Double Your Trial-to-Paid Conversions with Smarter User Onboarding

Written by: Patrick Campbell Patrick Campbell 

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This is a guest post from Patrick Campbell, founder and CEO of Price Intelligently.

Founders spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make people love their product. But they really need to spend more time thinking about why people aren't loving it.

Figuring out what's stopping people from loving your app helps you build an onboarding flow that makes it easier and faster to help customers with your product. This is essential for retaining customers past the trial period and making sure you have a growing business that generates revenue.

At the 2016 Price Intelligently SaaSFest, we got to hear from CEO and co-founder of Drip, Rob Walling, about how Drip iterated on their onboarding to increase their trial-to-paid conversion rate. His advice comes from working on the onboarding flows at two different SaaS companies and can be applied to any SaaS company to multiply trial-to-paid conversion rates.

Below, we'll go through the key points of his talk. We'll explain how to find the value that customers come back for, how to implement a four-step framework for onboarding, and how to experiment with customization to create highly personalized onboarding sequences based on user onboarding best practices.

Finding the Minimum Path to Awesome

There's only one way to get trial customers to convert to paid. You have to quickly and clearly hammer home that they can't live without your product.

Your customers' perceived value of your product is incredibly important to your business fundamentals—and building this perceived value starts as soon as your customer first opens your app. But creating an onboarding experience that does this is a trial and error process—and no one knows this better than Rob Walling. He has a lot of experience building several apps like Hittail, a keyword and SEO tool, and most recently Drip, a marketing automation tool.

drip homepage

Each product has required unique onboarding iterations to show value to users. But each iteration comes back to the same idea: finding the one or two things that get a customer hyped about your product, and then helping them get there as soon as possible. Rob calls this the minimum path to awesome.

No matter what your product, finding the minimum path to awesome will make designing onboarding easier and more effective. At Drip, the onboarding changes Rob made around the minimum path to awesome helped them to:

  • Design an onboarding flow in less than 2 days
  • Create really sticky components of onboarding, some of which didn't involve writing any code
  • Focus in on the one thing they knew would help customers come back

The one or two things that constitute your product's minimum path to awesome are the steps you definitely need in your onboarding sequence. These steps may be activities like setting up an account, posting to social media, installing an integration, creating a campaign, et cetera. They're micro goals that give users a dopamine rush and help them feel like they're accomplishing something.

Then, identify anything blocking customers from reaching these micro goals as the most important points of friction to remove.

You want to shorten the minimum path to awesome. That's why, according to Rob, great onboarding is about figuring out how to avoid the biggest friction points as quickly and creatively as possible.

Let's take a look at exactly how he did this.

The one or two things that constitute your product's minimum path to awesome are the steps you definitely need in your onboarding sequence. These steps may be activities like setting up an account, posting to social media, installing an integration, creating a campaign, et cetera. They're micro goals that give users a dopamine rush and help them feel like they're accomplishing something.

Then, identify anything blocking customers from reaching these micro goals as the most important points of friction to remove.

You want to shorten the minimum path to awesome. That's why, according to Rob, great onboarding is about figuring out how to avoid the biggest friction points as quickly and creatively as possible.

 Let's take a look at exactly how he did this.Implementing a four-step framework

Armed with a clear picture of your minimum path to awesome, you can start figuring out how to remove the friction points in the path and get customers to love your product as quickly as possible.

Rob believes that building great onboarding is a process, and your product will likely see several versions of onboarding. Drip went through four different onboarding experiences in three years. By focusing on experimentation, iteration, and quick improvement, they were able to determine what really worked for their customers at every stage.

Iterating your onboarding to keep up with your company's evolution is essential. As you improve your product and add new features, you have to onboard people differently, too. This is one of the best ways you can accelerate growth, show off the most helpful features of your product, and keep staying relevant to your users.

Your onboarding process will be simple at first to match your product. This first process probably won't scale. For example, when Rob first built Drip, he onboarded customers by manually sending them emails from Gmail. One of these emails read,

Armed with a clear picture of your minimum path to awesome, you can start figuring out how to remove the friction points in the path and get customers to love your product as quickly as possible.

