Optimizing Our Onboarding Experience

Onboarding is tough to get right. It’s the start of our users’ relationship with our app and is the perfect opportunity to introduce what our product does, as well as develop trust in our brand. It’s probably one of the more important places to get our tone, interactions, and instructions right.

At SparkPost, we’ve recently updated our onboarding experience. As the design lead for this project, I thought I’d give back to other designers and developers and share some of decisions we made and the reasons why we made them.

99 Problems

Our old onboarding experience hadn’t scaled well as our app had grown over time. Data told us it was broken somehow. Too many people skipped it entirely, and missed out on crucial steps they needed to complete before they could get up and running to send some email.

1. Some people didn’t see onboarding at all

Navigating from our marketing website, through our sign up flow, and into our app was a complicated process, involving a number of branches. New sign ups would see different things depending on where the user was signing up from.

Some were even pulled out of the onboarding experience altogether. We dropped them into the middle of our app and left them to figure everything else out on their own. We didn’t guide them through the setup and configuration required to use our app properly.

Below you can see that only 45% of people got through the whole onboarding experience.

old onboarding experience completion rate

2. The experience was a momentum killer

We realized the experience was a huge barrier between new signups and the app. At certain points, we were asking for too much input, and at others, we weren’t providing enough guidance. For example, one form held 21 fields. In addition, our domain verification step was just plain confusing.

Visually, our old interface felt noisy and a bit inconsistent from one step to the next. Poorly placed buttons, text, and inconsistent styling were among some of the issues that just made the whole experience feel unpredictable and indigestible.

Very few people added their sending domain – a pretty important step.

old sending domain onboarding experience blog

3. Sorry, the other problems don’t exist, because we got the…

Dirt off our shoulders

Going back to the drawing board, we determined that our sign up flow should:

  • Introduce the app and its important features.
  • Educate users on the benefits of those features.
  • Turn users into senders with the best sending reputation.

We added two more steps.

Yes, we added steps. You might think we’re crazy, but we wanted to make sure our users had what they needed to become successful senders. Email is pretty complicated, even when we take care of the hard stuff, so we needed to give them the tools necessary to get up and running the right way.

First, we created a new plan selection step. We wanted to make sure our free and paid users knew what they were getting. This new plan selection page allowed us to highlight the benefits, features, and limitations of each plan.

For our high volume senders, we introduce another new step with the option to tack on dedicated IP addresses. Dedicated IPs are a small add-on that can help strengthen a sender’s reputation.

However, we didn’t just add pages blindly. We overhauled content, refreshed the UI, and removed a lot of cruft. Here are a few principles that guided our internal design process.

Digestibility

Good design is easy to digest.

We wanted to keep the new onboarding experience as quick as possible, and get our senders to the most valuable part of their experience—actually using our app. They should get through the entire process without spending a ton of time and energy figuring out what to do.

Reorganizing our pages’ hierarchy through colors, font sizes, and thoughtful placement all help give our users the guidance they need to make quicker decisions.

Fields, buttons, interactions, and even an entire step got the axe —anything at all that could confuse users. We were able to cut down that previously mentioned 21 field form to a more digestible 10 fields.

sign up gif onboarding experience

Clarity

Good design makes choices clear.

Email can get pretty confusing sometimes, but we can’t expect users to read a manual on how to start using our product. Easy-to-read and short copy isn’t enough. At every step we made sure to explain and illustrate:

  • What this step or feature is for
  • Why we need to collect information
  • What they should do next

domain compare gif onboarding experience

Familiarity

Good design also means consistency.

This one mostly comes from using people’s existing expectations of UI interactions. We don’t want to reinvent common design patterns that we’ve all been using for years. Therefore, we avoid confusion by sticking to well-established UI and design conventions.

We wanted the onboarding experience to feel as seamless as possible by visually aligning with our other properties, including our website and our app. Incorporating components, text styles and other design patterns from our website and app ensure consistency for anyone coming into visual contact with our brand.

billing compare gif onboarding experience

Encore

Finally, we were ready and excited to ship these updates. The UI looked great! However, we all know that doesn’t mean much if the results don’t actually help our customers. Now that we’ve had enough time to measure the impact of the new onboarding experience, we’re even more excited about it.

