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Hook trial users from their first use

Main illustration: Tim Gilligan

In 1898, American sales pioneer E. St. Elmo Lewis created the AIDA model to describe how customers buy.

The AIDA model described four cognitive phases that buyers follow when accepting a new idea or purchasing a new product:

  • A problem comes to the customer’s attention.
  • This creates interest in the benefits of a product or service.
  • The customer decides to buy the product.
  • They take action to complete the purchase.

Today, Lewis’ AIDA model is featured everywhere: from Marketing 101 courses to Alec Baldwin’s famous scene in Glengarry Glen Ross. This acronym has endured because of its simplicity and accuracy. Now, AIDA describes how most things are bought – groceries, apparel, cars, you name it.

But AIDA originated before the birth of digital products. Today, signing up for a social network or SaaS product requires little or no purchase commitment from the buyer. Many products offer a free trial, require a minimal month-to-month commitment or are completely free.

Digital businesses change how customers buy

Gone are the days of long feature lists and spec sheets. Instead, marketing websites describe a product’s key differentiators and benefits, offer a few case studies and encourage a prospective customer to evaluate the product by using it. Marketers today use their websites to generate just enough interest for a prospective customer to start a trial.

For digital products, it’s no longer A-I-D-A, it’s become A-I-A-D. Users take the action of signing up for your product before they make the decision to buy it.

This means that while some users who start a trial will be intent on purchasing your product, many more will be early in the buying process and are using the trial to both understand their own needs and whether your product can help them.

“At Intercom, three core principles help us create a first use experience that converts lower-intent buyers into loyal customers”

If you’re going to convince these early-in-the-process buyers to stay beyond their first use, the experience needs to get them hooked. The first use flow should help them experience the value your product can offer them. But it has to do this while asking very little in return. After all, these prospective customers are not invested in your company or product – yet.

At Intercom, three core principles help us create a first use experience that converts lower-intent buyers into loyal customers:

  1. Focus on the job customers want to do.
  2. Show rather than tell.
  3. Remove all non-essential steps.

Focus on the job your customers want to do

First, we use the Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) framework to understand the value our customers seek to get out of a product. JTBD highlights how customers buy a product to solve a problem. Great onboarding starts with a clear understanding of what problem your customers buy your product to solve. The first use experience should help trial users solve their problem.

For example, when someone fires up a video game after a long day, their Job-to-be-Done is to be entertained and distracted by their pursuit of success. Video games lead the way in great onboarding, guiding first time users to early success, and highlighting the fun of the game in a lightweight way.

“Showing customers how to find and use every feature is an important part of onboarding, but it’s best saved for later”

With the customer’s Job-to-be-Done as a baseline, structure your first use experience around highlighting the features in your product that deliver on this job.

It’s unlikely that your product’s navigation or UI is organized in this way: features and screens in your product don’t typically map neatly to user benefits. While it’s important to explain the hierarchy and organization of your product, dragging low-intent buyers through all this puts the cart before the horse. Showing customers how to find and use every feature is an important part of onboarding, but it’s best saved for later.

Show rather than tell

A great first use is one in which the user gets an “aha” moment: the point of delight where the product proves to a user that it offers them real value. There are lots of ways to prove value, but most fall into doing, showing and telling. If you can actually deliver on the value, that’s best. Consumer products tend to focus on this: getting a new user to add friends, pin content or take their first ride.

For products with a long path to value, this is often difficult. In this circumstance, it’s critical to get as close to the experience of value as possible. Make it as realistic, specific and tangible for new users as you can.

Airbnb might not be a complex piece of business software, but it does have a long path to value for the people who list homes on their website. A new user has to upload a long list of details about their home, take photos, set prices and availability.

To motivate new users through this process, Airbnb focuses on the user’s Job-to-be-Done: make money from my empty house or room. Right on its initial signup screen, Airbnb display “estimated monthly earnings” based on your location and home type. This very specific estimate makes the benefit of its service feel real to new users, and helps motivate them to complete the signup flow.

Remove all non-essential steps

Once you’ve identified what value looks like, the next step is to find the shortest path to get new users to experience it. Unlike customers who have already decided to buy, most new users are still evaluating your product, and the competition is only a few clicks away.

“To deliver the most effective first use experience, remove all barriers that get in the way of new customers experiencing value”

Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer at Adobe, puts it bluntly: “In the first 15 seconds of every new experience, people are lazy, vain and selfish.” He means that new users aren’t invested in your product, so it’s critical that you show them value immediately in their first use.

To deliver the most effective first use experience, remove all barriers that get in the way of new customers experiencing value. This minimum viable flow will vary by customer segment and use case, so make sure you customize your onboarding for each segment.

Common and effective patterns for removing effort from setup are:

  • Templates that reduce many configuration options to a few simple choices.
  • Presumptuous defaults that eliminate steps entirely.

Typeform, an online survey product, goes so far as to remove the account creation step from their first use experience. When new users click “Get started,” they’re encouraged to create a survey right away. Only once they opt to save their work are they’re prompted to create an account, after they’ve experienced the value of the product.

Provide maximum value with minimum effort

The goal of a first use experience is to set prospective users on the path to being happy, retained customers. In the era of A-I-A-D, most new users are yet to decide whether or not they’ll buy your product. So your first use experience needs to convince them that your product will provide value to them, and to prove this with minimal effort.

Achieving this demands a first-use experience that’s not a walk through of the settings screen, but a detailed and compelling tour of a new and better world. By helping help new users to quickly understand, visualize, and experience the better world your product promises, you’ll see more of them stay, and then return. Again, and again, and again.


This article first appeared in Intercom on Onboarding, second edition.

Intercom on Onboarding