Rob believes that building great onboarding is a process, and your product will likely see several versions of onboarding. Drip went through four different onboarding experiences in three years. By focusing on experimentation, iteration, and quick improvement, they were able to determine what really worked for their customers at every stage.

Iterating your onboarding to keep up with your company's evolution is essential. As you improve your product and add new features, you have to onboard people differently, too. This is one of the best ways you can accelerate growth, show off the most helpful features of your product, and keep staying relevant to your users.

Your onboarding process will be simple at first to match your product. This first process probably won't scale. For example, when Rob first built Drip, he onboarded customers by manually sending them emails from Gmail. One of these emails read,

Hi John,

We wrapped up the features you needed in Drip so at this point we're ready when you are. I've included a login below (we don't have registration active so I had to create one manually for you). You can get yourself setup whenever you have time this week.

Although we don't have our “onboarding” videos and other details in place yet, it should be mostly self-explanatory to get setup. Basically, you'll be starting a new campaign which you can do using the top nav...

Obviously, this level of touch would never be feasible for thousands of customers. But for the first few, it was perfect.

As your product changes, your company grows, and you gain more customers, your onboarding process will get more complex. At some point you'll need a more formal onboarding process.

As Rob's team worked on the next generation of Drip's onboarding, they adjusted and added to it. They developed a four-step onboarding framework that was so good at showing customers value, it multiplied trial-to-paid conversion rates:

Let's take a closer look at each of these steps.

Obviously, this level of touch would never be feasible for thousands of customers. But for the first few, it was perfect.

As your product changes, your company grows, and you gain more customers, your onboarding process will get more complex. At some point you'll need a more formal onboarding process.

As Rob's team worked on the next generation of Drip's onboarding, they adjusted and added to it. They developed a four-step onboarding framework that was so good at showing customers value, it multiplied trial-to-paid conversion rates:

  1. Look to your customers to find your minimum path to awesome
  2. Guide users through this path in the app
  3. Guide users through this path again in emails
  4. Offer to help users along this path by doing things for them

Let's take a closer look at each of these steps.

Look to your customers to find your minimum path to awesome

When you're a very early-stage company, you'll probably have to guess what your customers love about your product and see what sticks. But as you grow, you'll have the advantage of being able to talk to your existing customers about their onboarding experiences.

Ask your customers what made them excited, and ask them how they got to those exciting points. This is the minimum path to awesome that you'll want to shorten. Rob found at Drip that the minimum path to awesome was two steps: installing the Javascript snippet and setting up an active campaign.

minimum path to awesome

Rob recommends talking with customers that have been onboarded in the last 30-60 days because they'll have the best memory of what actually encouraged them to stick around.

Guide users through this path in the app

Once you know what users have to do in order to see what's great about your product, show them how to do it.

At Drip, Rob found that one of the best ways to do this was to put a navigation bar along the top of a user's dashboard. The navigation bar acted as a task reminder for each of the steps that helped a user along the minimum path to awesome.
create new campaign

Users could do whatever they wanted in the dashboard, but the navigation bar remained there until they completed the steps as a constant reminder saying, “do this.” This helped remove any friction points around the users forgetting what they had to do.

Prompting users to complete these steps in-app led to a 2.5x increase in Drip's trial-to-paid conversion rate.

Guide users through this path again in emails

According to Rob, this is the money step: set up an email course with reminders to complete the steps along the minimum path to awesome. Give users tips in the emails about how to do it, and make it really easy for them to take these steps right away. This removes even more friction around customers who forget what to do or don't know how to take the next step.

These emails can also serve as progress reminders. You can tell users how many steps they've completed, which gives them a sense of accomplishment, and tell them what they still need to do, which provides motivation.

drip onboarding email setup

The best part is that this can be incredibly easy with liquid templating. You can set up “if... then” commands to automate emails based on customers' progress and actions.

drip if then liquid templating

Rob did this at both Drip and HitTail and saw incredible results almost overnight. At HitTail, adding an email sequence to user onboarding nearly tripled the trial-to-paid conversion rate.