Our completion rate almost doubled.

new onboarding experience completion rate chart

Our sending domain completion rate tripled!

new sending domain better onboarding experience

Onboarding, of course, is just the beginning of our customers’ experience with our product. But a well designed onboarding experience gives them a head start on doing what they actually want to do.

(W)rapping up

Finally, it’s really true that onboarding never stops.

Fixing problems iteratively is an essential part of every design process. The issues we discover are sometimes hard to tackle, but with each design sprint and each revision, we see improvement. And this is what keeps us going. More than anything, we want to see our users succeed.

If you’ve recently signed up for SparkPost, we’d love to hear what you think about our onboarding experience. Feel free to reach out on Slack, Twitter, or leave a comment with any thoughts you have.

-Jon Ambas
Senior Front End Engineer

**Disclaimer: Jon doesn’t even listen to Jay-Z

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Customers who have signed up for premium services receive what we like to call, “Technical and Deliverability Account Management”. But what does that really mean for you, aside from getting support on a first name basis?

As a SparkPost Technical Account Manager (TAM), I work with many premium service customers on a daily basis. Although some might think we only offer just technical support, TAMs provide much more than that. To get a better understanding of what I do as a TAM for our customers, here’s a typical new premium support customer sign-up journey and the role I play.

Step One: Getting Started

As a TAM, I’m notified when I’ve been assigned a brand new customer who’s decided to join the SparkPost family. I’ll quickly send an introductory welcome email, along with next steps and a request to schedule a kickoff meeting to get started right away. We’re aware of the desire to hit the ground running, and we do our best to meet any critical timelines or cut-off dates to migrate mail traffic to our platform.

During the official kickoff meeting, I introduce myself as the dedicated TAM, and introduce a team member from our awesome Deliverability team, who will work in tandem with me to define message segmentation strategy and IP warmup. We listen to our customer’s concerns and/or risks, review business needs, discuss current sending methodologies, and highlight best practices.

Communication is critical to success, and we have a variety of protocols we use to connect with our customers, from weekly phone calls, to email or even Slack!

The final critical milestone in step one is firming up a go-live date that the customer is aiming for, and ensuring the warm-up plan will not only fulfill the customer’s needs, but also build in enough buffer time to establish credible reputation with the ISPs.

Step Two: Integration

At this point, the customer now has full access to their SparkPost environment, and is fully testing to ensure all systems are good to go for go-live. Our weekly touch point meetings comprise of questions the customer might have with testing, setting up new subaccounts, determining a bounce domain strategy, asking about relay webhooks, and how message events differ from webhook events. I like providing training sessions to my customers through screen sharing to ensure they’re set up for success. I’ll also review the account to check if DNS is correct, if suppression lists are functioning and ready to go, double checking ip pool mapping, and making sure subaccounts are properly set up. The deliverability team and I also refine and make any necessary changes to the warm-up plan and make any final preparations for the start of go-live.

Did I also mention that premium support customers get access to our Inbox Assist Tool (250ok)? This is a powerful third party partner that empowers our customers with data-driven real-time insights into email performance, brand reputation, and DMARC compliance.

Step Three: Go-Live

The day is finally here!

First thing in the morning, I remind my Deliverability counterpart that our customer is going live, and to keep an extra careful watch on their traffic. I’ll log into their environment, review any traffic that might have been sent so far, alert Deliverability if there are any abnormalities, and monitor throughout the day.

Things TAMs look out for in particular detail are ensuring your traffic is properly being routed onto the right dedicated IP pools and that traffic is flowing smoothly without significant delays. Any issues seen here, and we’ll reach out to the customer proactively to remediate as quickly as possible. How’s that for premium service?

Step Four: On-Going Support

The customer is now post Go-Live, and all traffic has successfully been migrated over onto SparkPost. What now?

