Biz Tips: The User Onboarding Funnel…in the Product-Led era

Biz Tips: The User Onboarding Funnel…in the Product-Led era


The User Onboarding Funnel…in the Product-Led era


The SaaS industry is changing rapidly! Day by day, user by user!

The last five years it has realised exponential growth! It actually constitutes the foundation every industry will end doing business in the future and represents the digital transformation practices in their core!

The IT consumerization forces the industry to take a new turn when it comes to its GTM strategy! The word “Growth” is reinvented. It is equal to the optimised user experience a SaaS organisation offers via the product itself- in any stage of the funnel. From acquisition to long-term retention and eventually to referral.

If you think about it, you will realise that there is a trend when it comes to brands that have managed to acquire many customers. It would be those which have created a community around them.

A community which consumes their products over and over again. Those kinds of brands, which a customer will think twice -at least- before actually becoming unfaithful to them.

Think Coca-Cola or Pepsi for example. If they were tech products what would be the one, unique element, they would offer to their consumer?

The answer comes in a single word. Experience. Well no, it actually comes with two. Customer experience. In the case of SaaS we just need to replace the word customer with the word user.

You see there is a particularity related with the SaaS industry that you don’t meet in any other. The user leaves money on the table only after he gets a taste of the product. Not the other way around.

If you wonder why this is happening the answer is simple. Because this is the only way to give value to the user fast without forcing his hand to pay any plan beforehand.

If a user does not derive value directly from the product itself churn will come up knocking your door real soon.

Welcome to the Product-Led era. The era where the product is the No1 growth denominator!

The SaaS GTM strategy evolution

The major characteristic of the Product-Led era is that its sales strategy is relying on the self-serve approach.

Obnoxious as it may sound to companies that invest a huge lot on human rersources in order to close a sales deal, numerous SaaS organisations which had invest in it have already seen signs of significant growth.

This was not always the case though! If we take a step back in time we will realise that the SaaS GTM strategy has its fair share of evolution!

The timeline of the traditional SaaS GTM model up to the Product-Led one would be:

Sales-led era: In the 80’s, sales were in charge of anything related to the customer experience.

Selling was all relationship-based. A fact that led to adopting tactics like infinite customer meetings, demos and POCs installations to close a sales deal.

The upside of the strategy, forming a bond with your customers!

The downside? An infinite amount of human resources would be spent from day one- until the deal was finalised- and in every part of the sales funnel.

Marketing-led era: In the early 2000s marketing automation came along. All of a sudden there were many ways for a SaaS organization to scale while reducing at the same time the amount spent on human resources. It was marketing’s turn to be held accountable for business outcomes.

The adoption of inbound marketing which favoured lead generation and nurturing was now a fact. At the same time, sales would focus on prospects that were aware of the product and the problem it solves.

In a glance the Marketing Led era introduced:

1) Mass lead generation and quick turnaround

2) Email marketing and chatbots

3) Data segmentation

4) Leveraging the internet for webinars and demos to reduce sales costs

5) Reduced office visits to unqualified prospects

The downside? In the long run, the model failed to deliver first-hand data.

So, the product managers were not able to know how the users would behave inside the product. In the end, the user journey would not be optimized towards feature adoption. The SaaS GTM strategy had to evolve again!

A little while after 2010 the SaaS industry realised that in order to drive and measure adoption, influence user behaviour, and optimise in-product customer experiences it should dive into the product’s metrics. It was time for the product to become the center of any business decision.

The term “Agile” was now part of any Product-led SaaS organisation GTM strategy. The product experience influenced any extent of the SaaS strategy- no matter if it was pricing, packaging, marketing or customer success practices.

Product-Led era characteristics:

1) Product teams which are increasingly being recognised as critical drivers of revenue

2) Value derived directly from the use of the sole user.

3) Users who are independent when adopting a solution and tend to realise significant ongoing value quickly.

4) “Paywalls” which follow, rather than lead a sale

5) Product features that enable a solution to market, sell and onboard new users

6) Products which have a built-in network effect.

7) The product champion within companies who is paramount to drive greater adoption.

The User Onboarding Funnel: The research

In an attempt to depict better the market trends in the Product-Led era, I embarked on a vast project, which I had the bliss to be supported by SaaStock- one of the greatest SaaS events worldwide. It’s main goal was to map down the SaaS industry’s best practices on user onboarding and overall user experience.The reason I wanted to start this project in the first place was that despite the topic’s importance, the market has a very contradictory view on the matter!

If you take a minute to think about it, you will realise that every time you ask someone “How do you define user onboarding?” the answer will vary. Most people think of it as a bunch of tooltips or email flows that welcome the user into a service. While others consider it as a set of practices that will turn a free user to paid. The truth is that none of those answers would apply 100%. Why? Because user onboarding includes infinite parameters.

So, what is user onboarding? What does the funnel behind it entail?

