All Aboard: 10 Things to Know About Onboarding

6 minute read

November 3, 2017

All Aboard: 10 Things to Know About Onboarding

If not, here’s a 3 minute and 58 second clip of homework:




In this episode, the gang catches wind of a new soup stand on the block. The chef is a bit eccentric, especially when it comes to ordering etiquette. Follow the rules, and you’ll walk out with a bowl of mind-blowingly amazing soup. Don’t, and you won’t.

What’s this got to do with onboarding, you might ask?

In the video, you can plainly see the sheepish looks on the customers’ faces.

  • What do I do here?
  • What if I get this wrong?
  • What if I make a fool out of myself?
  • Will this be a waste of my time?
  • Will I walk out of here with my soup?

This isn’t very different from the way a customer feels when they first log into your platform or fire up your app. There’s usually some uncertainty about what to do next—a sense of unease and unfamiliarity about what they’re supposed to do and whether or not they’re going to get out of there with their proverbial bowl of soup.

Enter Onboarding.

Why does customer onboarding matter? Take a look at this chart from GrooveHQ:



The time between those two points is absolutely critical; this is where churn is at its absolute highest.

By developing a simple, yet effective onboarding process to guide your new users from point A to point B, you can significantly reduce churn and set up your users for a lifetime of success.

That’s all well and good, but ask 5 different people to define customer onboarding and you’ll get 5 different answers.

For our purposes, we’ll define onboarding as the process by which you give a new user everything they need to win with your product.

Here are the top 10 tips to remember as you develop your own onboarding process:

1. Pay Attention to your Competition

If you’re starting from the ground up, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin your customer onboarding journey. Relax. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel here. Give a few of your competitors a test run, and see what they do.

But remember – this isn’t about copying someone else’s work. It’s about learning what others are doing and seeing how customers respond to what’s already happening in the marketplace.


2. Plot the Onboarding Journey

Get a few of your best customers on the phone and have a chat with them about how they use your product. Then, reach out to a few of your newer customers and see what they’re doing.

Listen closely to ferret out potential sticking points in their new user journey. New user frustrations are key indicators which will show you exactly which sorts of functions and features you need to highlight when onboarding new customers.

Next, clear a whiteboard in your conference room, grab a few of your teammates, and start plotting out the journey your customers can/do/should take through your product in its earliest incarnations.

Place yourself in the role of a new user and walk yourself through the product. How do you explain to yourself where to go and what to do next?

3. Be an Encourager

I’ve used the word journey a couple of times now. This isn’t just the jargon-infused ramblings of a millennial—it really is one of the best conceptual tools for describing the path your users follow to get in and get acquainted with your product.

Like any other journey, there will be challenging points along the way. So be sure to lace your onboarding process with ample opportunity for encouragement.

Now we’re not talking about cheap sentimental words like “You’re doing a great job, champ!”

Instead, coax your customers through the journey with meaningful and substantive messages like: “Congratulations on completing your profile. You’re just one step away from connecting with 10,000 entrepreneurs in your area!”

4. Always Make Room for a Welcome Email

There’s only so much you can do on-platform or in-app. A welcome email transcends the boundaries of internal communication while adding a touch of  personal flair.

That said, be sure each user receives a welcome email at some point in the onboarding process, whether at the very beginning or a critical mid-way point.

In that email, express your heartfelt appreciation for their purchase, then move quickly to add value. Offer easy access to additional use cases, best practices and pro tips designed to help your new user get the most out of the product.

5. Minimize Friction by Breaking Things Down

There’s nothing worse than signing up for a product and being forced to spend precious minutes filling out long, detailed forms.

Don’t do that. The more hoops you make a new user jump through, the more likely  they’ll churn early in the process.

Take a cue from Dropbox.

When you sign up for their service, do they ask you to upload all your files right away? Nope! They ask you to upload just one. Once you’ve got that simple step out of the way, then they walk you through the bigger and more complicated steps.

Think of it like building a snowball. Give your customers just a little bit to start, and then patiently walk them through the process as they build up to critical mass.

6. Concentrate on Time to First Value

In the chart above, we looked at that critical juncture between signup and value as having the highest incidence of customer churn. One way to minimize churn there is to make the journey from A to B as simple and enjoyable as possible.

Another way is to narrow the gap.

To do this, the folks at AppCues talk about finding your customer’s Aha! moment. This is the moment when your customer accomplishes something with your product which immediately makes them think: “I’m glad I bought this thing.”

As you discover these valuable points in the customer journey, rework your onboarding process to lead them to value as quickly as possible.

7. Customize, Customize, Customize

Not every customer is created equal, so don’t treat them all the same way. Tailor your onboarding process to meet the unique needs of different classes of customers.

Pinterest was able to jack up their new user retention rates by using location data to personalize the experience for users outside the U.S. This simple move led to a 5-10% bump in new user activation and retention.

8. Keep the Videos Short and Sweet

Tutorial videos are a great way to get people accustomed to your product and quickly heading down the right path. The trick, however, is to make them long enough to be informative, yet short enough to keep customers from tuning out.

Canva does this incredibly well. When you first sign up and login, a pop-up appears with a 23-second guide to getting started.



As soon as you play it, the platform goes through an automated walkthrough which leaves you prepared to create and export a slickly designed image.

It’s short. It’s simple. It gives you everything you need to get the job done.

Less is more here. Opt for a simple explainer instead of a 5-minute tutorial showing the user how to do everything that can be done with the product. Save that type of content for a welcome or follow up email.

9. Hold their Hand, but not too Tight

Walkthroughs, on-screen prompts and tooltips are all great ways to get a customer acclimated. Robin uses on-screen elements to adjust customers to their eCommerce platform with virtually zero friction.  

As important as a good walkthrough is, you have to be sensitive to the fact that many of your customers will neither need nor want to be walked through the platform. Some will  be returning users who do not need a reintroduction.

Others will simply be downloading your app onto a new device and won’t want to go through the beginner’s guide every time they do so.

That said, do the walkthroughs, but make every element skippable. Never make someone endure a bunch of handholding they may not need or want.


10. Let them Learn as they Go

Don’t jump the gun by trying to teach your customers everything there is to know about your product on Day 1. Instead, give them the minimum amount of info they need to get started and save the deeper stuff for later on in the customer journey.

This is called progressive onboarding, and it allows users to get in and explore without being forced to learn about more than they need at the outset.

If you want an example of this in action, check out the project management tool Flow.



After initial profile completion, the tool allows you to view additional onboarding material as you dive deeper into specific tasks.

This way, you’re not stuck watching a video on how to work the calendar when all you want to do is learn how to set up a new project.

Onboarding isn’t just a nice thing to do for your customers; it’s a virtual necessity in today’s crowded SaaS space. Though it may represent extra work on your part, it’s a vital step in convincing, converting and retaining new users.

Keep these 10 things in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to crafting an onboarding process which keeps users from churning and maximizes the value you have to offer.


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Kenny S.

Written by Kenny S.

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