Our Deliverability team will continue to provide a weekly report with analysis on how traffic is flowing and any remediation that might be required with ISPs. I provide monthly as well as quarterly updates, and share any upcoming features we’re rolling out with the customer, as well as how to leverage the benefits in their specific use case.

I work with customers to bring any additional messaging streams onto SparkPost, discuss any new requirements or feature requests, and always lend a hand for any coding issues or problems that might arise.

We’re Here For You

Sending emails isn’t always smooth sailing, but having a TAM in your corner to help you navigate through rough waters is always a plus. If you have any questions for me about my role as a TAM, find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

-Isaac Kim

For more insight into our TAM services, check out this post.

Today’s guest blogger runs Sales & Operations at Sendwithus – read on to learn some welcome email strategies and best practices. Enjoy! 

Welcome Email Strategies that Work

The welcome email is the first direct line of communication you have with your user. Additionally, it will be your first chance to showcase immediate—and hopefully lasting—value. Consequently, users interact with these emails more than sales outreach or marketing emails, with transactional rates for welcome emails being 9 times higher than those of automated marketing emails. The whole purpose of a welcome email is to kick-off a consistent subscriber-focused experience. Allow us to elaborate…

Don’t Bait and Switch

Setting expectations about email delivery frequency establishes trust amongst your subscribers and minimizes the chances of SPAM complaints. There is nothing worse than signing up for an awesome new service, only to get bombarded with irrelevant emails. Setting this expectation allows you to build a good rapport with users, and by mapping out the subscriber’s onboarding journey you will be well-positioned to place strategically advanced messaging, thereby alleviating relevant pain points and developing a long-term understanding.

See It From Their Perspective

With the rise of mobile media and skyrocketing use of smart mobile devices, email has become a more powerful tool than ever in connecting brands with customers. Umm hello, it’s 2017! While we’re sure this isn’t revelatory news to you, we would like to point out that 50% of users view emails on their mobile phones. Make the consistent creation of responsive emails, (i.e. emails that adapt nicely on every email client), a strict priority or risk getting lost in the fray. Furthermore, craft your copy, subject line, and call-to-action to reflect this mobile-first attitude, because chances are your users aren’t reading email on their desktops.

Need help with your templates? Sendwithus collaborates with industry partners to provide a free, open sourced and community driven template gallery.

Adopt a Customer Support Attitude

If you send from a “no-reply” email address, you’re sabotaging the success of your email campaigns by leaving recipients stranded. Customers could help debug your product, provide valuable feedback or voice concerns. At the very least, your readers can help you optimize their onboarding journey. Why would you throw away this chance to connect with users that want to help you succeed? It’s imperative that users can reach someone who is focused on customer support—it’s a win-win for everyone.

You Have Lots of Data and You’re Not Using It

Welcome emails are the equivalent of a first glance at a blind date; get an instant advantage by stunning your users with thoughtfulness and catering to their natural behaviors and desires. It’s more than likely that your users are suffering from information overload at most points in their day. Cut through the noise and give them exactly what they want, when they want it. This not only improves user experience but also increases ROI.

Your organization collects a lot of valuable data about your users whether you inherently realize it or not. Beyond basic demographic data, you can track saved searches, social engagements, product usage, retargeted ad clicks, the list goes on. Based on this data, send your customers personalized incentives to complete actions such as account activations, repeat purchases, or app downloads. Studies have found that personalizing emails can boost transaction rates up to 6x, illustrating that personalization substantially increases engagement.

There are numerous factors to consider in planning a successful onboarding campaign, and though the science behind effective email marketing is a complex beast, just breathe easy and begin by mastering the few steadfast principles and welcome email strategies we have discussed here. By implementing these tried-and-true techniques, we are sure you’ll enjoy a quick turn around in email marketing campaign results.

About the Author: 

Monpreet Gil

Mon is the Sales & Operations Manager at Sendwithus, where she spends her days behind spreadsheets, playing with new technologies or planning marketing campaigns to help businesses send awesome emails. Follow her on Twitter or read more posts here.

ps: We’d love to hear more about your welcome email strategies, drop us a line below or on Twitter.

