How to Create SaaS Onboarding Emails that Engage, Convert & Retain Users

by Etienne Garbugli on January 30 • no comments.

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The number of Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors exploded these past few years.

In marketing alone, the landscape grew from 150 products in 2011 to close to 7,000 in 2018, and I’m not even sure Highlights is counted.

SaaS Onboarding Emails – Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic (2018)
Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic (2018)

Software vendors multiplied in part because the needs have become more precise and varied, and the purchase processes changed. Buyers are now used to trying out, and evaluating products. Now…

  • A buyer might sign up to multiple competing products before he/she decides to buy;
  • He/she might sign up on behalf of another team within the organization to give his/her feedback on the product;
  • He/she might sign up in an attempt to anticipate future needs;
  • The signup might not even be for his/her job…

Amidst all of these possibilities, founders and SaaS marketers need to convince prospects that their product is the one. 💍

Where SaaS Onboarding Emails Come In

User onboarding expert Samuel Hulick says that no matter how great your product is, it’s very likely that 40 to 60% of free trials never see the product a second time.

The problem with that, is that it’s very hard to know which users will be part of the 40-60%…

Users already have a certain idea of what your product does when they sign up (or what it should do for them at least). This idea is what customer success expert Lincoln Murphy calls the desired outcome; what users hope your product does for them.

Their perception might be informed (e.g. They did their research and are looking for confirmation that your product is 👌), or completely spontaneous (e.g. They clicked a link on Facebook and a sentence on your site caught their 👁).

This is where SaaS onboarding emails come in. On top of driving back users to your product, onboarding emails have to bridge the gap between your users’s initial sign up and their desired outcomes.

How Do I Find My Users’s Desired Outcomes?

How well do you know your users? Are they of similar or different profiles? What are they trying to get out of your product?

Even if you’re targeting a very precise customer profile, your user base will most likely be composed of a varied group of people.

Maybe the differences between these people won’t be major. Maybe they will.

To understand the wants and needs of your users, set up interviews within 3 user groups:

  1. Your best customers: The first percent in terms of engagement and revenue;
  2. The next best: Customers ranked within the first 2 to 10%;
  3. Your worst customers: The last 10% at the bottom.

Depending on how technical you are, you may be able to find these users using SQL, a CRM, database exports, or people analytics in tools like Mixpanel, Amplitude or Intercom.

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The reason why you want to focus on these 3 groups is because the top percent represents your “fans”. The next 10 gives you a good comparison point that can help reveal low-hanging fruits. The last 10 helps define who you probably shouldn’t be targeting.

Reach out to users in each of these buckets. Schedule 20-minute discussions over the phone or face-to-face.

Use the Jobs-to-be-Done methodology to understand desired outcomes and map out decision-making processes.

Once you’ve interviewed 10-20 users per group, look at the data and ask yourself:

  • Do their perspectives match what our product really does? If they don’t, consider redesigning your product landing pages. 😬
  • Were there noticeably different patterns?
  • What’s the over-arching story?

We’ll dive deeper into interviews and interviewing techniques in a future post. Sign up to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out.

Aligning Business Goals & Desired Outcomes

Onboarding emails are about:

  • Moving users closer to their desired outcomes;
  • Creating the habit of using your product;
  • Helping users understand your product’s core value so that, eventually, they become paying customers.

Although your users’s success is your success, it’s still important to make sure that onboarding emails drive the behaviors you seek.

To make sure that they do, find out which of your product’s features are most correlated with conversions (or long-term product engagement if conversion is not your current goal).

This can be done by calculating the correlation coefficient between a specific action (upgrading to a paid subscription in this case) and feature usage. For example:

  • Users who Purchased a Subscription AND customized their profile information;
  • Users who Purchased a Subscription AND used the product daily;
  • Etc.

By going through all scenarios, you’ll be able to identify your activation metric and gather objective data on your highest-converting features.

Analytics tools like Amplitude have built-in functionalities to help get this data quickly:

Amplitude – Compass Functionality

Amplitude – Compass Functionality

Creating a SaaS Onboarding Sequence

“Onboarding has the greatest impact on churn reduction.” Sean Ellis, GrowthHackers Founder & CEO

In SaaS, value delivery drives sustainable growth. 📈

When you sell value, users sign up. When users perceive the value they sought, they engage. When you reinforce that value, you create loyalty.

Your SaaS onboarding emails have to provide value. They also need to work for your business goals.

Focus on a single desired outcome, assess your product features and assets, and create a sequence that drives users towards that outcome.

For example, if we look at MailChimp’s email program (we reviewed it before):

  • Their users want to grow their businesses;
  • MailChimp’s free plan has limits on subscriber list size and send volume;
  • Their onboarding emails 👇 focus on giving users quick wins that drive both subscriber list growth and send volume;
  • Users find value. MailChimp sets up future upgrades.
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Start your sequence with a Welcome email that drives momentum and reinforces your users’s decision to try your product.

Since the first emails in your sequence will get the most opens, and you can’t expect users to open all of your emails, you need to start with your best arguments; the value drivers with the most potential to get your future emails opened and your product used.

Follow up with a series of onboarding emails building up value leading up to an upsell email. Make it about your users and their goals, not your product.

Your product is a part of their story, but it is their story.

Writing Engaging SaaS Onboarding Emails

Effective SaaS onboarding emails showcase value. This is often done by highlighting key use cases…

SaaS Onboarding Emails – MailChimp
MailChimp – Onboarding Email Showcasing a Key Use Case

… or customer stories:

SaaS Onboarding Emails – Drift

Drift – Onboarding Email With a Customer Story

In both scenarios the copy demonstrates the product value and builds momentum leading up to the user taking action.

Your emails will need:

  • A strong subject line leading into the email copy. You can use this resource for inspiration and test your subject line’s effectiveness with a subject line tester;
  • A pull to create an emotional connection with the user. The pull can build off the desired outcome (e.g. “It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the…”);
  • Concise body copy to help overcome user objections and reinforce the decision to take action;
  • A clear Call-to-Action (CTA) (a link to your product usually). The link should be as direct as possible. As an example, MailChimp pre-populates fields for its users to help reduce friction.

Keep your emails simple. Don’t overdo the design. Plain text emails often outperform highly-designed emails.

A matter-of-fact tone helps build trust; it’s often a good approach for early onboarding emails.

Setting Your Onboarding Emails Live

Until you start testing, email pacing will be more art than science.

A typical pattern for email onboarding is to send a Welcome email on the day of sign up, and then follow it up the next day with an onboarding email. Sending an email every other day afterwards usually works well.

The important thing is to start from the top and start testing.

Once your Welcome email starts driving product engagement, add your first onboarding email. When that onboarding email also increases engagement, add the next email and keep going.

As long as your emails add to the overall performance and usefulness of your series, you can keep adding, and pushing for activations.

MailChimp sends 12 onboarding emails. This may seem like a lot, but if the emails bring value users will appreciate them.

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Etienne Garbugli
Étienne is a three-time startup founder (Flagback, HireVoice and Highlights), and the author of Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want. At Highlights, Étienne is responsible for customer success.

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