The User Onboarding Funnel is actually a story — the story of a successful user journey. For the shake of this project though, we will translate it into the format of a book, which is the sequel of a shorter guide I published a while ago. The vision is to turn it to the most extensive book of user experience to date.

The 1st part of it will be published at the beginning of 2019 and will include 30 unique case studies from companies like:

Typeform, Userlane, Intercom, HubSpot, Bynder, Appcues, Support hero,, Drift, Wistia, Vidyard, Pendo, GoSquared, Clearbit, Yesware, Autopilot, Viral Loops, Aptrinsic, Segment, Chargebee, Lemlist,, Filestage, Reportz, ProdPad, TravelPerk, Leadfeeder & Vuestudio

The 2nd part of the book, will include the best practices required to create an onboarding strategy. That said those practices will not be based on mere theory. In an attempt to derive the necessary conclusions, an extensive research on thousands of end users will be conducted.

For the completion of the 1st part, forty-eight interviews were conducted. Most of them examining both the self-serve and the custom onboarding strategy of each company! Prior to the interviews, the participants filled two questionnaires.

The first concerned their user onboarding strategy. While the second was regarding their product management practices!

This introductory paper, is an attempt to describe the research’s mission and results- as they were described in SaaStock18 this October in Dublin!

The User Onboarding Funnel: The results

Initially, this project was supposed to examine the self-serve practices of the participants. As the research was moving on though, I realised that as multivariate user onboarding is for the sole user, the same complexity stands for companies internally! It is not possible to handle all customers the same.

To put it simply, depending on the nature of the customer the sales approach varies from self-served to mixed

(by implicating the human factor here and there),to becoming completely custom and eventually leaving any automation aside!

So, the research took another turn. It end up examining both the custom and the self-serve user onboarding approach- when applicable!

As most participants adopt both sides of an onboarding strategy, while in others the onboarding strategy is mixed.

It is not possible to describe the research’s results in a few lines! Each company has a unique approach when it comes to its users. What needs to be mentioned though is that despite the fact that all of them follow a different pattern when optimising their user journey, there is none ignoring the product’s capabilities in order to achieve that.

If we want to describe the onboarding strategy’s complexity for each company — without considering the adopted practices per se- we should emphasise only on one thing! User onboarding it’s a work in progress and by far the most unstable thing in your funnel!

A SaaS enters a vicious loop when it comes to its user onboarding funnel! In its early days, it will follow a custom strategy and will do everything manual.

User Onboarding Vicious loop

As it learns better its audience, it automates parts of it in order to scale and realise growth. But, when it finally gets there, its onboarding strategy is divided into two parts an automated and a custom one.

Even though the processes into the custom side now would be more optimised, it’s a usual case scenario for the SaaS vendor to reinvent the wheel, at the end of the day!

So I guess that the one million dollar question here is: How can we optimise the strategy behind it?

There is not a single answer to that as you can possibly imagine! But, if you want to narrow it down the factors that concern any user onboarding funnel, you need to consider three things:

1) The context you want to create around your brand

2) The out of the app onboarding

3) And any practices you need to execute in-app

All of them sitting on customer success, product management and marketing

The elements of user onboarding

As mentioned before, the scope of the project overall is to examine the user onboarding practices in the Product-Led era. An era which its Go-to-market strategy characteristics to deliver a personalised customer experience are:

  1. Experimentation

2. Engagement

3. And unified customer data.

Characteristics that by default the self-serve approach adopts while when it comes to the custom approach, automation gets mostly aside.

If we want to narrow down the research’s quantitative results we should definitely mention that from the top 23 adopted user onboarding practices, those that are lying within the “must adopt” area and have over 65% adoption rate would be those depicted on the chart below :

Top adopted user onboarding practices

Regarding now, the practices of the custom approach- where the human factor is the main point of reference- we should mention the use of:

  • Detailed customer success and sales decks that will guide the champion user every step of the way
  • Extremely customised educational content per use case
  • POC’s (Proof of concept) are provided to customers’ to reassure the product’s effectiveness


To the downside of the current onboarding practices results, we should give emphasis on one thing all the interviewees have agreed to.

There is an inequality in the market which focus on the fact that on the one hand, we have customers like SMB’s and startups, that want to be independent when adopting a solution. While on the other hand we have the enterprise customers that most of the times need customer success to handhold them every step on the way, from day one!

The fact is that we may think that we have entered the product led era, but the reality depicts something different. With 80% of most SaaS revenue coming from the enterprise customers, we are still partially in the sales-led era, or as I like to call it the human-led era. An era where the human factor still determines if a big sale will be closed or not.

The market has a long way ahead until it will be able to balance this inequality. That said, all the participants constantly try to optimise their funnel by taking into consideration the challenges both approaches entail. Whether they succeed on that or not will be the point where the whole study will focus.

The most extensive book on user onboarding and the overall user experience to date is now a fact! Its mission? To fill in the knowledge gap that exists in the SaaS industry regarding the practices an optimized user journey should entail!

Register now to get a dive into the research’s methodologies and the best practices that were uncovered!

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