Triggered Email Secrets Green Dart on Bullseye

Triggered Email Secrets from 7 Successful Marketers

I have a secret: a few days ago, my lunch pretty much consisted of a stop at a hip ice cream shop to enjoy a cone with a scoop of my favorite flavor: “Secret Breakfast,” which mixes bourbon-flavored caramel and corn flakes in a sweet cream base. First of all, yum. But it also reminded me how important creativity and surprise can be as marketing tools. Every scoop shop offers bread-and-butter flavors like chocolate and vanilla, but it’s the other buzz-worthy varieties that define their brands. (And I say this as an avowed vanilla-lover.) But what triggered email secrets can I learn from ice cream? 

Think about workhorse triggered emails. Welcome messages, transaction receipts, and shipping notifications probably come to mind. They’re functionally important, and they form the foundation of any successful email program. That’s why every email marketer needs to understand the basics of triggered emails. If you’re in the retail industry, you’ve probably become familiar with how to use triggered email in retail. But what about some unexpected flavors? Today, I’m going to let you in on seven triggered email secrets that you can use to mix up your vanilla programs and drive increased engagement.

1. Onboarding Nudge

Here’s one of my triggered email secrets: there aren’t many people who love onboarding emails more than I do. In its most basic form, onboarding begins with a staple of triggered email—a simple welcome message. However, onboarding also encompasses many additional opportunities to engage with recipients with triggered emails. Here’s one example of an effective form of onboarding. The message breaks the process into easy-to-digest steps and encourages the recipient to take the first step towards engagement.

Triggered Email Secrets #1: Onboarding by Headspace

  • Who: Headspace
  • Trigger: N-days since account creation without taking action
  • Why it works: This email makes it seem easy to achieve the desired action by emphasizing that it takes just 10 minutes.

2. Customer Preferences Solicitation

Guess what? The second triggered email secret I’d like to share is another onboarding message! In this follow-up to an initial welcome message, the recipient is asked to define her or his messaging preferences and some other key demographic information. The benefit to the merchant is clear: not only has a new customer taken a further step to engage with the site, but also has shared explicit data that serves as a foundation for future successful email marketing.

Triggered Email Secrets #2: Preferences by Steve Madden

  • Who: Steve Madden
  • Trigger: New user sign-up
  • Why it works: To sweeten the deal, Steve Madden offers a discount and call-to-action that feels like a win-win.

3. Second Purchase Thank You

Along with a welcome email, a thank you is a cornerstone of any triggered email program. It’s good manners—and represents a step towards building a personalized relationship with a customer. But the secret of this triggered email from Art of Play is that they noted I recently made a second purchase.

Triggered Email Secrets #3: Thank You by Art of Play

  • Who: Art of Play
  • Trigger: Second purchase
  • Why it works: As a customer, I feel really appreciated. The marketer in me understands that Art of Play is using good segmentation to note that I’ve suddenly become a high-value customer to them.

4. First Shipment Notification

Like thank you notes, shipment notifications are a workhorse of any triggered email program. But look at this follow-up to a first shipment notification from Amazon. The email is actually an optimally-timed onboarding message. Rather than overwhelming me with site features related to order tracking when I first sign up, it’s instead sent just when I first need it. That’s smart, and one of the triggered email secrets of Amazon’s success.

Triggered Email Secrets #4: Shipment Notification by Amazon

  • Who: Amazon
  • Trigger: First order shipment
  • Why it works: Shipment and order tracking tools are introduced to a new user at precisely the time she or he would find that information helpful.

5. Product Feedback Request

There’s no question that customer reviews are an important part of today’s retail marketer toolkit. However, not every merchant takes the time to explicitly ask for that feedback. Even fewer senders ask for feedback at just the right time, when a customer is most motivated and still noticing first impressions of the product. Consequently, an email triggered by order shipment (or better yet, delivery confirmation) is the secret to success with messages like this.

