Growth marketing expert Ramli John on why you’re getting user onboarding wrong

User onboarding is not a quick product tour or welcome email. It starts before the users sign up, and it doesn't quite end after they convert. So, what is it, and more importantly, how do you get it right?

Despite how crucial user onboarding is to increasing customer conversion and retention, it’s still somewhat overlooked or brushed off in many organizations that see it as an item to cross off the checklist as soon as the user becomes a paying customer. And that’s exactly why today’s guest, Ramli John, jokingly calls it “the ugly duckling of growth.”

Ramli is a Growth Coach at ProductLed, a community for product-led growth enthusiasts such as himself, and the author of Product-Led Onboarding, a practical guide to level-up onboarding experiences and turning users into lifelong customers.

A growth marketer at heart with a background in mathematics, Ramli’s interest in onboarding experiences was piqued as a young consultant driving trial signups. People were signing up, sure, but they weren’t necessarily sticking around. And so, Ramli got to work. He realized that the onboarding process is much bigger than people give it credit for – it’s not about getting one “aha!” moment or creating a quick product tour. User onboarding starts at the first impressions you get from a product or service, and it goes all the way to how you experience and adopt it to fulfil a job in your life.

In today’s episode, we chat with Ramli about all things user onboarding – what it is, what it’s not, and how to get it right.

Short on time? Here are a few key takeaways:

  • No product tours or hacks will fix overpromising and underdelivering. A good onboarding experience starts with a realistic promise that goes straight to the point.
  • The initial onboarding ends when you have a good indicator that the customer has found meaningful value from your product and will likely continue using it.
  • Successful user onboarding guides users through a series of “aha!” or value moments before, during, and after they sign up in a way that builds a habit around your product.
  • Understanding the needs of your users and the jobs they’re trying to do is the first step to creating a great onboarding experience. Everything else flows from that.
  • When it comes to product tours, it’s a lot more effective to showcase the relevant features tied to the user’s success than pointing out every single thing it can do.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Getting onboarding to stick

Liam Geraghty: Ramli, I’m delighted you’re here. Welcome to the show.

Ramli John: Liam, I’m super excited. I thank you for the invite.

Liam: Before we get into it, I’d love to hear a bit about your journey to this point. Did you start out studying mathematics?

“I often call onboarding the ugly duckling of growth”

Ramli: Yeah, I did. I started in mathematics and got into programming, I did a startup, and one of the failures was around marketing. So, I shifted from computer science to marketing and growth and having that technical background really helped me stand out as a growth marketer. Then, I started consulting. When I was consulting, one of the things that I really got into was driving trial signups, and this was way before things like product-led growth at all. I was just trying to get people to sign up for a free trial. One of the things I noticed was that I was getting a lot of signups, but were any of them sticking around? Looking at the data and knowing a little of that technical side, I got into the backend, and I found they weren’t sticking around.

That’s when I got really into onboarding, seeing how much of a problem it is for a lot of companies where it’s often forgotten. I often call onboarding the ugly duckling of growth because you’ve got marketing trying to get signups, you’ve got sales trying to get people to show the demo, you’ve got product people who have a product roadmap, and onboarding is this black hole that’s often forgotten. And so, I got into it, started consulting around that, and ended up writing Product-Led Onboarding, which came out in 2021.

First impressions

Liam: The book is called Product-Led Onboarding: How to Turn New Users into Lifelong Customers. User onboarding is such a crucial part of the customer’s journey. A good place for us to start might be to try and define user onboarding because depending on who you talk to, some people might think it’s just a product tour or a few emails, others think there’s a lot more education involved, and some people don’t give it that much weight at all. So, how do you define it, Ramli?

Ramli: It’s essentially our first impression. What I call initial onboarding goes from the first impression with your brand all the way to seeing and experiencing the value of your product. When somebody comes to see an ad or your website, that website is making a promise. For me, that’s the start of onboarding because if you’re overpromising something and underdelivering, no product tour is going to fix that. From the promise made to the promise experience where they’ve achieved the promised land of your ad, website, or copy, that’s what I call the onboarding. That whole journey is super critical.

