Get customers hooked on your service with a better experience
Contributor Brent Sleeper looks at what marketers of cloud services and apps can do to improve their users’ first experiences — and to increase customer engagement and conversion.
It’s nearly the end of 2016, and I see you’re a time traveler, just joining us from 2006. First, welcome! Second, here’s a cheat sheet for what you need to know about the past decade in the business of building and marketing tech.
- The iPhone not only transformed our experience with mobile devices, but it also reshaped how we experience nearly all of our digital interactions.
- The cloud and API-driven web services have become the dominant technology architecture, regardless of whether users interact via the web, mobile apps or otherwise.
- And the way we consume all manner of software has inexorably shifted from up-front purchases to various flavors of recurring revenue, be they subscriptions, consumable in-app purchases or advertising-driven models.
By itself, each of these patterns is a leap from the status quo of a decade ago. Taken together, they add up to a sea change in our customers’ expectations for technology. And that means the way we marketers interact with our customers has changed as well — or, that is to say, it should change if we hope to be successful.
In the beginning, there was customer experience
When I see how marketing’s changed in our industry, I’m not speaking of the hegemony of Google AdWords or the emergence of social media as a marketing powerhouse, though those are indeed consequential shifts in advertising.
What’s changed for marketers of cloud services, both B2C and B2B, is the two-part recognition that customer experience (CX) is essential to a service’s success, and that it’s a fundamental responsibility of marketers to work with our product management colleagues to shape CX.
This lesson can and should be applied to other software-based interactions as well — such as websites, e-commerce experiences and brands’ mobile apps — but I’ll focus here on SaaS offerings.
When I think about apps and services that have become an ingrained part of my own life at work and at play, I, of course, consider the functional value that they deliver. They help me accomplish something I need to do!
But I also know that the emotional and subjective qualities we call “experience” are equally important factors in determining whether or not I stick to a particular service — and share it with friends and colleagues. That’s why the teams behind successful apps and services spend a lot of time building something that feels great to use.
Now boarding on Platform A
But it’s not just fuzzy, happy accidents that lead to this success. In fact, a key realization among growth marketers at pioneers like social media platforms is that very specific aspects of the experience during a user’s first interactions with a platform represent key “make or break” moments that can determine whether a service thrives or withers on the vine. Some teams call this process “user activation”; many others describe it as “onboarding.” (There may be fine distinctions between the two, but for our purposes, let’s use them interchangeably.)
Onboarding is a multi-faceted occurrence that encompasses a range of functional and qualitative experiences. It spans the very first welcome screen, account creation, introduction of features and alerts that prompt specific tasks in a workflow.
When done right, each of the steps represents an opportunity for increasing user engagement — but, if poorly implemented or introduced with little forethought, they become hurdles that risk turning a customer away for good.
Missing the boat
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been tempted to sign up for many more services than you actually can use. Maybe I’ll log in once, then get back to whatever I was working on, thinking to myself that I’ll check out this great tool a little later.
Or perhaps I’ll get intimidated by a complex setup process for which I just don’t have time at the moment. Or, worst of all, the basic workflow for a site will be lost on me, and the payoff for figuring it out seems unequal to the effort.
Unfortunately for the teams behind these apps, each of these scenarios is a potential death-knell for my engagement with their products. Every time I delay taking a step with an app or service, it becomes decreasingly likely that I’ll become an active, paying and profitable customer.
That’s why getting onboarding right is so crucial — the first few moments with an app can make or break an entire customer relationship.
Key moments in the onboarding experience
The most successful apps find a balance that makes it easy — seductive, even! — for users to incrementally increase their engagement in a way that feels natural and self-paced, all the while capturing data and other indicators that feed behavioral models that identify profitable audience segments.
While there’s no magic bullet to solving the onboarding challenge, there are best practices that have emerged over the past decade.
First and foremost, make it easy to get started, and that means less is more when it comes to onboarding.
Forget the idea that onboarding looks like a linear wizard from the days of Windows 95. With each step a user must take to begin realizing the value of a service, the harder it is to get her or him to stay. Do you really need a user to verify an email address or pick a profile nickname before she or he can do a thing? Or what about the radical idea of not requiring him or her to create a password until they’ve already had a taste of the experience?
A great way to keep the onboarding experience simple is the onboarding email. Once relegated to a simple transactional message that essentially said, “Hey, you joined, here’s a confirmation of your username,” onboarding email has since matured into a fundamental piece of the customer experience.
Email’s asynchronous nature allows a user’s first interactions to remain focused on the emotional cues that drive engagement, while still nurturing completion of key onboarding stages. The most successful onboarding emails are designed as a series of carefully timed and triggered messages that help to accomplish key activation goals.
Finally, the most successful services realize that onboarding can go beyond the individual user and actually start to drive growth. That requires identifying the key metrics of new user activation that make a service go viral.
For example, Facebook realized that the point of no return is when a user makes seven friends in 10 days. At Slack, it’s after a team sends 2,000 messages. At Dropbox, it’s when a user has shared a file with someone else. Nurturing users to reach these critical thresholds should be a major priority for marketing teams.
It’s never as good as the first time
As marketers and product managers, we never have a better chance to influence our customers’ relationship with our product than the very first time they use it. We invest time and effort in building a great product. We spend planning and money on customer acquisition.
But that’s all for naught if we don’t make the onboarding experience a genuinely great one. I don’t know about you, but as a product marketer, I sure don’t want to throw away my shot to make a difference for my customer experience and conversion. Do you?