direct competitors. 

Another example? I love Google flights because you can see charts that allow you to pick the best option when you’re flexible with your dates. They don’t just offer you the opportunity to shift your travel dates by two or three days. You have the full overview of the entire year. 

If I hadn’t known about that I wouldn’t have seen any advantage in using flights versus other platforms! 

Drive habit formation

User adoption occurs when you foster user activation and engagement. 

Proving value once is not enough. Users must feel compelled to access your application over time. 

This is linked to a) the kind of solution you offer, b) your product roadmap, c) your customer success program, and d) your user experience.

Some applications are highly engaging and users access them on a daily basis for a long period of time (their customer lifetime cycle). Such apps create addiction.

Think of Instagram or Spotify, your email account, Slack, or Process Street…

Other applications are very useful but not strictly engaging. Think of utilities such as Google Analytics or your CRM solution.

Applications in this category can be more or less “disposable” based on how often you need to access them. Services that provide constant insights, tips, and solutions for optimization generate a routine that leads to high usage. 

Even though, honestly speaking, my Autopilot or LeadBoxer accounts are not nearly as exciting as the front page of Reddit, I access my account on a daily basis (sometimes even more than once) to read insights, monitor activity, come up with ideas…

Applications with low utility are more disposable. But this doesn’t mean that they’re useless! 

I couldn’t live without DocuSign or Short CM. But I only access such services when required. 

For some applications, it’s hard to impact the daily routine of their users. 

Your roadmap can partially influence that. Two important components in gamification are surprise and delight. 

Constant upgrades and new exciting features promote engagement and create a routine (provided that you have a great feature announcement process in place that leads to adoption). 

If you show your users that you care and shape your roadmap around their needs and requests, they’ll be more likely to engage with your solution more often. 

Your customer success program is key in this case too. It’s up to you to suggest new experiments, try out different solutions, and implement your application at an even deeper level. 

Engagement derives from know-how. Your educational content, your in-app support, and your check-ins should provide triggers that lead to activation.

Action derives from: 

1) Motivation  

2) Capability 

3) A specific trigger

Your in-app experience, together with your mail or phone communication, should provide these three elements and lead users to try out different ideas without uncertainty. 

Your in-product user experience will determine the likelihood of users wanting to explore and engage with your solution. 

Intelligent applications provide additional value with insights. Autopilot recently introduced journey insights, which allow you to spot problematic areas in your nurturing funnels without being forced to access and assess data and reports. 

Solutions like Autopilot, LeadBoxer, or Oribi force you to go back to your dashboard thanks to mail communication, intelligent insights that actually lead to action, and the introduction of new features that improve your customer journey. 

The role of customer onboarding

Finally, let’s see the role of your in-app onboarding experience on user adoption and success. 

Exactly as your promotional material might be the first point of contact with your brand, your onboarding process is the first point of contact with your product. 

Think of it as a job interview, an America’s Got Talent audition, or first date.

It takes effort to convince a company to invest time in you and invite you to a job interview (or to get invited to the live show at AGT :D). And it’s hard to convince someone to go out on a date with you. 

At the same time, it’s really hard for marketing to get users to your product and convince them to try it out. 

It’s a crowded market out there. It’s hard to cut through the noise, catch the attention of your prospects, and lead them to action. Every trial user is a huge (and often expensive) success! 

BTW always keep this in mind and show some love to your marketers, their job can often be frustrating! Can we have a “hug-a-marketer” day, please?


Now that users are in your product, it’s your time to shine, prove value, show how you can make their lives better, push exploration and feature adoption, lead users to quick wins, provide all the information they need to understand your product and integrate it in their business infrastructure, and set the stage for engagement, activation, and adoption. 

And you only have a few minutes. 

The first impression counts a lot. 

Again, go back to the example with a job interview or first date. Everything you do in the first minutes can negatively impact the perception of the person who’s ultimately judging you. 

