Introduction

As a business function, onboarding becomes more critical by the day. Especially now that customer experience needs to be stellar and user satisfaction established in the early stages of the customer lifecycle.

An effective, user onboarding helps new users become proficient, and accounts grow within a service. A poor onboarding experience disappoints buyers, infuriates users, and leads to churn. Depending on its design, onboarding can change many hats. It may include basic setup, help, training, and eventually create proficient and habitual users. When executed right it becomes a scalable and tailored educational framework. A process that allows accounts to grow while moving them down the customer lifecycle. When executed wrong, it delivers out of context messages, creates friction, and encourages drop-offs.

The number one challenge following onboarding is the length of its own definition. Depending on who you ask its meaning can be very narrow, or overly crucial. Part of this challenge stems from the fact that it is subject to the GTM practices at play. On a self serve approach, onboarding is the steps leading to initial value and driving conversions. The product must deliver a stunning product experience. At the same time, in-product engagements need to replace Sales and Customer Success activations. In this instance, onboarding is fast and to the point, camouflaged behind a series of scalable practices. Trialists have to realize that the product can indeed deliver its promise in a matter of minutes. It is like putting a timer on a run race where the product should always make it first to the finish line.

On the other side of the spectrum on customer success onboarding, the process is systemic and followed by ongoing handholding. Nothing is fast in this process. Time is of the essence here too. But, both parties know that a long term process familiarizing end-users with product features will lead to calculated results.

The transition from Marketing-Led to Product-Led practices also reflect on onboarding activations. On a self-serve approach, onboarding does not entail anymore invasive, out of context in-app interactions. On a human-assisted onboarding, the infinite handholding Customer Success is eliminated. Product data enable onboarding to become contextual and invest in users’ behavioral notions. While at the same time it becomes a unified approach provided by customer-facing teams throughout the customer journey.

The debate about product engagements was lying on them being unable to guide users without downgrading their learning experience. Product-Led GTM practices change that. They embrace products’ superpowers with targeted in-app guidance, helping users achieve their goals. The assumption implying that in-product and human-assisted practices cannot co-exist is now overruled. Data-driven product engagements can finally supplement human-assisted activations where they cannot intervene. Inside the product itself.

Contextual Onboarding

The main priority following the onboarding process is leading users to initial value. For the simple reason that users no longer read the manual! And honestly, can you blame them? Time is the one thing users don’t have. Especially, if they already have complicated workflows and procedures. Timing, on the other hand, is where most onboarding strategies miss out.

The brains behind today’s SaaS solutions need to consider this when designing product onboarding flows. Which ideally, should focus on users’ roles, goals & proficiency levels. In the opposite case scenario, onboarding will be a coerced process, followed by steps that don’t embrace users’ learnings.

A typical example where onboarding does not provide value is when showcasing non-relevant features to users during their first experience. Similarly, highlighting already used features is an out of context non-personalized tactic.

While those flaws may sound casual, make no mistake that teams failing to invest in data-driven onboarding experiences may even ignore their existence.

Behavioral Onboarding

The second biased assumption is that every user has the same proficiency level when exploring a product for the first time. On a recent research, Reinventgrowth conducted it was revealed that organizations onboard various personas by putting them in separate workflows and considering their profession, company or team size. They failed to establish the proficiency level in the beginning, if at all. Providing the same learnings to users, only downgrades the customer experience.

As unorthodox as it may sound, onboarding does not begin when the user is in the solution per se. That may have counted, back in the day where communities and social media were just an idea or educational content had limited availability.

Today a user can learn about a service by word of mouth, online communities, fellow peers or by browsing a product’s knowledge base. Following that logic, many sign-ups can occur without a trialist having to go through any of the “prerequisite” steps of the sales funnel.

Similarly, a user coming from a competitive solution is possible to convert to paid, easier from one who ignores a solution’s capabilities. Something that brings us to the second characteristic an onboarding strategy should entail. The ability to define early on what jobs the user needs to get done and deliver a tailored experience off of that. An experience, balancing behavioral and need-based practices. Always by considering users’ role, and proficiency levels.

Data-Driven Engagements

At this point, we should mention that even when onboarding provides a tailored product experience, the work is not done. A monitoring process needs to be established. A process that will allow teams to reach the necessary conclusions, by following users’ progression. Absent that, the delivery of an optimized onboarding experience will not be feasible.

Marketing practices may have introduced online analytics. But their practices eventually, did not provide an extensive analysis of in-product behavior.

Product data may sound like the obvious panacea in regards to distilling the necessary conclusions. But, most businesses today still collect data associated with prospects’ online presence.

That approach may be excused, as the industry is transitioning to Product-Led GTM practices. At the same time though, it provides a myopic view to internal teams, when striving to increase retention and expansion levels. Product Led organizations have passed that stage. Those businesses capitalize on product data and combine their insights with those derived from their online presence. When it comes to onboarding practices, that conclusion is twofold.

a) Capitalization on product data enables product managers to pinpoint better which features are sticky and where drop-offs occur.

b) Onboarding is now able to rely on its own product associated metrics. When those metrics align with business KPIs, can answer where growth lies or churn lurks.

Product-Led Onboarding (PLO)

The multivariate nature onboarding has replicates Sales practices. The ongoing feature releases discourage the iconic sales funnel taxonomy. Every time a new release is launched, the onboarding process is reactivated to deliver initial value, lead to upgrades, and further account expansion. This process abandons the traditional sales model archetype, ending onboarding prevalence during activation. Being a continuous process, onboarding needs to be evaluated at every stage of the customer lifecycle. The sales funnel has evolved into a circle where onboarding stands in its epicenter. Always waiting for the next feature release to be triggered again.


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Product Led onboarding (PLO), a term coined by ReinventGrowth, is a set of data-driven product engagement practices, that consider behavioral notions and users’ proficiency. Strategically, it avoids random feature introduction to users. Instead, it exploits historic data and considers prospects’ proficiency level when exploring a product for the first time. Contextual guidance constitutes its main pillar and enables product experience to double down on users’ workflow early on by following their progressive route to excellence.

In a SaaS world, where stellar customer experience is now synonymous to the one the product provides, user onboarding acts as the Jack of all trades. It takes users by the hand, helping them do what needs to get done. Product Led practices, transform its practices in a data-driven force that fills in the gaps humans leave behind, by eliminating confusion and sustaining engagement.

Eventually, it all comes down to what game is at play. The one ruled by humans, or the one led by machines.

Despina Exadaktylou

Despina Exadaktylou

Experienced Product-Led Growth consultant and founder at ReinventGrowth

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