Triggered Email Secrets #5: Feedback by Banana Republic

  • Who: Banana Republic
  • Trigger: N-days after order shipped
  • Why it works: Timing is everything. Banana Republic’s note arrived in my inbox the day after I opened the package.

6. First Date Anniversary

Anniversaries, birthdays, and other key dates are opportunities to send messages to customers in a way that feels delightful, rather than like just one more marketing pitch. They’re also good building blocks for adding emotional qualities to the relationship you have with each recipient. This note celebrates the anniversary of a customer’s first transaction with ModCloth, and the promotional discount and social sharing features work well to drive additional transactions and brand reengagement.

Triggered Email Secrets #6: First Date Anniversary by ModCloth

  • Who: ModCloth
  • Trigger: 6 months after account creation
  • Why it works: Like a thank-you note, this celebratory message helps the customer feel appreciated, while the promotional discount and brand reengagement also happen to be great for business.

7. Inactivity and Reengagement Feeler

One of the best practices for any email marketer is making sure that recipients genuinely want to receive messages from you. That means a lot more than the minimum of opt-in (or even double opt-in). “List hygiene”—the regular culling of inactive and other problematic addresses—is a key part of ensuring high performing, highly-deliverable email that sends all the right signals to ISPs about user engagement. It’s also part of a winning engagement strategy that conveys to your customers that you treat them with respect. That’s why this message from Return Path is so successful. It serves an important functional goal, is highly engaging, and it’s a winning example of the sort of secret triggered email that more marketers should use.

Triggered Email Secrets #7: Reengagement by Return Path

  • Who: Return Path
  • Trigger: Period of inactivity/unread emails
  • Why it works: This message walks the walk of email best practices—and makes a “dull” list hygiene task anything but boring.

Triggered Email Is the Secret to Great Customer Engagement

These seven emails break out of the box. All are great examples of triggered email secrets for driving customer engagement. They overachieve on key metrics such as open rate, because the sender tailors them to the recipient’s needs and context. These examples also demonstrate a commitment to building an individualized relationship with the recipient.

What are some of your triggered email secrets? I want to hear your tips and tricks and what kinds of email are your own secret top performers.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

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Folding paper boats as symbol for onboarding email

Practical Examples of Onboarding Email

Your app has sung “Hello world!” Awesome! And now, customers are signing up. High fives all around—you deserve it.

But what now? Getting users to sign up is a big step, but it’s still only the start. Asking them to come back, get engaged, and convert into loyal customers takes more than a killer app. It also takes just the right onboarding flow.

Considering the onboarding experience is critical when introducing users to your product. Get it right, and you might nurture the next superfan. Get it wrong, and, well… crickets.

Fortunately, all of us already have one of the most effective onboarding tools out there: email. And building onboarding emails aren’t as hard as you might think. What they really take is empathy for your users’ point of view, a clear understanding of the problem your product solves, and a genuine and welcoming “voice” for your brand. Put those together, and you’ll find you have the recipe for success.

Here are five effective examples of email onboarding that will inspire you to start writing your own. I’ll tell you why they work and how you can apply them to get your own users on board and engaged.

1. The Opt-In

The first email you should send someone who’s just registered for an account is the email verification note. This serves two purposes. First, it’s a key way to verify that the email address the user provided is valid and working. Second, it serves as a confirmation that the user is choosing to sign up for your product (and opt-in for email communication related to your product).

Onboarding Email: Trello Opt-In

  • Who: Trello
  • Why it works: Starting with a clear and unambiguous subject line, this example gets right to the point and makes it easy for the user to perform the required action. The first name personalization and “If you didn’t…” explanation also reassures the recipient that this is a legitimate email. All the while, it stays true to Trello’s brand voice.
  • Room for improvement: An actual return address would be better than the do-not-reply sender address.

2. The First Step

Once a user has confirmed an email address, you’ll have a relatively limited window to get her or him engaged. The longer the delay between sign-up and action, the less likely your user is to become an active customer. So, make it easy to get started and reinforce the things that prompted him or her to sign up in the first place. There’s no time like the present to take the first step!