And it’s tremendously hard to recover from a bad first impression. Think of a candidate who immediately seems confrontational and defensive or a date who makes loud noises when they eat and just keeps talking about themselves. When we get in touch with someone or something for the first time, our senses are heightened and we tend to notice every little misfit. We immediately become extremely sensitive to minor issues. 

In psychology, this phenomenon is called ‘thin slicing’. We make sense of the world around us through quick judgment because this process has helped us survive since the very beginning of the human race when separating enemies from foes or food from poison was vital. 

Some psychologists underline the fact that it might take up to seven positive traits to compensate for a bad first impression. 

Imagine starting your job interview already with a minus seven on the trust scale! The recovering process becomes a tall order. 

The same happens with your users when they test your software for the first time. 

A terrible user experience in the first initial phases might lead to them immediately dropping out of your application without giving it a chance. 

Say they’re stuck and don’t know how to perform a particular action. Or they don’t even understand how you can support them. Or they try something out and it doesn’t work. Or it could simply be the fact that it takes forever with the onboarding process before they even get to test things out…

Such a bad experience obviously leads to users abandoning your platform right away. 

But at the beginning of this article, we mentioned that the UX during the onboarding stage is connected to long-term churn as well. 

Think of it this way: You go on vacation and book a room in a hotel. The room is perfect. The service is excellent. You get in and you have everything you need. The staff is friendly and they cater to all your needs. The view is amazing, and everything matches perfectly with what you had read in the online description of the place. 

A couple of days later, the shower stops working. A friendly staff member comes in immediately and repairs it. Your overall experience and opinion hasn’t been affected by the incident at all. You’re still a very happy customer.

Contrast this with another situation in which you get into your room and nothing is as expected. Nobody helps you, it takes one hour to check in. You don’t know how to access your Netflix account, it takes ages to find the password for your Wi-Fi, the view is miserable at best, and the swimming pool you were promised is still being built. 

A couple of days later the shower doesn’t work. What would you do? 

You would go to the reception, ask for a refund, leave a terrible review, and drive away before even calling somebody to repair the shower.

Mistakes and problems happen. But we’re all more forgiving and understanding when the first impression was good. 

An issue that occurs in your platform seldom leads to churn unless that’s the last straw that really drives your user mad. 

A great onboarding experience leaves a permanent positive mark on the customer journey that will enduringly bind your users to your branhttps://churnzero.com/case-studies/sibme/d and product despite hiccups. 

Creating a fantastic onboarding experience

You see now how mission-critical your user onboarding experience is. 

It’s now your turn to create a fantastic onboarding journey.

Gain cross-functional support

First of all, in order to create a remarkable onboarding journey, you need to understand your role in the process. 

Trial users are extremely valuable. Not taking care of them is like burning cash in a bonfire. 

Since onboarding is the key to successful growth (in terms of both trial-to-paid conversion and long-term retention), the first important principle is understanding that every department needs to contribute to the experience. 

Marketing, customer success, sales, product management, product marketing, business development, and UX design people need to cooperate, visualize all the steps involved in the journey (log in, in-app messages and support, mails, action flow…), and remove any form of friction for the user at each stage. 

Success depends on speed-to-value, UX flow, information, and communication strategy. 

Every department has bits and bites of information connected to the user persona, their expectations, and needs. 

A great onboarding journey can only be created through the combined effort of multiple units.

Set objectives and target metrics

Every step in the journey should lead users to engagement, activation, exploration, adoption, and value. 

Set specific objectives and key metrics that define success. A/B test different journeys and don’t forget to create customized discovery journeys for different user segments to make sure you attend to their specific needs. 

Map the whole journey, the key metrics and targets, and the emotional state of your different user personas on your wall. Monitor and optimize every stage. 

Leads users step-by-step to success.

Don’t delay interaction

Quick wins are the key to engagement. As mentioned, action is connected to motivation.

