The Beginner’s Guide to User Onboarding

The Beginner’s Guide to User Onboarding

Every new app goes through a certain marketing lifecycle.

At first you spend your days worrying about the top of the funnel. How do we attract more downloads? Who is the ideal customer for this app? Where do they spend time online? How do we get in front of them and convince them to download?

These are all big, important problems to solve. But as you start making headway on these issues another question becomes important – how do we activate these users once they sign up or install our app?

This is onboarding. It first rears its ugly head when you see a graph like this:

How to Build a User Onboarding Strategy

This is Andrew Chen’s graph of death. Lots of people visiting your site or installing your app, but very few are sticking around longer than a few days.

It’s such an acute frustration because you’re doing all this fantastic work to drive awareness, but that’s not converting into long-term users getting real value (at least not to the level you want).

Plan for Success

So how do we start tackling this problem, start plugging the holes in the bucket and get these metrics ticking upwards?

At SparkPage, we’ve worked with hundreds of companies like yours to help them build and optimize their onboarding journeys.

Recently we spent some time gathering all of our internal learnings and put them into a framework – a step by step process that you can follow to build your onboarding process – and that’s what we’re sharing here.

In the early days of your app, trying a variety of tactics and product changes is normal, but over time the most successful companies are those who build a proper onboarding strategy, execute it and then refine and optimize it over time.

Ready to build an onboarding and activation strategy for your business? Let’s get started!

Set The Goal

The first step in building an effective onboarding strategy is to think about the end result.

You need to set a goal. A place where you want your user to reach that signifies the end of the onboarding process.

There’s a good chance that when you first consider a goal, you might think “My goal is to get them to become a paying user”. And yes, that may be the ultimate goal of your business, but that is not what we are talking about here.

Your goal in onboarding shouldn’t be the purchase. Instead, it should be “activation”.

Different companies use different words and metrics here, but I love KISSmetrics’ definition of activation:

“Activation is the first point where you deliver the value that you promised.”

Alex Schultz, the VP of Growth at Facebook, described it as your product having a “magic moment”. This is where your user thinks “Aha! This is what this product can do for me”.

For Facebook, the magic moment was a user seeing their friends and connecting with them. Users who signed up and added no friends were likely churn candidates. But those who had added 10 friends within 14 days, Facebook knew they had them hooked.

These 10 friends in 14 days are exactly the type of “activation” goal you should be aiming for. It’s that key indicator that lets you know this guy or gal is sticking around.

For Spotify, it might be a user making a playlist, or users creating their own board on Pinterest, or Airbnb getting their users to book a room. Whatever it may be for you, activation is a specific goal that suggests that the user is seeing the value of your product and is much more likely to stick around.

If you are struggling to find this goal, take a look at your analytics. Have a look at the difference between users who stick around and those who don’t, especially in the first few days of usage. You should be able to see some key actions that separates them and pick a best guess for what an activation goal should be for your business..

I want to make this guide super concrete and actionable, so I’m going to use Netflix as a worked example. I’m also going to include screenshots of how I’d plan their onboarding journey with SparkPage, to make it easier to visualise.

How to Build a User Onboarding StrategyFor Netflix, let’s pretend their onboarding goal is to get their user to watch a season of a TV show. In the screenshot above we’ll set this as the final step of our workflow. This represents the end of their onboarding journey and indicates that they are now an active user.

Map The Journey to Activation

With your activation goal decided, we now need to plot the steps between a user initially signing up and  them reaching their goal.

With our Netflix example, let’s pick a first action we want a user to do when they arrive in the app – watch an episode.

So let’s make watching an episode the first step in our workflow after a user has signed up.

How to Build a User Onboarding StrategyAfter this first step, then move on to the next and ask what do you want your user to do next once that step is completed, and so on and so on. All these steps should be incremental and lead to your goal.