Offer to help users along the path by doing things for them

When all else fails, you can offer to literally complete the actions for your customers that will push them along on the minimum path to awesome.

Sometimes, even if you remind users to complete steps in-app and through emails, they will still ignore the steps. This may be because the steps themselves require too much work or are too confusing. At this point, you can offer what Rob calls “concierge” services to do part of the setup for them and remove this friction.

Rob found that at Drip, this was particularly helpful for getting users to create an active Campaign. The team adjusted their onboarding to offer three options for creating a Campaign.

drip concierge onboarding services

Users had the choice to create the campaign themselves with a Blueprint (which still made things very easy), to provide Drip with some content to put together a campaign themselves, or to pay for a copywriter to create a totally custom campaign with no work on the user's part.

Rob saw many more users actually moving through setup and converting to paid with these concierge customer services, and describes this as a “lightbulb moment.”

Taking customization to the next level

Rob's four-step framework will help you multiply your trial-to-paid conversion rates by telling users what they need to do to succeed, showing them what they need to do, and potentially even doing it for them. It's a great way to set up a directed but flexible onboarding process that will be successful even as your customer base scales.

When you've learned even more about your product and your customer base, you can take your onboarding a step further. This is what Rob's team did for Drip's third iteration of their onboarding process. By adding layers of customization to a user's onboarding flow, you can create a setup process around their specific needs.

Questions to gather information on what each individual customer wants to do with the tool can come at the very beginning of the onboarding sequence. In a recent iteration of their onboarding sequence, Drip added the following questions as some of the first steps in a user's onboarding.

drip customer intent

Rob recommends asking customers low-pressure questions, and making it clear that they can change their minds later.

drip onboarding product questions
There are two ways that Rob uses information like this at Drip to further customize the user's onboarding:

  • Customizing around integrations
  • Customizing around workflows

Rob recommends asking customers what other products they use. Then you can tailor the onboarding experience to encourage users to bring in data from those apps.

drip onboarding integration

By integrating data of other apps, you're building additional utility for your user and giving them more reasons to engage with your product.

Rob also found that he could help customers find value really quickly by building a completely custom onboarding flow based on an early questionnaire for users. Drip's fourth and current new user onboarding process begins with this questionnaire:

drip onboarding questionnaire

At Drip, the team used questions like this to create a workflow around exactly what a user wanted to accomplish with their product.

drip customized workflow

These heavy-duty customizations made paid-to-trial conversions skyrocket. However, Rob points out that they were late-stage iterations of onboarding. They were made possible by a thorough understanding of their product and understanding of customers, which comes with time.

You can build yourself up to this point by continuing to iterate.

See improvements tomorrow from changes you make today

A lot of the changes in onboarding that Rob has been so successful with are things you can get started with right away. You can start asking your customers about their onboarding experiences, finding out what they value most, and finding out what their friction points are.

Rob believes that one of the easiest components that anyone can get started working on and see results with is the email sequence. You can write up the emails and then set up an automatic sequence to send them to customers in a couple of hours based on the user onboarding best practices discussed.

Ultimately, creating a strong onboarding process will be a combination of quick wins as well as iterations over time. What matters most is staying focused on that minimum path to awesome, and doing whatever it takes to clear up roadblocks that stop users from getting there.

Check out the full transcript of Rob's talk, along with a video and slideshow, here. Also, be sure to read more about SaaSFest 2016 and check out the talks from our full lineup of SaaS leaders.

A lot of the changes in onboarding that Rob has been so successful with are things you can get started with right away. You can start asking your customers about their onboarding experiences, finding out what they value most, and finding out what their friction points are.

Rob believes that one of the easiest components that anyone can get started working on and see results with is the email sequence. You can write up the emails and then set up an automatic sequence to send them to customers in a couple of hours.

Ultimately, creating a strong onboarding process will be a combination of quick wins as well as iterations over time. What matters most is staying focused on that minimum path to awesome, and doing whatever it takes to clear up roadblocks that stop users from getting there.

Check out the full transcript of Rob's talk, along with a video and slideshow, here. Also, be sure to read more about SaaSFest 2016 and check out the talks from our full lineup of SaaS leaders.
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