The shorter the time-to-value, the sooner users will feel motivated to invest time in discovering more about your solution. 

Typical issues that delay interaction with your platform are connected to:

  • a long sign-in phase,
  • useless processes that can be covered at a later stage, 
  • overloading users with tooltips that only present elements in the UI, and
  • redirecting users to your knowledge base, a video tutorial, or product documentation. 

You want users to interact with your product as soon as possible, achieve their goals in no time, reach that famous “aha moment”, and fall in love with your application. 

You need to send users on specific quests and support them step-by-step with checklists and contextual help that guides them through processes in real time and directly on-screen. 

You need to present your solution while users actually complete tasks. Remember the adage: Show, don’t tell!

That’s the reason why successful applications implement user onboarding automation and performance support to segment users and create ad hoc discovery journeys that lead to key feature adoption and value without any frustration, delays, or uncertainty. 

In-app guidance is the key to reducing time-to-value and providing proactive support based on what the users try to achieve and their behavior. 

Your customer support might be excellent, but if your users reach out to ask for help, it’s  already too late. 

At this stage, they need to immediately feel autonomous and realize how your product story fits with their company objectives and personal KPIs.


Dormant users require immediate attention!

Inactivity during the onboarding phase is linked to immediate churn. Users are only willing to invest more time and integrate your software in their business infrastructure if they can accomplish all the tasks you mapped in your onboarding journey within the first 24 hours. 

It’s important that you monitor behavior, set specific rules that trigger automation, and, in specific cases, try to manually intervene by setting up calls with tier one customers that seem to have a huge potential.

Not monitoring your customer health and their activity while you onboard them means wasting opportunities and limiting your growth potential.

Provide multi-channel communication

Use proactive support with in-app guidance together with in-app communication tools and emails. 

Don’t overwhelm users, but remind them of what they’ve achieved and suggest new ideas on how they can profit from your service. Always point them in the right direction based on what they’ve achieved so far and what they intend to achieve in the near future. 

Remove uncertainty by showing users that you’re always there for them and that you really care about their success.

Create multiple champions

The key to product adoption is company adoption. 

Don’t punish companies for adding seats to your platform. I know that some services’ pricing models are based on number of seats. 

Howevers, the more users in a specific account profit from your solution, the more internal champions you’ll have. And this leads to company adoption. 

The person who introduced your software might be promoted or moved to another department. Or they might resign their position. The more people rely on your solution to accomplish their tasks, the more advocates you’ll create.

Make this an important goal of the onboarding journey. And again, if you want this to happen, you need to guide users in their onboarding checklist, provide incentives for adding new team members, and show them how to do it (motivation, capability, trigger!). 

Provide feedback and reward users

Your onboarding journey is based on actions. Reinforce positive behavior and provide feedback. 

Sometimes a smiley face when a user accomplishes a key task is enough (think of the famous ape’s high five in mailchimp). Sometimes you need to trigger automation, such as emails, in which you congratulate users and invite them to attempt other key tasks. 

The more personalized and customized your communication is, the better results you’ll achieve. 

Show outcomes 

People don’t buy software. They buy outcomes. 

Provide users with clear reports and show them how their lives have improved simply by starting to use your service. 

Don’t brag about features. Explain what users managed to do with key events. Celebrate success with your customers!

I can’t say this enough: 

Design your product and the entire user experience around the success of your customers!

Your user adoption journey

The user adoption journey starts in the pre-trial phase with education and brand communication. 

The most essential phase is when users get in touch with your product for the first time. You need to deliver on your promises and drive engagement, activation, feature adoption, habit formation, integration, and set the stage for retention. 

Over time, if you keep delivering on your promises while constantly improving your service (involving customers) and supporting your users, their customer cycle will align with the renewal cycle. 

Your users will wonder how they managed to work before using your software and they’ll turn into loyal customers and advocates. 

As simple as 1,2,3, right?. Well, more or less 😉


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