Onboarding Email: Pinterest First Step

  • Who: Pinterest
  • Why it works: An eye-catching subject line, clear prompting headline, and easy-to-click button all ensure this email is focused on encouraging a newbie user to give Pinterest a try. And even if the user puts off taking action, this email strongly reinforces Pinterest’s core brand voice, from subject line through the copywriting and the visual design. Bonus: the pinbot@pinterest.com sending address is smart enough to handle a wide range of possible user replies.
  • Room for improvement: I’d like to see first-name personalization in the copy. That personalization is an important driver of engagement—and something at which Pinterest truly excels.

3. The How-It-Works

Now that your customer has taken that first step, another key role of onboarding email is to explain how your product works, and what your user should expect. Don’t be tempted to provide a lengthy tutorial! Helping your customer see what to do at a glance goes a long ways toward simplifying the learning curve.

onboarding-email-expenseit

  • Who: ExpenseIt (from Concur)
  • Why it works: The visual design and copy—simple to scan, but deceptively substantive—work to keep this message easy to read. At a glance, the user can see how ExpenseIt works… and then dive in if interested. Throughout, key brand messages and the benefits of getting started are communicated. As a bonus, the checkmarks at the top of this email use a psychological incentive called the “endowed progress” effect to help motivate customers through a multi-step goal like getting started using the ExpenseIt app. Finally, support@expenseit.com is a real address that can handle customer responses. No bounces for you!
  • Room for improvement: The subject line, though blandly pleasant, doesn’t create a clear incentive to open the email. It should be tweaked to create a compelling motivation to learn more about using the product.

 4. The Incentive

Subtle cues are all well and good, but at some point in the process of user engagement, it will be time to put your money where your mouth is. When used sparingly, rewards can be powerful motivators and communicate that that getting started with your product has tangible value. That incentive could take many forms—virtual currency in a game, a developer-friendly tchotchke, or even cold hard cash. It all depends upon what motivates your users and what their action is worth to you. (At SparkPost, for example, we offer a free t-shirt to new customers who have signed up for a free account, but who haven’t taken the key action of sending their first email within a certain amount of time.)

Onboarding Email: Ebates Incentive

  • Who: Ebates
  • Why it works: Ebates’ core value proposition is all about helping members earn cash rebates and save money as they shop at leading retailers. So, a cash incentive tied to shopping behavior is a perfect fit to help motivate new customers to get started. In addition, this email borrows a tip from “How It Works,” above, and conveys how easy it is to use Ebates and earn that cash back: 1-2-3. Finally, the look and feel of this email is very compatible with the overall Ebates brand: value-oriented, but also easy-to-use and second nature to what shoppers already do. (Props for also providing a working return address.)
  • Room for improvement: There are multiple calls-to-action here: shop now, learn more, as well as retailer-specific offers. Let’s zero in on one that’s most compatible with why users joined. Additionally, though the subject line is cheerful, it doesn’t give a clear message of just how easy it is to get started. For an action-oriented brand like Ebates, “welcome” isn’t what drives user engagement.

5. The Immersion

Finally, what if a site’s user engagement goal really is just that: to motivate engagement with their user experience and brand? More functionally- or commerce-oriented companies take a very pragmatic point of view when it comes to user engagement: has my customer performed action X or committed to transaction Y? However, content or social networking businesses realize long-term value from attention rather than transaction. For these products, reinforcing the brand and experience of the site is the core goal of onboarding email.

