For SaaS companies, onboarding emails help establish long-term relationships with customers to understand and effectively use software tools. Yet, onboarding processes and email copy are often overlooked. The best way to learn what customers need is to talk to them.
Today’s guest is Samar Owais, SaaS and eCommerce email expert. She talks about everything you need to know to make onboarding emails an effective part of your customer acquisition and retention strategy. Samar’s advice on how to talk to customers and identify their pain points can apply to any marketer.
Ben: Hi, Samar. How's it going?
Samar: Hey, Ben. Going well. Thank you for having me.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Glad to have you on the show. We're going to be talking about SaaS onboarding emails which is an interesting topic for a lot of reasons. I think it's something that a lot of SaaS companies may overlook or certainly, it's an area where a lot of SaaS companies can improve upon.
Also, even though we are a SaaS company, we actually haven't talked much about SaaS specifically on our own podcast, and I don't believe we've ever talked about onboarding before. I'm really glad to have you on the show to tackle this for us.
Samar: Yeah. I'm very excited.
Ben: To open things up, why are onboarding emails so important for SaaS companies? If someone's getting an onboarding email, presumably, they've provided a credit card, and they're paying for a product, why does it matter at that point if you really focus on your onboarding emails?
Samar: The funny thing about us is that even when somebody signs up and pays for your tool, it's not necessary that they will start using it. Because human beings have a very small attention span and we're very busy people, at any given day, we have at least 20 Chrome tabs open.
Yes, we sign up. We're excited about that tool. We are showing that it will solve the problem—whatever the solution is that we're looking for—but five minutes later, you hit a snag. You have 10 or 15 seconds spent trying to figure it out, and you don't. You get distracted by another thing, the day is over, and you go on with your life. The next day you come back, and you have forgotten all about it. You don't mean to, but you have.
Onboarding emails are important for SaaS companies because they show the user how to make the most of their tool. It helps them get familiar with the app. Until and unless your users are not using your app, it doesn't matter whether they're paying for it or not. You are failing at the one thing that you were set out to do, which is solve the problem. Nobody's using your app, service, desktop app, or whatever that is. It's not working out essentially.
The other thing it does is it teaches users how to solve the problem that they were looking for a solution to. That is all user-focused. But the one thing it also does is it helps retain users for SaaS companies which is super important.
If onboarding were the first step, retention would be the second. I always say we need to onboard with retention in mind. Don't onboard and then let it get to a point where people are thinking like, oh, okay, we're not using it anymore and we're being charged every month. Let's just cancel it out.
Let's think beyond the onboarding, see what roadblocks there could be, what problems they might run into, and then incorporate the solution in our onboarding emails.
I always tell this to SaaS companies that come to me. You will have the best SaaS tool in the market, but if you're not making it easier for your users to use it, your best SaaS tool in the market will remain the best-kept secret in the market. Nobody will know what to do with it if you're not sending them onboarding emails to show them.
The other thing onboarding emails do is they also take the pressure of customer support. These emails often answer frequently asked questions that CS reps get again and again. Also, these emails set expectations and help the users get over the friction points.
The most important thing I feel is they build a relationship with their users, and they feel well taken care of. They feel like this is a software or a company that cares about us that is actively working to solve our problem. If it's not working out, then maybe I can reach out to them because they've been sending me these emails, and they do care about what I'm doing.
Ben: I love so many things about that answer. Particularly, something there that might really be overlooked is how onboarding emails can really lift a lot of burden off of your customer support team. They will thank you for that if you can do anything to help people better understand your product so that they can spend their time helping people with other things.
If we take your response to that question holistically, it sounds to me like onboarding emails really are part of the beginning of a long-term conversation or relationship with a customer, not just a one-off thing that you provide almost as an obligation just because you have to have some messaging there.
Ben: You've touched on this a little bit, but let's dive deeper into the potential problems a SaaS company might experience or opportunities they might miss if they overlook their onboarding email copies. There are plenty of problems that could present themselves if you don't onboard users effectively in general, but when it comes to email copy, what are some of the top problems that you see companies experience or the biggest opportunities that they miss as a result of overlooking their email copy here?
Samar: I'm so glad you asked that question because when you look at any SaaS company's email and you hide the branding, 9 times out of 10, it looks like it's from the same company. Nobody can tell the difference.
I feel like onboarding emails and any emails that you're sending your users are such a huge opportunity to set yourself apart, build a relationship at the same time, have a distinct tone and voice, and have a certain way of talking to your users where when they see an email from you, they will be looking forward to opening it.
Another thing I say is email is often used as a marketing tool, but it is a communication tool. You need to use your email to have conversations. When you are having a conversation, people are much more willing to listen and do what you want them to do rather than when you're just sending them marketing messaging.
I feel like an email copy is one opportunity that SaaS companies are missing, and that is also one of the big mistakes that they're making.