“What’s ‘aha!’? It’s subjective”

Liam: You’ve written about user onboarding, and you talk about these myths out there like the “aha!” moment or that it starts after a user signs up and finishes after they convert. Are they just myths?

Ramli: Yeah, I think it’s perpetrated. As with any buzzword, the “aha!” moment leads to big misconceptions because it’s hard to define. If you look it up online, you’ll get many different definitions. It’s hard to define because it could also be a feeling. What’s “aha!”? It’s subjective. I’d rather call it value moments – moments when your user sees the value and is actively signing up and starting to experience it.

And as you mentioned, there is a big misconception that it happens after somebody signs up. But there have to be several “aha”s for somebody to get to that. I try to avoid using the word “aha!” as much as possible when I’m talking about onboarding because of that. I’d rather call it value moments because it’s clear that these are moments where you’re making a value promise, and the whole goal of onboarding should be to get them to experience that value and eventually adopt it.

“That’s the end goal – how do you get users to get to that value moment of your product multiple times so that it becomes a habit?”

Liam: I’ll go back and bleep out any “aha!” references after the show. So, what is the end goal of user onboarding?

Ramli: Really, this goes back to your previous question around myths that typically people think, “well, just get them to ‘aha!’ moment.” But I think that misses the whole point of onboarding, which is the end goal around product adoption. How do you get somebody to adopt a product? To put it differently: how do you get a user to build a habit around a product?

There are some books, like Atomic Habits by James Clear or Tiny Habits by Dr. BJ Fogg, about building good habits like running and being healthy. That could be applied to users. I think that’s the end goal – how do you get users to get to that value moment of your product multiple times so that it becomes a habit? That’s really the end goal with onboarding. I know of several companies that push that. A great example I can think of is Slack. Typically, the first moment of value is when somebody signs up for Slack and sends their friend or colleague a message. That’s the first time. But for most people, it’s like, “Oh, that’s the ‘aha!’ moment, we’re done with onboarding.”

But Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, was very clear about this. What they found was that they needed to drive an organization to send 2000 messages because that’s the moment when an organization is 93% more likely to stick around. Onboarding ends when we have a good indicator that this user or organization or team is going to stick around longer-term because that’s when they’ve built that habit or they’ve adopted our product. At the end of the day, the end goal is retention.

A never-ending cycle

Liam: Could you talk us through the three milestones of user onboarding that you’ve mentioned before, like value perception, value realization, and value adoption?

Ramli: Those three milestones are super important. It goes back to making that promise. When they realize how your product can help them be a better person, a better worker, a better employee, a better friend, if it’s a consumer product, that perception is when the promise is made and gets stuck in their mind. I’m using the word “promise,” but this is positioning and messaging. That’s where product marketing is super important.

Once I’ve heard the promise, does it make sense? They experience that promise. Has the promise been completed? Am I a better person? Does it make my job easier? With Slack, it makes my workflow easier so that I don’t have to be connected with email.

“Sure, you can help the person once, but how do you continue to help them so they don’t just use your product for that particular use case?”

The very final thing that you mentioned is around that adoption. Now that I’ve realized it, is this something that I want to continue using? That’s the very last stage of this onboarding. I’ve heard about the promise, I’ve experienced it, and now I want to continue going forward with it. Those are what I see as the three milestones to the onboarding journey.

Liam: Some people argue that user onboarding is only about helping users to experience the value of your product and that’s it, but I think you definitely disagree with this.

Ramli: Yeah, it really isn’t. One of the examples I brought up is about people making New Year’s resolutions. They think, “I’m going to go to the gym,” so they sign up for a gym membership.

Liam: We’ve all been there.

“Sure, you can help the person once, but how do you continue to help them so they don’t just use your product for that particular use case?”

Ramli: They go the first time to the gym, they feel great, they feel healthy, they’ve experienced the value. But it’s not enough, especially with product-led or self-service products where a lot of users are not stuck in a long-term contract or an annual contract. Imagine if you could cancel gyms month to month and didn’t have an annual contract. There would be a lot of cancellations in February. If I were a gym and I were in that situation, my goal would be, “how do I get people to come back here again? How do I get them excited, get them healthy and coming back over and over again?”