onboarding-email-medium

  • Who: Medium
  • Why it works: Medium is all about getting engaged with high-quality content. This new user email skips the marketing-talk and draws a reader into the sorts of long-form writing that’s made Medium a top content destination. It also provides an understated call-to-action to download the app or log into the Medium site in a way that won’t detract from the core reading experience. The content-rich, immersive experience of this email already reflects some of the preferences I established in my initial sign-up: when I registered, I had expressed interest in topics like entrepreneurialism. The personalized content in this first email reinforces the one-to-one nature of what Medium does.
  • Room for improvement: Truth be told, there’s a balance to be struck between personalizing and echoing. As a new user, I’d love to see what else Medium has to offer beyond the specific topics in which I expressed an interest. The subject line, though superficially personalized, doesn’t tell me what to expect from this email—there are better ways to draw the user in! Perhaps most importantly, this email doesn’t make a direct mention of how a new user can like, comment on, and create new Medium posts—that’s a missed opportunity for this onboarding email, because interactivity is key part of social networks like Medium. Finally, this particular example exhibits the bugaboo of a “noreply” sending address. Email is a two-way communication medium. Be sure your approach to email onboarding doesn’t leave a user without a means to communicate.

Are You Ready to Get Started with Onboarding Email?

Combined with in-app prompts, UX cues, and psychological incentives like gamification, email is a highly effective piece of the onboarding flow. These five examples show how you can use it at each step of the user engagement process.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful for developing your own user onboarding strategy. By the way, do you have a great example of onboarding email to share? I’d love to see it!

—Brent
@brentsleeper

 

P.S. If you liked this post, you might like these others in my onboarding email series:

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best practices customer onboarding

This is going to sound familiar to many product managers. And founders. And product marketers, developers, and….

You spotted a market opportunity, figured out what your customers need, built your product, did some marketing or other promotion. Or, to put it more bluntly, you spent time, you spent money, and you spent a huge dose of blood, sweat, and tears. And—amazingly—you find that people are downloading your app or signing up for an account.

Woot! What a good feeling. But then you realize they’re trying it once and not coming back. Or your conversion rates are uncomfortably low. Now that feeling’s a sinking one. What’s going on?

It might be all about first impressions. And I don’t mean just the bling. Getting started—effecting change to entrenched habits or processes—often is the hardest part.

The first few interactions a customer has with an app or a cloud service—the onboarding experience—arguably make up the most important chance you have to win a customer’s buy-in and engagement. Onboarding profoundly influences a customer’s views of a service, and it can make or break an entire customer relationship.

The discipline of user experience design (UX) in software is focused on usability, affective and emotional aspects of the product, making certain desired user activities intuitive, and so on. Designing the onboarding experience is a big part of that. In-app cues, incentives such as gamification, and triggered emails are all major drivers of the onboarding flow.

Most of these best practices apply to both B2C and B2B contexts. But what happens when requirements for getting started go beyond a user’s interactions with an app? For B2B services like SparkPost that power real-world business processes or that integrate with other business systems, onboarding encompasses broader considerations than getting through a series of steps in the app.

At SparkPost’s recent Insight user conference, our own Clea Moore was joined by a panel of customers who discussed their experiences with onboarding in the enterprise context. These professionals shared their (sometimes hard-won) advice about how to hit the ground running when moving business processes to a cloud-based platform. The discussion was wide-ranging and delivered a lot of insight into how to make migrating to the cloud a reality.

Here are some of the take-aways:

  • The cloud allows the businesses to focus on their strategic differentiators rather than managing commodity infrastructure. On this, the panelists were whole-heartedly in agreement. Seth Weisfeld of Pinterest observed that “cloud infrastructure is a strategic choice for Pinterest. It allows us to focus on our real value in content and experience.” Jonathan To of fashion retailer Tobi agreed, “To be able to focus on our customers and their engagement rather than infrastructure is just so great and so important to our business.”
  • Scalability and elasticity are big wins from an technical operations perspective. Travis Wetherbee noted, “I don’t have to worry about adding IPs, adding boxes, adding drive space to deal with peak volumes or to store and bounces.” Jonathan To added, “We’re not a huge company. We’re trying to stay lean. The cloud is a major win for time to market.”
  • Specialized expertise—for example, SparkPost’s deliverability services team—makes a huge difference among cloud providers. For mission-critical processes, cloud providers have got to back their technology with hands-on account management and real operational and onboarding expertise. Seth Weisfeld described, “It’s really huge to be able to trust our provider on issues like deliverability. We couldn’t always rely on that in the past.” Travis Wetherbee concurred, “Beyond the pure technology evaluation, services like deliverability expertise was a big criterion in our decision-making.”
  • Planning ahead makes all the difference for minimizing the risks of unexpected impacts or disruption. That includes technical legwork—Travis Wetherbee called out making sure DNS changes and suppression lists were managed systematically—as well managing the transition from a business perspective. Jonathan To added that “Thinking about the data you want to store means looking ahead and making conscious choices—even if you can’t use it today.” Seth Weisfeld described the importance of looking at the migration as a process, not something that can be done in one fell swoop. His advice was to begin with small, less critical mail streams and then gradually ramp up to the most strategic pieces as the system is proved out.

