People are signing up? YEY! 😍 But then they drop out? OUCH 😭

Early retention is a big issue while growing a SaaS business, and one of the most common strategies to reduce churn for new signups is onboarding sequences. The thing is, creating a good onboarding sequence isn’t as easy as it seems.

To onboard new customers you need to have a very clear value proposition to show them, and a message that resonates with a particular audience’s needs. Here’s the questions we had to answer about Palabra‘s value and users when we worked on our onboarding sequences.

We think asking yourself these questions first will help you create great onboarding flows and save some time.

What are onboarding sequences?

Before we share our journey, here’s a quick definition of what an onboarding sequence is.

An onboarding sequence is a series of messages sent (generally by email) to new users or customers, with the purpose of generating a relationship with the people that receive them.

So, it’s the first action we can take to approach our users. It’s applied the very first days after a user signs up to a platform or service. And it’s oriented to retain the customers by starting a relationship with them.

The first two days after a user joins a service or starts to use a product are critical to reinforce the relationship. In some industries, up to 90% of users abandon the service a few days after they joined.

That ‘s A LOT 😧.

A great onboarding helps build loyalty to your brand and your product. Starting long term relationships reduce churn, as long as you’re getting to the right people.

The basic messages of onboarding sequences

There are some initial actions that are essential no matter what your onboarding sequence is for:

💌 Confirmation/welcome

After submitting their email to a site, people expect to receive some sort of confirmation. Specially if they’re signing up for a product, or have committed to paying for it. But confirmations don’t have to be simple transactional messages, it should make newcomers feel part of something. Sending a simple welcoming message, true and personal, is what we chose for Palabra.

💌 Start a conversation

Most conversations with users begin when they have a problem and come to you for support. But with an automated onboarding sequence you can start talking to users before they have a problem. Just asking how they’re using your product, or giving them information about how to reach you when they need to, will be enough.

5 questions to help you build an email onboarding sequence 💥

At Palabra we’ve had those two simple messages since we launched, but when we started offering free trials for our paid plans, we thought of improving our onboarding so people would get a hang of our tool in 14 days.

Turns out, it was much harder than we thought. Creating an onboarding sequence meant having a really clear message to send to a very specific audience, and we didn’t have the answers to those questions yet.

So we sat down with the team and asked ourselves a series of questions in order to build a better onboarding sequence for the new users.

Here are those 5 questions. We want to make it clear that there could be as many questions as you need to ask yourself, and that this questionnaire is just to guide you on your personal journey.

1. Who are you gonna talk to?

This is probably an obvious question, but at the same time we usually lose focus about the person that we’d like to talk to.

It’s important that you think about who your user is, what they want, what they like.

A useful tool for this purpose could be to create a User persona. The User persona is a model of your ideal user, it allows you to put a name, and even a (fictional) face. We oriented our job better when feeling that we are talking to a real human being. It puts things in perspective.

Your user persona can be created from your initial hypothesis, but we strongly recommend using as much real evidence as possible. If you have a few users or prospects, try talking to them and asking as much as you can about their needs and use of your product.

At Palabra we had 10 active users when we started this process, and 5 of them agreed to have a conversation with us. We asked them about their automations, why they were using them for, and what they were lacking. If you’ve never done interviews before, here are a few lessons we learned to have real conversations with users.

2. What are they going to use your product for?

Maybe this is more like a 1.2 step, but this point is essential to design a copy that shows the benefits of your services.

For example, even if your user persona is someone who likes outdoors and your service is to rent bicycles, not everyone who likes outdoors could use that service.

Frequently, onboarding emails promote the “value” of the product or service to the users. But they do so in terms of describing the features, the pricing, the plans, etc.

That’s not bad, however is sooo generic. It reminds the reader that they’re a target and not a human with feelings, thoughts and desires 🙍‍♀️.

