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From Prospect to Profit: 6 Steps to Creating an Effective Onboarding Experience

Posted on 8.10.2016

:: By Robert Berris, 352 Inc. ::


New user onboarding is one of the most crucial – and most frustrating – elements of defining the user experience (UX). Today, digital businesses only get one chance at a positive first impression to gain traction and grow. An effective user onboarding process serves to make users comfortable with a new product or service, but also sets the stage for vital stages of the consumer lifecycle, from retention to referral and revenue. 

Creating a user from a visitor isn’t easy, and it requires a deep understanding of each potential customer’s needs at every point in their purchasing decision and as they become familiar with all the product offers. 

Here are six steps to create an effective onboarding experience. 

I. Map Your User Journeys

Before you build an onboarding process, you need a clear image of the product’s users. Your first step should be to craft user personas that account for the needs, goals, motivations and the messages that will resonate with each type of customer you envision. Is cost the most important driver for conversion? Do some users need more education? Will your user be the final decision maker for a purchase? Once you’ve answered those questions and built a profile of each user, you can prioritize messages and establish user flows that best fit a particular customer journey. 

II. Showcasing Value

No one’s buying your product before they understand how it impacts their life in a positive manner. Your product needs a compelling value proposition: a simple, clear description of what makes it unique – don’t make potential users struggle to understand your platform. In less than five seconds, potential users should be able to grasp the product’s core advantages. This five-second proposition is your first and only opportunity for an “Aha!” moment, where users can fully and quickly understand the costs and benefits of the product and wants to know more. 

III. Get Them On Board

The best way to bring onboarding to a screeching halt is to follow your great value proposition with a poor signup experience. Every product includes its own unique brand of user friction, but good design can help grease the wheels and encourage successful signups. Friction comes in many forms, but it’s typically any extraneous sign-up steps, website quality, or user behavior trend that slows down (or entirely halts) the sales cycle. Typical friction points include:

Lengthy landing pages

Cognitive dissonance – The disconnect that exists between messaging and landing page content.

A lack of trust signals to users

Allowing users to login via social media accounts or email can seriously reduce the user friction of a signup, but it means sacrificing the data that comes with a full signup form. Here, it’s important to carefully balance marketing needs with user flow design. Tactics like inline form validation, shown to decrease form completion time by a whopping 42 percent, can help smooth the user flow. Though it may pain your sales team, minimize form fields to only those strictly necessary to what the database needs to register a new user. When it doubt, throw it out. 

IV. Helping Users Only When They Want Help

Some users will want their hands held throughout signup, and some just want you out of their way. Providing clear pathways to completion can help those who want a little handholding, while users who want some running room are often simply looking for something to do with the product. Let them tinker by writing a new post, building a bio or even referring a new user. The product’s success depends on users establishing comfort with core features, and nothing builds user confidence like allowing them to dig into the platform.

V. Guide the Way

Complex products typically have more than one feature to introduce, so you’ll often require a more involved onboarding process. While more complicated, you still need to give users that golden moment of realization: they don’t want to live without the product. Navigating multiple features can delay that key moment of discovery. But, they won’t have that golden moment if you can’t help them. Steve Jobs learned this very early on at Apple, as he struggled to help people comprehend the notion and operation of a personal computer. That experience imbued Apple with a spirit of simplifying complex experiences. From its value propositions to its user interfaces, Apple stresses simplicity and ease of use.

VI. Onboarding Via Email

Users really only matter if he or she comes back to use the product. Email is still the most effective way to convert a new user into a paying customer, particularly important for software-as-a-service (SaaS) onboarding, both as a means of engagement and new customer referral. Here are a few things to keep in mind when attempting to onboard users via email:

Don’t send an email in a vacuum: The welcome or first email should be part of a process, the first step on the road to conversions – that’s it! Simplify your message to focus solely on activating your new customer.

Minimize calls to action (CTAs): Emails should have one singular goal to get the prospective or new customer back to do the first thing they need to do to move toward a conversion.

Push them back through the funnel: What’s the most important step for a new user to take? Your email CTA should link directly to that step and remove potential distractions.

Guided by personas, map both registered and non-registered user journeys through the product and identify the major milestones required to take full advantage of the product. Personas can identify the messaging needs of each user at a particular milestone, and a marketing automation plan will ensure email is delivered precisely when a new user needs it most.

Onboarding has a few key stages, but there are countless methods to deliver a successful user experience during the onboarding process. Keep in mind that an effective process requires endless testing and refinement of every aspect of onboarding to ensure all the bases are covered, and users have what they want when they most need it.


About the Author

Robert Berris is the vice president of digital strategy and marketing at 352 Inc., a digital product development agency with offices in Atlanta, Tampa and Gainesville, Fla. In that role, he guides strategic direction for 352’s internal marketing team and drives new client engagement.

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