Value-first onboarding and how to stop losing new users you don’t even know you’re losing
Quick question. What’s the most important metric when it comes to converting sales through your SaaS product?
Hint: It’s not signups. It’s not PQLs. It’s not even actual purchases.
It’s activated accounts, the number of new users that received value from your product during their onboarding.
Grow the number of new users that receive value now — and you’ll see the number of paid subscribers grow later.
But if tracking value during onboarding sounds strange, you’re not alone. When I worked as a marketing consultant at Hubspot, and head of growth for Wistia and Postscript, I saw big companies making big mistakes when it came to user onboarding. Now I’m the founder of Delivering Value, helping startups avoid those same mistakes and achieve their full growth potential through onboarding optimization.
And the best way to start that process is through the six steps of what I call “value first” onboarding. Let’s take a look.
Step 1: Defining value
If you want to guide new customers to finding value in your product, first you have to figure out what’s most valuable to them in the first place. As great as companies are at creating products, sometimes they can be completely off base when trying to tap into the reasons people actually want to use those products.
To use an analogy from my skater days, it’s not the wheels and bearings that usually get your customers excited, it’s the kickflips they’ll be able to land later.
The best place to find your product’s value is through asking your existing users one simple question:
“When did you feel like you first got value from the product?”
You can ask via email, Zoom, surveys, or on the phone — anything works. The goal is to look for common answers and find your product’s “activation moment,” the point when a new user receives value from it for the first time.
Ben Winter, head of growth and marketing at Fairmarkit, wrote that a 25% increase in activation yielded a 34.3% lift on MRR after 12 months. During my time at Wistia and Postscript, I found similar results, with us going from not even knowing what an “activation moment” was, to surveying customers, optimizing for that moment, and our jaws dropping as the number of purchases increased over time.
What do you do once you’ve found your product’s activation moment? Glad you asked.
Step 2: Reducing time-to-value
It’s no secret that people have short attention spans when it comes to trying new products — and for good reason. These days, SaaS products are essentially an all-you-can-try buffet, why should anyone waste their time with one that doesn’t provide an immediate, intuitive experience?
New users will only dedicate a certain amount of time to learning about your product before they go elsewhere, and there are a ton of common momentum killers that I’ve seen, like:
● Guided tours that go on forever.
● Showing off bells and whistles before basic functionality.
● Explaining different customizations before the typical use case.
● Essentially, overwhelming the user right at the most important part of their journey.
At Wistia, a video hosting platform I worked for, we found some small changes that created a big difference. For example, instead of forcing new users to create a folder before they could upload their first video, we pre-loaded an empty folder already waiting for them, so new users could immediately upload their videos without worrying about file management.
It was just a few clicks (and a couple characters) saved, but these types of changes compounded and led to a much shorter time to value. Ultimately, retaining more users who would’ve been lost.
If you’ve never reduced your time-to-value before, start by making a list of every single step that a user needs to take to go from zero to activated. Each click counts!
Once you’ve got the number of steps, slice them and dice them. Be merciless. The goal is to cut the steps (and time-to-value) in half. If that sounds impossible, prepare to be surprised. No step is so sacred that it needs to stay if it’s causing friction between new users and their activation moments.
Speaking of new users, they’re not just one giant nebulous group. They’re people. And like all people, they’ve got different things that make them tick.
Step 3: Guiding toward value
No matter how carefully you craft your onboarding milestones, there will still be users who get lost along the way. In my experience, this tends to happen most to two types of people:
● Investigators. They read every single word of your onboarding… but then forgot what to do when it came time to actually use the tool.
● Explorers. They closed your onboarding documentation as soon as it popped up, ready to try it out for themself… but then got stuck at some point and didn’t know how to progress.
Investigators want something they can refer to in the moment, and explorers want something they can minimize and bring back later. The solution? Onboarding that makes both groups happy.
At Wistia, we made a guided checklist (for Investigators) that could be opened/closed anytime (for Explorers) and that was available on-demand to go through again whenever the user needed it (for both).
Here’s a mockup from when our team first designed this.
That’s just scratching the surface of user guiding. Especially when you consider that not only are your users’ personalities different, but their actual goals in using your product can vary widely too.
Let’s dive into that.
Step 4: Curating value
Here’s a question: why are you reading this article right now?
A. I want to level up my business’s current onboarding
B. I want to learn what onboarding is
C. I want to connect with experts in the field
D. I enjoy researching/reading articles on Medium
I’d wager that readers would be spread out across all five options. Even if some reasons are more popular than others, that doesn’t mean the others don’t matter. They’re still valuable readers!
And your new users are exactly the same. People try out new software to accomplish certain goals, and to find out the goals of people using your product, consider surveying new users with a quick, unobtrusive question like:
“Hey, thanks for being here! Mind sharing the reason you signed up today?”
After a couple hundred responses, you can whittle them down to your product’s four to five most common use cases, and ask new users to select one of them when they sign up. Then, curate their onboarding flow to match their choice. This enabled users to see value faster, and on their terms.
Calm, a meditation and sleep app, goes one step further. Not only do they ask what your goal is, but the user interface changes based on your choice too. First you pick from five goals…
…and if you choose “Improve sleep quality,” the screen instantly changes to a relaxing night sky and they begin customizing the experience for sleep. The user feels like they’re getting value already!
Of course no matter how much thought you’ve put into your onboarding, some users will still fall through the cracks. Let’s talk about how to save them.
Step 5: Templating value
Around 25% to 35% of new accounts sign up for a trial product, poke around for a few minutes, then leave and never come back. We call them “pokers,” and they’re essentially users who felt they were getting zero value from your product.
They usually left for one of two reasons:
● They were intimidated and didn’t know where to start.
● They didn’t have their “stuff” ready to upload to try out your product.
Templates are the elegant solution to both problems — examples that the user can borrow to work with, rather than starting from scratch. This lets them see value right away and get to their activation moment, instead of disappearing forever.
At Wistia, it was a super simple change. If the user didn’t have a video to upload, they could click “Try it with one of ours” in the bottom left to experiment with a pre-loaded example video.
Templates give new users a lot of value in just one click, especially when those templates are tailored to your product’s four or five different use cases.
Now if only there was a way to give new users value even before that first click….
Step 6: Pre-signup value
Signups are a big hurdle. Most SaaS websites only convert 2% to 4% of all visitors into new accounts, meaning 96% to 98% of them never even try your product in the first place. Percentage-wise, that’s nearly all of them!
Instead of hemorrhaging users like that, I advise businesses to embed a lite version of their product into their website, so visitors can play with it and experience its value right away — no form fields required.
At Postscript, an SMS marketing platform I worked for, we came up with the idea to let visitors get example text messages sent right to their phone, just like their customers would receive.
No forms, no signups, just inputting their phone number to immediately see value. Essentially using the product — to market the product (and start building momentum for the product onboarding).
A large population of users just want to see the product in action before they even commit to signing up. Having a super simple embedded version lets them do that, and makes them much more likely to convert.
All because you prioritized delivering value to them first.
Are you onboard?
If you enjoyed this peek into the world of value first onboarding, there’s way more stuff to learn! From how to integrate onboarding inside of your company, to how to experiment with different types of onboarding, to how to accurately track its effectiveness, and so much more.
When you’re ready to take your onboarding to the next level, there are three ways I can help.
Check out the full Value First onboarding program designed to dramatically improve your activation rates.Explore coaching and advising programs at Delivering Value.Drop me a message on Linkedin or Twitter and let me know what questions you have. I love chatting about all things growth.
Value-first new user onboarding and how to stop losing new users you don’t even know you’re losing was originally published in Growth Hackers on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.