You want to propose to them your value, but do it in a way that the person who is reading the email says “oh, this is what I need for my project” or “this makes it easy to deploy this task in my life”.

3. What do you want the user to do when they join?

Once you have your user persona, and how they could benefit from your service. You could design a path that they ideally must follow to achieve the use of your product.

⚡A tool: Draw a User Flow!⚡

A User Flow is a map that’s used to design the structure from a web site or an app. Probably you already have a clue about this thing. Whimsical is a good website to draw one.

Put yourself in the shoes of the customer. Make it easy for them to find your features, that will encourage the use of your service and the engagement.

This question is also easier to answer once you’ve talked to your users or even seen them interact with your product. We use Fullstory and to understand what people are actually doing in Palabra, and create our ideal user flows trying to make them as realistic as possible.

4. What level of engagement does the user have?

The previous step should be your starting point, but every person is different.

We usually think of the ideal user and the ideal path for that ideal user. Now it’s time to think in different levels of engagement and to think of something we like to call “the anti-user”.

Meditate which are the points that could drive away the users or make them inactive. Why would they stop using your service? 🤔

Use that knowledge to create different onboarding sequences to connect with different levels of engagement. For example, you can trigger an email if a user is inactive or never answered your emails.

You don’t need to do this right away, you can develop this step over the time. The previous steps should work to connect with people and encourage feedback from the active users.

5. In what tone do you want to address your readers?

This is more of a copywriting and graphic design question, but since we’re planning an email strategy it’s kinda the whole point.

This is the stage where you can personalize the message that you deliver. And that’s why it is important to resolve the first four questions. Otherwise, how could you personalize something you don’t know anything about?

Have you thought about whether you want to address your customers informally or formally? or if you want to use plain text or HTML emails? 🤷‍♀️

Our personal choice was to deliver plain text emails with an informal tone. Because to our users this gives a familiar or friendly vibe💖 rather than a corporate one👔. And plain text helps to achieve that goal.

Each question is hard in its own way, but they are all worth answering. The result will be an unique and authentic email onboarding sequence. And that’s something people value.

Getting new users is important, but no acquisition efforts will last if you don’t give your users something to stay for. In this article I’ll argue its much more effective to engage your users with drip email campaigns that get triggered from a specific user action, and I’ll show you how to create your own automated drip campaigns based on what your customers are doing with Palabra.

Why focus on retention

If you have a subscription-based business, you are well aware of how important engagement is for your monthly revenue. But no matter what type of product or service you have, having people keep interacting with your site or app is probably really good for business.

Getting a new customer can be 7 times more expensive than getting new sales from your existing contact-base. Focusing on retention also enables you to create long-lasting relationships with your customers, and can be part of your customer experience added value.

Personally, I like focusing on retention because I love talking to users and learning from them. When people respond to our ongoing sequences, I have a much better understanding of what their problems are, and that gives me valuable information to:

What is a drip campaign for retention

As the name suggests, drip email campaigns are sequences of emails sent to get users to a specific goal drip by drip during a certain period of time.

Drip campaigns can vary in terms of frequency and duration, but they all serve the purpose of nurturing users or prospects without overwhelming them with ever-lasting emails.

A well used drip campaign has much higher read and click rates than promotional emails — up to 3 times higher than single send emails. It takes a bit of work to create a good drip campaign, but the results will very much be worth your time.

There are three things to consider while setting up drip sequences to make them work:

Let’s look at each separately.

Measuring retention and defining goals

To create your own drip campaigns for retention, I suggest a data-driven approach: have a clear goal of what you want to achieve with them first, and create the emails last. Defining your strategy before creating your content will save you a lot of time later, since it will give you a clear idea of the content you should be sending.

When it comes to retention, the purpose of drip sequences can vary depending on what retention means for your business. For e-commerces for example, retaining customers means offering more products to the same customers, based on their previous preferences.