With our Netflix example, we end up with something that looks like this:

How to Build a User Onboarding StrategySigned Up > Watched an Episode > Watched 5 Episodes > Watched a Season

As you can see, the steps all add up to make a clear path that gets the new user in, hitting the magic moment and becoming active.

Identify Friction Points

No matter how good your product is at onboarding new users, inevitably some are going to get stuck in the funnel and drop off before they activate.

People might forget they signed up, be confused about what to do next or just get distracted half-way through onboarding. Whatever it might be you need to identify the points at which users are getting stuck and try to understand why.

Good research is incredibly important for this step. To start with, a look at your analytics can reveal some great early insight.

In our Netflix example, we could imagine that the analytics might show a huge number of people who start a first episode but never watch a second. This would be a great place to drill down into the numbers to understand what’s going on.

How to Build a User Onboarding StrategyThese are also great focus points for qualitative research to glean some insight into the friction the user experiences. Netflix could pick 100 people who watched just one video and dropped off and send them an email (or give them a call) to ask what happened.

But you don’t need to go that deep to start with. You probably already have an idea of where these clogs exist in your onboarding flow. Analytics and intuition will help you identify the big friction points, the low-hanging fruit.

With Netflix, for example, we could imagine that many users are signing up on mobile, they start watching one video but realise that they really want to watch it on the big screen. So they decide to do that when they get home, but they forget (or they don’t know how).

That’s a great first barrier identified. Even if it’s just an assumption based on your data, it allows you to start hypothesizing interventions that would help users move past the barrier.

Add Interventions to Your Workflow

With your friction points identified, it’s time to start building actions in your workflow that will help your users through the funnel.

These actions are emails, push notifications and SMS that send to the right user at the right time.

(We wrote a post – The Anatomy of a Perfect Email Onboarding Flow – that has some great advice on the techniques you can use in these messages)

In our Netflix example, after a user signs up, we want them to watch an episode. However, not everyone is going to do this.

So let’s add a triggered email to be sent a day after a user signs up, to motivate them to finish this step. And importantly, let’s only send it to users who failed to watch an episode after signing up:

How to Build a User Onboarding StrategyAnd this doesn’t have to be a once off message. This email will get a portion of users to watch, but it won’t convince everyone.

There will still be users who, 3 days later, haven’t watched a video… so send them another email.

The longer a user stays at this step, the more you can experiment with different strategies and assumptions to remove the friction. Maybe they don’t know how? Try offering a walkthrough. Are they unmotivated? Try a different value proposition. Has a lot of time elapsed? Offer another free trial.

How to Build a User Onboarding StrategyYou should then end up with each lane filled with awesome emails that are constantly re-engaging users and helping them complete the next step towards activation and really experiencing the value your product has to offer.worfklow summary

Test, Measure & Optimize

As with everything in your marketing strategy, the setup process leads to ongoing optimization and improvement.

It is important that you keep an eye on your data and see what effect your emails are having, which ones are helping your users become active and which ones are having no effect whatsoever.

Keep exploring your friction points, using analytics and research to find out where users are falling down and, more importantly, why.

With every insight you uncover there you can come up with a dozen ideas for how you can improve your interventions and help more users activate.

If you’re using SparkPage to build this user journey workflow you can easily A/B test everything – from the content, to the timing to the personalisation – to find which actions you can take to maximise your conversion rates at every step.

If you keep repeating these steps (insight -> test -> measure -> learn) you will significantly increase the number of users getting through and activating in your app.

Then the next step, convincing them to purchase, becomes much, much easier. Revenues flow much easier when every user is experiencing real value before you make the ask.

If you’re interested in implementing an onboarding workflow for your app you can signup for a 30 day trial with SparkPage. Or send us an email,, we do a free strategy workshop with every new customer to help them work through this process.


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coverWe’ve written an accompanying eBook called “The Beginner’s Guide To User Onboarding” that has all of the awesome advice you’ve found here as well as some more great tidbits of knowledge about how you can start onboarding your users.

Download your eBook for free HERE.