That’s why it’s important applying that to products. Sure, you can help the person once, but how do you continue to help them so they don’t just use your product for that particular use case? Eventually, there is potential for them to use your product for other use cases. Going back to the gym analogy, they come to the gym, they work out. Maybe you can get them excited about the protein shakes you sell at the gym. Now there’s potential for revenue expansion because you’re really helping this person out and helping them be successful. It really ties back to your success as a business.

Liam: I love that. Like you say, using it once doesn’t mean users will continue to value your product by any means, and it’s like a cyclical process rather than just a straight line.

Ramli: I totally agree. It’s not just a straight line. It needs to be cyclical. Some people think that once they’ve experienced that value, their job to help with onboarding is done. But there are other use cases that you can potentially use your product for that they haven’t tried. With the gym example I mentioned earlier, why don’t you onboard them to massages or protein shakes? What are other ways you can help this person with adjacent problems? There are some great examples around that companies are doing. HubSpot has HubSpot Marketing, and once they realize that, let’s address another adjacent problem, such as HubSpot Sales and HubSpot support. I think that’s a big use case. Same thing with Intercom.

Here’s the thing about product tours

Liam: In terms of some advice, what best practices would you recommend for SaaS user onboarding?

Ramli: For SaaS users, I’m going to go to self-serve first. The reason I’m picking product-led or self-service companies first is that sometimes it’s easy to get disconnected from users. The thing I love about sales-led, and it’s funny because I coach ProductLed, is you’re connected with the customer. Your sales team understands their problems; you understand where they’re getting stuck in their onboarding flow. If there’s a disconnect in the positioning or the messaging, their questions will come up in the conversation on the sales side.

“The big mistake I see a lot of companies do is they just ask me, ‘Ramli, what’s the best tool for onboarding so I can set up a product?’”

In product-led and self-serve, especially for SaaS, they need to be more intentional about reaching out and understanding their users, understanding where they’re getting stuck. There’s got to be a habit around user research and taking a look at, “Well, is our positioning and messaging connecting?” Because if we get that piece wrong, there are no product tools or tips or anything that will work. Is the messaging across the board consistent so that it’s getting them excited about the product and getting them to come back? Is the product tour right for us? Would a user actually find that helpful? Because sometimes, a product tour can add friction. When it comes to product tours, it really depends on your user.

The big mistake I see a lot of companies do is they just ask me, “Ramli, what’s the best tool for onboarding so I can set up a product?” And I’m like, “How well do you know your users? What is their emotional journey? What are the functional jobs they’re trying to accomplish with your product?” Often, it’s not very clear to them. I think the danger is that they set up this product tour and it becomes very convoluted — it points out every single thing because there’s no drive to get users to complete this one value I call the value realization, that moment when they realize the value of that product. If it’s not clear, you end up just pointing to every single feature in your product. I think I would start with understanding users because everything else flows from that, especially when it comes to designing and improving your onboarding.

“One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is a product tour that points out every single feature. When people aren’t clear about what user success is, that’s exactly what happens”

Liam: So, what are the signs of bad user onboarding, or what does bad user onboarding look like?

Ramli: I would say one of the biggest problems I’ve seen is a product tour that points out every single feature. When people in an organization aren’t clear about what user success is, that’s exactly what happens. To make this even more absurd as an example, it’s like going into a grocery store and somebody stopping you and pointing out, “Hey Liam, can I give you a tour? Here’s where the chicken is. Here’s where the bread is. Here’s where the banana is. Here’s where the chocolate bar is.” You’re like, “Hey man, I’m just here to make a sandwich, just give me what I need to make a sandwich.”

When you have that clear idea of what users are trying to accomplish, then you can be like, “Oh, you just want a sandwich? Here’s the bread. Here’s the mayo. Here’s the chicken.” I think that’s the big mistake that I often see, “Oh, here’s this feature, here’s this feature. Here’s the feature” How does that tie back to getting that user to that first quick win? With limited time and a lot of impatient users, it’s super, super important to be clear as to how that feature or that step is going to help them succeed right away, or else you’re really going to lose them. I think that’s what I often see as a mistake – pointing features that don’t tie back to user success.

