Product Onboarding

What is product onboarding?

Product onboarding encompasses all of the in-product features, educational content, support services, and documentation used to explain a product’s value proposition and core functionality, along with the timeline and cadence for delivering that information. The product onboarding process runs from the initial introduction to the product all the way through adoption.

It usually begins after the customer begins a free trial of the product in a SaaS or other licensing model. For products relying on an ad-supported and freemium model, it commences even sooner as people begin using the product before making a purchase.

How does it differ from user/customer onboarding?

There’s quite a bit of overlap between product onboarding and user or customer onboarding. Both have the same overarching goal. They get more people to discover the product’s value and utility, thereby increasing adoption and usage.

They differ, however, in that product onboarding takes a global approach rather than an individual one. It aims to make the product more valuable and easier to use for everyone. Contrastingly, user onboarding focuses on the needs of a specific user or customer.

Product onboarding is for the masses and relatively generic. So its elements will be available to everyone who interacts with the product. User onboarding is all about getting a particular user or customer using the product and staying loyal. Because of this, it can take a more personalized approach.

For example, a pop-up window bringing attention to a new feature or a how-to guide for a common task falls into the product onboarding camp. Meanwhile, a screen sharing video call with a specific customer to walk them through configuring the product to their liking is clearly user/customer onboarding.

Technology is shifting this paradigm, however. Organizations investing in product onboarding are beginning to introduce more personalized experiences based on the user’s profile or activity. But to firmly remain in the product onboarding camp, these tactics must be low-touch and scalable to succeed.

Why is product onboarding important?

Product onboarding is essential to gaining traction in the market and turning buyers and “triers” into actual users. If customers can’t quickly connect the value proposition of the product to their own challenges and circumstances, they’re likely to move on or revert to their old methods. That negative experience could permanently dissuade them from ever engaging with the product again.

Proper product onboarding exposes potential customers to the key features and capabilities the product has to offer. It also explains how those functions solve real-world challenges and shrinks the learning curve. The faster users start saving time, money, or otherwise reduce friction, the sooner they’ll move from “skeptic” to “adopter.”

Without effective product onboarding, users are more likely to abandon trials, cancel subscriptions, or simply stop using the product. Everyone has many priorities competing for their time. Investing hours into learning how a product works that might theoretically help them isn’t nearly as attractive as learning more about a product that’s already delivering actual benefits.

Solidifying customer relationships once they’re already engaged with a product pays major dividends. It’s significantly cheaper to hang onto a customer you already have than to try and secure a new one. Most customers won’t devote more than 15 minutes to figuring out how a new product works before giving up and moving on.

This emphasizes the vital nature of those initial experiences with the product. It’s vital to rapidly convey what the product can do for the customer during onboarding. Then quickly facilitate their first moment of realizing the promised value. If you’re missing these elements, your customers will be heading to the exits.

What should it include?

Companies shouldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to product onboarding. Different users will prefer different learning modalities and levels of detail based on their personal preferences, experience with similar products, and overall technical acumen.

There are visual learners, DIYers, folks who want their hand held all along the way, and those who prefer to figure everything out themselves. Products ideally offer multiple options, but without being too intrusive.

Common elements include:

  • On-demand video tutorials
  • How-to and quick-start guides
  • FAQs
  • In-app pop-ups and tips
  • Email drip campaigns customized based on user activity (or inactivity) and feature usage
  • Regularly scheduled interactive webinars for product demonstrations
  • Formal training courses
  • Proactive customer success/account management check-in emails/calls

The more expensive the product, the higher touch product onboarding activities can be. An enterprise solution can afford—and justify—investing more per customer than an ad-supported consumer offering could.

What does the execution of these deliverables look like?

Regardless of the medium, product onboarding content must be brief, specific, and actionable. It should be imbued with empathy for the users trying to accomplish a specific task using the product and the hurdles they might face in achieving that. Unlike a comprehensive user manual, the goal is streamlining the path to users realizing value. This should be accomplished even if they’re only using a fraction of the product’s total capabilities.

Product teams should prioritize product onboarding around the features and capabilities most connected with the product’s value proposition. For example, sending that first invoice from the accounts receivable system or winning an initial battle in a multiplayer game. The faster users can see the benefits from using the product, the more likely they are to become full-fledged devotees.

New capabilities or major changes to existing features also make excellent candidates for product onboarding attention. These serve as both awareness builders as users discover these new aspects of the product and as tutorials on how to use them.

Customer support also plays an important role in this determination. If they’re regularly getting calls or complaints about parts of the product that users find “confusing” or “frustrating,” those can be proactively addressed via product onboarding.

Both the product design and product launch processes should include product onboarding as part of their deliverables. Usability testing also provides valuable input to this piece of the product puzzle. There may be areas where users are noticeably struggling or aspects of the product they find confusing. Future customers will benefit from product onboarding attention if those issues can’t get addressed in the product itself.

What types of products need product onboarding?

All of them! Every product improves its chances for success when accompanied with product onboarding offerings. But it’s fair to say that a new app for booking restaurant reservations or a project management time tracking tool probably needs it a lot more than a spatula or golf ball.

Adding product onboarding to the mix isn’t an indictment of the product’s UX or design. Instead, it ensures even more users get to experience the product’s capabilities. Plus, it helps those experiences live up to their full potential by facilitating user engagement and understanding.

Any company committed to product-led growth must also continually invest in product onboarding. The product sells itself much more efficiently and effectively when users are able to figure out how to use the product themselves with the help of product onboarding. If users continually get stuck or frustrated, the product isn’t holding up its end of the deal for product-led growth to succeed at scale.

How can you tell if product onboarding is working?

Ultimately, the product’s overall KPIs are all that really matter. But there are some metrics indicative of product onboarding’s ability in making a meaningful impact.

Product adoption and churn rates can provide clues, but with so many other contributing factors, it’s hard to know how meaningful product onboarding tactics were in that equation. Drilling down into usage of product onboarding components is more telling.

For example, if the company provides introductory videos when each menu item is selected, the team can measure how often those are actually viewed versus being closed by users. Going one step further, the business can look at what the success rate was for users completing a key task explained in a video, breaking the numbers down into cohorts of who watched the video and who skipped it. If the viewers had a higher rate of success, then the company can assume the video was helpful.

With comprehensive instrumentation and a business analyst or two working on this, companies can fully analyze all the product onboarding touchpoints and assess which tactics move the needle or if there’s a combination of product onboarding interactions that make for a winning formula.

The other metric that matters in this case is decreasing technical support inquiries for areas covered via product onboarding. If setting up billing and shipping addresses was generating a high volume of support calls and some in-app messaging cuts that number while usage remains steady or increases, then there’s an even more tangible ROI for investing in product onboarding.