A brief guide to onboarding emails

A brief guide to onboarding emails

Email is one of the most powerful tools in any marketer's toolbox, as long as one uses it right. For B2C and B2B alike, it is one of the more familiar and tried communications methods.

One of my SaaS clients needed help with their onboarding emails, and this article is largely inspired by the work I did for them a while ago. This is an outline of rules and principles that – in my view – should be applied when creating onboarding emails.

While the below article is heavily skewed towards applications in SaaS, some of the principles are applicable to other business models with little to no adjustments required.

Buckle up.

Definitions

  • Feature promotion email (FPE) – an email that is sent out to users that highlights a specific product feature and encourages its use.
  • Trigger – a specific action (or inaction) on user's part that triggers a specific email to be sent.

Note: you might notice that I use the term 'FPE' instead of the more widely-accepted 'onboarding email', and that's intentional. The traditional 'onboarding emails' are restricted by the early interaction between the company and the user, whereas the FPE is a broader take on it which has not restriction on the amount of time that's passed since the customer has registered.

It doesn't make a lot of sense to send (especially to start sending) onboarding emails 3 mothns into the customer's time using your service, but this isn't an issue with FPEs. You can comfortably send a feature promotion email anytime during the customer's journey, as long as the trigger is appropriate to this user's context at that point in time.


Goals

The goal of sending out FPEs is increased product adoption and usage across existing users, be it newly signed-up clients or veteral customers. As SaaS revenue growth is usually fueled by both the paying users' count and usage intensity, it is important to leverage both of these. In my experience, one of the highest leverage areas for the FPEs is trial-to-paid funnel for any sort of service.

Investing in FPEs can be beneficial to a your bottom line by increasing both the number of paying customers (by converting people that wouldn't otherwise) and the usage intensity (by convincing existing paying customers to use more features).

Guidelines

Below is the list of the principles and rules to apply when creating the FPEs. This includes strategic principles to follow when designing an FPE campaign as well as email content guidelines to take into account to steer the users into the desired course.

Strategic principles

Build upon previous learning

Whatever you're telling to your recipients, it's much more likely to click when they know the basics

One of the basic principles to follow to ensure that your FPEs are useful and effective is building up from the foundation.

Your email chain should be ordered in a way that it goes from the very basic functionality (atomic and essential operations) to complex real-world use cases (combining those atomic operations into a problem-solving activity) gradually, introducing new features through the usage of features that were learned through the previous FPEs.

For example, if your service is an automatic calendar management service, your initial emails would probably be about basic things like connecting the calendar to your tool and managing the events in the calendar. Once you've sent your users those bite-sized primers on basic operations, you've equipped them with knowledge to complete your next tutorials, which could be more elaborate, like creating automated rules for calendar management and notifications.

If you don't do this, you're possibly undermining the whole onboarding experience by throwing too much on your users, frustrating some of them and making them less likely to use your service and pay you money.

This may not apply to those businesses that cater to power users – and plan to stay that way. Sending basic tutorials to power users is oftentimes useless. Moreover, such tactic can backfire by discrediting your business in the eye of a professional. E.g. a company with a product aimed at pro designers better not send their clientelle MS Paint tutorials.

But usually, the bite-sized approach stands – the more novel the product, the stronger.

Keep the content relevant

This is probably not the reaction you want your users to have when they read your emails.

Later into the email sequence, you might want to introduce complex features that are really useful and aren't necessarily intuitive. It's a good idea to promote such functionality through FPEs, but you should be very mindful of the relevance of such features to the people you're sending the email to.

For complex features – which can often be relevant to a very specific subset of your user base – it's best to send emails using triggers that are specific to the feature you're promoting.

For example, if you want to send out an FPE that promotes API capabilities, it could be better to send it to people who have made unusually many manual changes instead of carpet-bombing the entire list with a feature that is relevant to only 10% of your clients.

If you repeatedly send niche messaging to the entirety of your userbase, you will devalue everything you send in the eyes of your audience, effectively alienating them in the long run.

You want people to go 'huh, so I could do this easier from now on' rather than 'why am I getting this? that's not at all what I'm using it for'.

Don't tell them what they already know

To take the previous point further, do exclude people that are already using the feature you're promoting from the specific FPE recipients – you don't want to nag people who are already making use of the feature.

A series of FPEs that highlights the features that a person already uses extensively can have the undesirable effect – people might think that your FPEs are too basic and useless to them and they shouldn't bother opening those.

The only exception to this rule is when your FPE is highlighting a feature update or a power user's way of benefitting from it – then such emails are usually appreciated.