Ben: Sure. Great response there. If a listener is following along with this conversation and this episode and they're starting to second-guess the quality or performance of their own onboarding emails, how would you recommend they begin assessing the performance of the emails they're sending right now? What would you recommend that they look at just to check the pulse of their current onboarding email copy?
Samar: We're going to get to the emails, but first, you need to talk to your CS reps. Talk to your customer service and find out if the queries, the complaints, or the tickets that you're getting are more about things that your software can do, and your users just don't know what your software can do.
If that is the case and there's a huge percentage of those coming in, then you have an onboarding problem because if your software can do what your users are trying to do when contacting your [...], then there is a problem.
Secondly, Ben, it comes down to what kind of onboarding sequence you're sending. If it's a free trial to paid onboarding, then how many of your free trials are turning into paid customers after being sent those emails? If that number is low, then you obviously need to improve your emails.
Also, even if that number is high and you have a churn problem at the end, that is also an indication that expectations are not being set properly. Emails are such a great way of setting expectations.
You need to start thinking about how many paying customers are staying with us for longer than 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, and so on? How many of them are turning? At what point in their customer journey are they turning?
Just asking the right questions will give you so much insight into how your emails are doing. I always say there's no standard reply or there's no standard on how an onboarding email is done. It's by asking the right question that you get the feel for it.
Then, if you're getting really granular and you want to dive into the email by email review, then figure out which of your emails have the lowest conversion and which feature is not being adopted despite you having an email in your onboarding sequence about it.
Those are just some things that you can start focusing on. It will just give you all the insight you need to start digging deeper. It's like a thread that you pull and then a whole world opens up for you.
Ben: I really liked the way that you framed that response because it really sounds like what you're recommending people to do is just start with trying to identify what the problem actually is first or whether a problem even exists because certainly, you don't want to be spending time solving problems that aren't there. I really liked that approach of starting with what is it that customers need and what are they not getting? It's what it sounds like.
If a SaaS marketing team wants to begin to improve their onboarding emails, whether or not they actually have a problem, sometimes, when things are doing okay, they can actually be easy to overlook even though there might be plenty of opportunities to make those things better. Regardless of what scenario or how the team feels about where they're at right now, let's say they decide this is something they want to focus on or something they want to see if they can get better at, how would you recommend they begin in that situation?
Samar: This one's easy, but also the hardest to do. The answer for me is easy, but it's something that SaaS companies feel a lot of resistance to. That's talking to customers.
Instead of going in and figuring out whether something is working or if you have a hunch, just go talk to your customers. They will tell you for free, and they will spend hours telling you exactly why something isn't working.
Listen to them, combine all that quality of data that you're getting, and find themes in it. When an onboarding sequence isn't converting, it doesn't necessarily mean that the emails are bad. It could simply be a case of the email copy not connecting to the user. Maybe the email copy is too jargony. Maybe the email copy is not meeting the user where they are in their journey. It could be simple tweaks like changing the tone and voice of the emails and making it more conversational, or it could be a lot more complex. You will only find out when you talk to your customers.
If you talk to them and you find out that the problem is deeper, then you know what to do. You know that you need to revamp the whole thing, but before you revamp the whole thing, you need to understand the problems that your customers are facing.
Ben: Something this conversation circles back to a few times over and something that's worth repeating yet again is the need to focus on your users and what they need from you. The best way to learn what they need from you is to actually talk to them.
This doesn't have to be as nerve-wracking as it might seem either. You could just try asking a sales rep if you can sit in on a sales call, try reading through some support tickets, set up some informal interview sessions to speak with customers one-on-one, or maybe even create some in-app survey regarding their onboarding experience.
There are a ton of different things that you can do to try to better understand what your customers are going through and what their real problems are even if you don't personally have a ton of first-hand experience with doing customer research.
The more that you can learn about your customers—however you choose to go about that process—and the more that you can learn what they need from your onboarding, then the better you're going to be able to write copy that actually addresses those needs and actually helps make your product, your marketing, and your company more successful.
Now, back to Samar.
Once a team is feeling confident in the quality of their onboarding emails, they know that they're generally answering the right questions or providing the right info, and users are—at least at a basic level—getting what they need out of those emails, how would you recommend that they approach fine-tuning that email copy to further improve performance, to really make sure that they're zeroing in on what people need, and maybe even answering questions that people didn't even know that they had about that product or about that feature?
Samar: My response is probably going to be very unpopular, but I'm going to say, don't touch those emails because you need to map out the rest of your users' email journey and focus on that. If you're confident with your onboarding, if you're happy with the numbers you're getting, it's time to move on to the next step.
I always say it's a journey. That journey starts from the first time somebody lands on your website. If you're a B2C company, then one of two things are going to happen—and if they're a SaaS company, especially if they have a content marketing program. Let's say CoSchedule has. When somebody lands on your website, one of two things will happen. They will either see a pop up to sign up for their newsletter, or they will sign up for the free trial.