Liam: I think that’s probably why we ended up quitting the gym, with all the candy and chocolate that was being pushed on us.

Ramli: That’s so true.

Building habits, little by little

Liam: One author you mentioned earlier on was BJ Fogg. If users are falling off during the user onboarding process, what can you do about that? I know you’re a fan of the BJ Fogg behavior model.

Ramli: Yeah. It’s such a great model around building habits. I highly recommend his book, Tiny Habits, about how to build good habits and let go of old ones. BJ Fogg works at Stanford – he’s a behavioral scientist – and this framework has been applied to several of his students and other people he’s worked with.

“‘If you do this, here’s a free shirt.’ The danger is that maybe people are doing that particular thing just to get that shirt and not necessarily to build that habit”

If users are falling off during onboarding and not building the habit, he has this framework called the BJ Fogg Behavior Model, and there are three potential factors that could be playing into it. The first is ability, the second is motivation, and the third is prompts. When it comes to ability, is there any way to make it easier to take that particular step? When I think about easier, an example could be providing templates or any way that you can make it easier for users to achieve that first success moment or value moment. That’s the first one.

The second is around motivation – how do you increase motivation? One of the dangers of motivation is offering rewards. “If you do this, here’s a free shirt.” The danger is that maybe people are doing that particular thing just to get that shirt and not necessarily to build that habit. So, I think that’s super dangerous. One thing BJ Fogg suggested is to internalize and visualize the end outcome. Going back to that gym, increasing motivation is like visualizing yourself healthy and fit during the summer. It’s the same way with users. This is really where messaging, copy, and content come in to get people excited as to how this product or this use case can help them succeed. I think motivation is about using content and copy to get them excited about this.

The last one is around prompts. There are in-app prompts, which are product tours or tooltips, and there are external prompts like email or texting. Obviously, there’s a moment where there are too many prompts, where you’ve gotten a hundred emails from different things. There has to be a balance, and that’s the same thing he suggested. There just have to be enough prompts for people to continue with that particular habit. Those three things, ability, motivation, prompts, have been helpful to build habits in my personal life, and I think they’re very helpful to build habits for users.

Liam: It’s great to hear that. Something I wanted to mention was that in your book, I loved the simplicity of you asking the questions, “why did you decide to read this book? Was it the cover? Was it the title? Was it that someone recommended it?” Because I think it illustrates perfectly how time and first impressions are so important in user onboarding.

“It’s like having a first impression of somebody on a networking event, and then you find out later they’re not who you thought they were”

Ramli: Yeah, 100%. The first impression is so, so critical. We talked about different examples already. Imagine if somebody’s reading a website and they think it’s a product management tool. They sign up for it and only then realize it’s actually a bookkeeping tool. It’s like bait and switch. It’s like having a first impression of somebody on a networking event, and then you find out later they’re not who you thought they were. You feel betrayed.

It’s the same thing with onboarding. It’s time to think about onboarding not just as a product thing, but as a sales and marketing and customer success thing because that journey and that promise, from the first impression to the very last impression, need to be consistent.

Liam: What’s next for you, Ramli? You mentioned resolutions earlier, so I’m wondering, do you have any big plans or projects for this year?

Ramli: I’m trying to write more again. I got busy last year, but maybe in a couple years… I’m definitely writing another book. I’ve been toying around with what the next thing is. I’ve also been recording the audiobook version of the book because I know a lot of people don’t read books, but listen to books. That is coming very soon. Hopefully, when this comes out, that audiobook will be out so that people can listen to it. I’m narrating it myself so it’s more dynamic and I can stress what I mean with certain things versus hiring somebody to do it for me.

Liam: That’s the one thing I always check when I’m listening to an audiobook. Has the author read it? Because it’s more authentic.

Ramli: That’s true.

Liam: Lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you in your work?

Ramli: They can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn. Feel free to send me a message, I love to hear from people. My DMs are open.

Liam: Great. Well, Ramli, this has been really useful. Thank you very much.

Ramli: I appreciate it. Thank you.

Intercom on Onboarding book (horizontal) (1)