For a subscription-based tool like Palabra, our retention goals for first time users are tw:

If you want to use drip campaigns to improve your retention rates, you first need to find a specific goal you want your users to achieve. These goals will be specific to your business and user base, but they need to be very clear. “Getting people to stay around” is too vague.

To create your own retention goals, ask yourself this questions:

I used Amplitude’s guide to create Palabra’s retention goals, I recommend it if you’re starting to think about retention for your product. We also use their tool to measure and optimize our retention strategies.

Content & timing for retention oriented drip campaigns

Once you have your retention strategy defined, you can set up a drip campaign to get users to continue along your user journey.

The first thing to keep in mind while designing a drip campaign is timing. How long does it usually take your users to complete the key action you’re aiming for?

When we created our first onboarding sequence in Palabra, we didn’t really know how long it would take people to create a trigger. So we created our first onboarding sequence just thinking about what we thought would make sense, and ended up with a simple drip of 3 onboarding emails.

After getting our first 20 or so active users, we found out it takes people about two weeks to set up their first trigger. We found that people take time to clean up their strategies after creating their account, even if they have a specific problem in mind that they want to solve.

We were really surprised to learn that, since it takes no more than 20 minutes to actually create a trigger, and only 5 minutes to connect Palabra to Google Sheets. But real users don’t lie, so we changed our onboarding sequence.

Instead of offering help just 2 days later, we wait for a week, to give them time to look around first. And after they do turn their first trigger, we show them other things they can do with our platform, offering them to complete challenges

There is no recipe to create drip campaigns that will work for everyone. The best thing that you can do is get to talking to your users as early as possible, and learn from what they’re actually doing with your product.

After you identify the timing behind each action they make, it will be much easier to set up different emails that lead users to solve their own problems.

Keep in mind what your users are actually doing and not what you would like for them to do. If you don’t have users yet, take your best guess but make sure to improve them after you have real data.

Automation: why and how?

Most drip campaigns are triggered when a person moves through the conversion funnel. Those are usually actions they take to subscribe or buy something. That could be just enough to create your first automated drip sequence, and it’s easy enough to start.

One of those examples is the most common drip campaign for retention: the onboarding sequence. They typically consist on a few emails showing a few interesting features that may be helpful, offering help and asking for feedback. Superhuman has a great onboarding drip that consist of one email per day during the first week to show the basic features, and then some tricks or features 2 times a week afterwards.

To automate an onboarding sequence, you have to set up a trigger based on subscription (or account creation). To do that with Palabra you can choose from many integrations depending on your stack, for example if you have a Webflow landing page, you can send an automated sequence each time someone submits a form to subscribe.

To engage retention from other user actions, you should first think about how often you would need to send those emails before automating. It may be easier to send emails manually yourself if you have 10 or less users that complete those actions each week.

In most self-service products, automation is almost always the best choice. Having a fully automated flow can save you a lot of time once your users start to grow.

For example, if you are selling courses online, you may want to create a short sequence that starts once they complete the course, and show them what other things they can learn on your site. Most online learning platforms (and many other products) connect to Zapier, so you can set up a Zapier trigger to Palabra if you want to automatically start a sequence to re-engage them.

Final thoughts

To engage users there’s no work-for-all recipe. You have to actually take time to find out what it is your users are doing and how you can help them move on to their next interaction with your product. Once you know that and have a clear goal in mind, drip sequences will help you educate and nurture your users without overwhelming them with long emails.

To use drip sequences for retention and save some precious time, you can choose a tool to automate sequences triggered by user actions. Just find out what action can lead to the next one and start with simple sequences to engage your users.

As an early stage product, we are constantly improving our sequences and retention strategies, so I know how time-consuming it can be. My recommendation is that you choose a tool that you’re familiar with or that has a short learning curve to make your first automations. If it takes too much time to learn, automating can take you more time than it saves.

If you have questions or want to share what drip sequences you’re automating to drive retention, just send me an email or ping us at Twitter.