Learning from customers always has been the most rewarding part of my job. And, of course, getting information about how people actually use technology to solve problems in the real world is essential to every software or cloud product marketer. So, I was really thrilled to hear what the professionals on this panel had to say about their experiences moving their email infrastructure to the cloud.

By the way, in the coming weeks, I’ll be discussing the role of implementation and services teams in the onboarding experience. What do you think it takes for successful onboarding in the enterprise? Let me know—I’d love to hear about your own real-world experiences.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

 

Like this post? Check out some other Insight 2015 session recaps:

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There are times when it feels we’re like a golden age for user-centered technology. I mean, how easy is it to download a personal quantification app that a friend recommended to you, or to bookmark a great new productivity web site to investigate when you have some downtime? Easy-peasy, my friends!

But if you’re anything like me, it’s also awfully easy to forget those downloaded apps and saved bookmarks. Maybe I’ll log in once, then get back to whatever I was working on, thinking to myself that I’ll check out this great tool a little later. Or perhaps I’ll get intimidated by a complex setup process for which I just don’t have time at the moment. Or, worst of all, the basic workflow for a site will be lost on me, and the payoff for figuring it out seems to just not be worth the effort.

Unfortunately for the teams behind these apps, each of these scenarios is a potential death-knell for my engagement with their products. Every time I delay taking a step with an app or service, it becomes decreasingly likely that I’ll become an active, paying, and profitable customer. That’s why the onboarding experience is so crucial—the first few moments with an app can make or break an entire customer relationship.

Welcome On Board!

Onboarding is a multi-faceted occurrence that encompasses a range of functional and qualitative experiences. It spans the very first welcome screen, account creation, introduction of features, and alerts that prompt specific tasks in a workflow. When done right, each of the steps represents an opportunity for increasing user engagement—but if poorly implemented or introduced with little forethought, they become hurdles that risk turning a customer away for good.

No wonder, then, that product teams put a good deal of thought into optimizing each aspect of the new user experience. The most successful apps find a balance that makes it easy—seductive, even!—for users to incrementally increase their engagement in a way that feels natural and self-paced, all the while capturing data and other indicators that feed behavioral models that identify profitable audience segments.

While there’s no magic bullet to solving the onboarding challenge, there are best practices that have emerged over the past decade and that reflect a combination of expert insight and empirical evidence.

One of the best of these best practices is the onboarding email. Once relegated to a simple transactional message that essentially said “hey, you joined, here’s a confirmation of your username,” the onboarding email has since matured into a fundamental piece of a product team’s toolkit. Today, the most successful onboarding emails are designed as a series of carefully-timed and triggered messages that help to accomplish several key goals, including:

  • Serving that original functional need of confirming account creation.
  • Reminding the user of key steps required to complete registration.
  • Validating the user’s email address (and, by the way, enabling double opt-in for email marketing).
  • Introducing key concepts in the features or workflow of the app or service.
  • Encouraging active engagement with and investment in the site or product.
  • Establishing brand voice and personifying the relationship a user has with a product.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be honing in on each of these aspects of the onboarding experience and featuring emails that do a good job of meeting each need. Until then, what’s worked (and what hasn’t) for your product team’s onboarding efforts? I’d like to hear from you.

—Brent
@brentsleeper