If they're signing up for the newsletter, then we need to ask ourselves, what happens next? What emails are we going to send them? What is the purpose of the emails that we want to send them? Start with the purpose and what emails you need to send them. We'll define ourselves from there.
The purpose of the welcome sequence needs to be that we need to push the subscriber to your free trial. You push them to the free trial, and they sign up for the free trial. What happens next? We send them a free trial to paid onboarding emails.
What is the purpose of that onboarding email sequence? The purpose is that we want them to become a paying user. Okay, great, they do what we want them to do, they sign up, and then they become paying users. What happens next? Next, we want to retain that. That is where the next step from onboarding goes on.
One of the things that I always say when mapping out email journeys is that it is great that we're focusing on conversions, but conversions are a very small subset of your audience. Don't quote me on this, but at least 80% of your subscribers and your free trials are not converting into paying customers. They are not doing what you want them to do so you need to come up with a plan of what emails they are going to get when they do not do what you want them to do.
If it's the welcome sequence, the welcome sequence is over, and they haven't signed up for the free trial, what emails are you going to send them? The answer is usually we're going to keep sending them the content emails that we're sending out, but also, you need to make a strategic decision. What time frame after will you push the free trial on that again? That is where the strategy comes in.
Similarly, when somebody doesn't sign up and doesn't become a paid user after signing up for the free trial, what are you going to do next? What emails are you going to send them? Again, this is where the strategy part comes in. You need to sit down and decide, how are you going to approach this? The cookie cutter way is not bad. It's usually to offer a seven-day extension on a free trial, but there are other ways to handle it as well.
How are you going to approach them? Do you want to approach them personally and find out what stopped them so that you have that qualitative data to figure out whether there's a problem that needs to be addressed?
All of this will take time, at least 3–4 months of collecting this data and going to it before you start seeing patterns. If your onboarding emails are performing strongly, I would say move on to the next part which is making sure that these paying customers stay with you long-term.
If you have a tier-based pricing system which is based on the more you use, the more features they'll need, then you need to get them to a point where they need to upgrade to the next year.
If you have a similar price point, then you need to maybe think about moving them to annual pay so that they become long-term users and you don't have a churn problem on your hands. That will just increase the tension for you.
All of these are things that you need to focus on. Email journey is an entire ecosystem. For SaaS companies, you need to map out every customer touch point and then just focus on them.
It doesn't need to be perfect. I always say your emails don't need to be perfect, they need to be converted. As soon as they're strong enough, move on to the next part. When you have slowly built out your entire email ecosystem for your company, then you go back and focus on optimizing.
Ben: Sure. I think that that's great advice. It's really important to understand that this is one part of a bigger picture. It's very important not to lose sight of the broader strategy and where your onboarding emails fit in.
The last question I'll toss your way is if our listeners are interested in seeing examples of awesome, best-in-class onboarding emails, what are some companies that you think do this really well that you would recommend they go check out? Maybe get on a free trial, see what they can do just to take a look at what those emails look like, and how they have those journeys structured.
Samar: Absolutely. [...] is one of my favorites. They have a seven-day free trial, I think. It's nice. But even after the trial, they send really helpful emails.
Similarly, Linktree (I feel) doesn't get enough love. They have emails where they did an art out of instructional GIFs. They will send an email talking about a feature, and that email will have a GIF showing them exactly where to find that feature, what to do, and how to set it up.
I feel like that is brilliant because it deals with the anxiousness that users might feel trying out something new that they aren't familiar with. Before even clicking through, they know exactly what that feature is going to look like, what the dashboard is going to look like, where to go, what to click—all of that. Instructional GIFs are such a great way of doing that.
I want to say I'm a little bit on the fence about this third one, but I appreciate the emails that I'm getting. I recently moved to ActiveCampaign, and they've been almost bombarding me with emails. But what I like about them is they're text-based emails. They sound conversational. I know that I can reach out whenever I need to.
Now, I'm getting annoyed because somebody else is handling the transition for me, so they don't really apply to me. But even then, I appreciate that they're sending these. Every time I open an email, there is helpful content in there. I really like [...], Linktree, and ActiveCampaign.
Ben: Awesome. I'm not so familiar with Linktree, but I'm pretty familiar with the other two. Great companies and great products. I would recommend all of our listeners to go check them out.
This has been awesome. Thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing your insight. I really think this is something that for sure, the SaaS contingent of our listenership is going to get a lot of value out of. There are probably plenty of small tidbits and pieces of advice in there that pertain just to writing email copy or even to just doing marketing or communication in general that our listeners can really get some value from.
Thanks so much for coming on the show, and best of luck with everything that you're working on.
Samar: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.