Have a mission

You have to have a finish line – either stated or implicit

When building an FPE chain, you pick a specific action that you want your users to complete or a state that they have to reach, and that action should be a success qualifier. That's your mission.

It's important to set those things not based on the revenue. It's easy to say "we want them to spend $50 in the first month", but it doesn't get you anywhere – FPEs should facilitate product-related actions such as "50 messages sent" and "20+ friends added".

The revenue is your end KPI to make a profit, but little to none of your FPEs are going to impact the revenue directly. You should draw a clear line between those actions and revenue.

If an email is not boosting the revenue from a specific feature, it might not be that email's fault – people might actually be trying to use the feature you're promoting as a direct consequence of them receiving and reading your FPE, but if there is an issue with the product, they might fail to take advantage of it and not generate you more revenue despite a good FPE.

Know when to stop

The 'too much emails' point does exist, but you don't want to go there

Don't overdo the emails. You don't have (or want) to dump the entirety of your support docs on the users. Keep the email chain concise and only include mission-critical nuggets of info – what does the feature do and how can they feel good and benefit from using it on a regular basis.

I strongly advise against long email chains in the first versions of the FPE campaign. Compose the lists of top 10 features that are crucial for most workflows and use cases.

Then pick only the half of those top 10 and make the support articles and videos on how to absolutely knock it out of the park with those features.

Forget about the second half of the list until you are confident in the first 5.

Filter out the non-engaging users

One thing that you might want to do with your campaign depending on its performance is filtering out the people who don't click on your email links for several emails in a row.

The reason for this is twofold – on one hand, people who aren't clicking are likely not interested, and it's better to not be sending them emails than to have them grow irritated at irrelevant emails.

On the other hand, talking to people like these is a perfect opportunity to show that you do care. If you notice that someone has received 3 FPEs and didn't click on any of the links inside, you can send them an email asking if those are relevant to them in the first place, and if they could tell you what's wrong (if anything) with the emails that you've sent.

Email content

Put the carrot into the email subject

Well, not the literal carrot (although you can try that as well)

Your email is going to be one of the hundreds that your user is getting every week, so unless it's something that directly impacts their wallet or time (or sanity), they will be pretty reluctant to open another nondescript email.

This is why – much like with the paid ads – you have to optimize the CTR of your email. The cheap way to do this is to use clickbait (e.g. "ATTENTION! You NEED to read this...") – don't ever do this.

Instead, make sure to put the value proposition of your email is clear from the subject line. If your FPE promotes the contact import, mention how much time they can save by importing the data from a CSV instead of entering the data by hand.

For simple FPEs early in the sequence that focus on the basics, be sure to mention something positive that they'll have after proceeding with the suggested course of action – that's the 'carrot' that you show them to motivate desired actions.

Keep each email short

Most of the time, long emails are either boring or scary. Some companies manage to pull off long emails (Smashing Magazine does it well), but those are exceptions which are successful due to precise combination of the business model, audience and message format. FPE is unlikely to work well in a long format (although I'll be happy to be proven wrong).

Ideally, your email copy should be limited to 2-3 paragraphs of text, 0-2 images and a single call-to-action. Include a problem statement and a solution that you're offering.

The solution should be exactly what they expected when they read the subject line, and the landing page on the CTA element should be in line with that message, too.

Although not required, you get bonus points if you manage to include personalized specifics in the problem statement: "You've spent about 45 minutes adding 15 contacts by hand last month. You could have saved 40 minutes by using CSV import!"

A good rule of thumb is if the time it takes to read the email out loud under a minute, then your email is short enough.

Personify their friendly mentor

If you can, pick someone from your team who's primarily responsible for email (or product-related support) and write every email on their behalf. Put "Adam from YOURCOMPANY" into the "From" field, introduce yourself in the initial email and keep this friendly personified tone throughout all of the emails.

This makes users to perceive your emails as something from a real person and not from a faceless corporation – it helps with getting your users' trust up.

If, for some reason, you cannot or don't want to put a real person's name and photo into the emails, you can use a made-up person – a little cheaper of a trick, but it's entirely harmless and people are unlikely to catch you at this. I still recommend using a real person's name, though.

Conclusion

These rules give you a framework which you can use to start creating your own FPE campaigns. As I said earlier, these are not absolute truths that you follow blindly – part of the concepts and approaches here very well might evolve during the campaign's lifetime.

This guide aims to set your team's thinking onto the right rails, and give the tools to figure out the rest themselves.

Was this guide helpful? Do you have anything to add from your experience? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email at pavel@fathomfuel.com.

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