The Ultimate Guide to Onboarding
How to win this crucial surface
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The Ultimate Guide to Onboarding
What does every product, whether its B2C, B2B, SaaS, on-premises, or browser-based, need? Onboarding.
In fact, if you think about the usage of features your product, onboarding is the feature that’s most widely used. Every single user that comes to your product uses it at some point.
As a result, virtually every product team in existence has a squad that works on onboarding.
As Scott Belsky (CPO at Adobe, Behance Founder, 173K+ on LinkedIn) recently said about Onboarding on Lenny’s podcast:
If you can just get more customers through that top of funnel, you are a world class product team.
The problem is, most product teams just aren’t hitting their top of the funnel onboarding goals. Yes, they’re shipping experiments regularly. But, their customers still aren’t getting to aha, paid conversion is lagging, and 30 day retention is flat to down.
What’s going on here?
Cue Scott, our onboarding genius again:
In the first 30 seconds of using a new product:
You are lazy, vain and selfish.
You want to get it done super quickly.
You wanna look good to your colleagues or to your friends.
You wanna feel successful very quickly by engaging in this product.
You don’t want to have to watch a tour, read anything, or endure any learning curve whatsoever.
By the way, pro CPOs like Scott speak naturally in the pyramid style. Isn’t that amazing? He wrote a tweet in conversation.
He really hits on some core principles that 95% of product teams still aren’t doing:
They incorporate long tour videos in their onboarding flow.
They try to familiarize users with every aspect of the product.
They try to help users “master the learning curve” of their product.
And then the product teams wonder why their metrics aren’t working.
Why are teams banging their heads against the wall? Most teams are just transplanting onboarding best practices from other products they see.
But it’s just not enough to use the onboarding best practices. As Shreyas recently said:
By the time something is labeled and advertised as a Best Practice, it is just average
If you just implement what others are doing, you’re not building a durable competitive advantage.
To win in onboarding:
You need to build your own first principles approach to onboarding.
You need to build a world class onboarding specifically for your users and their problems.
You need to build the team, with the right structure and discipline around it, to build the best onboarding specifically for your product’s aha moment.
To help you do that, in today’s post I’ve put together the “Ultimate Guide to Onboarding.” It has 7 sections:
6 of the Top Onboarding Flows
Famous Onboarding Experiments
Reliable Tactics to Improve Onboarding
Experimental Tactics to Improve Onboarding
How to Measure Onboarding Like the Best
A First Principles Process to Onboarding
Classic Onboarding Mistakes
This should help you up-level your onboarding flows and team. I reckon it’s my “best paid post yet.” So let’s get into it.
6 of the Top Onboarding Flows
I researched 6 of the fastest growing products that exist right now, 3 from consumer and 3 B2B. These should give us a good overview of what the most successful products do - as of May 2023.
Let’s take a look at how these phenomenal product teams handle onboarding.
The fastest growing consumer product right now is ChatGPT. It got to to one hundred million users in two months. So, it’s an onboarding experience worth double-clicking into.
You probably forgot this, but even to use the free version, you have to create an account - including email and phone verification! And the onboarding is not optimized at all: tons of screens, no progress bar, etc.
I start with ChatGPT to highlight that: as much as we are going to go through all the onboarding growth hacks below in this article, a great onboarding is not going to solve the problems with your core product.
Sam Altman has even alluded to this, saying:
ChatgGPT has no social features or built-in sharing, you have to sign up before you can use it, no inherent viral loop, etc.
Seriously questioning the years of advice i gave to startups 🙃 (as President of Y Combinator)
Growth changes to onboarding are great, and I’m all for them, but you also need to build a product that delivers amazing value. Let’s analyze how ChatGPT does that.
After you create an account, you’re dropped onto this page:
What’s it doing here? There are three columns. The examples in the first column are clickable and cover the top three problems ChatGPT solves:
Explain something complex in simple terms
Give you creative ideas to get unstuck
Help you code
The next column goes through capabilities, and the final column goes through limitations. From a design point of view, it’s very hard to even tell the examples are clickable. They just have an arrow after the text. So, basically ChatGPT has dropped you directly into the product.
This is a great example of how the key principles a normal onboarding article would talk you through are likely hogwash. Instead what matters is to: provide minimal time to value, make the aha obvious for all user types, and add minimal friction.
The lesson from ChatGPT is this: most onboarding teams shouldn’t focus on growth hacks. They should focus on building interface on top of the core product so that the value is immediate and obvious, so they can put minimal friction before it.
Of course, this isn’t a fit for all product types, which is why we have our next example.
Whatnot is a worthy example because this company has blown up in dollar growth terms, in a way we’ve seen very few apps in the US do in shopping - let alone shopping marketplaces. The company hit $2B GMV in just three years.
And then, in the last two months, it climbed into A16Z’s marketplace top 10.
They’re a livestreaming app. That’s a concept that famously has had little traction in the US despite major investment from players like QVC and Amazon.
So what is Whatnot doing right? Do they have a TikTok app that just drops people in a livestream?
That’s not even close to Whatnot has done. Whatnot uses a nice mix of persona onboarding and guides to drive you to value.
They get your gender, preferences, double click on them, and THEN drop you into a set of livestream options. Then, once you finally get into a livestream, they hit you with two guides.
It’s a long process, and Whatnot has not chosen this onboarding wily nily. It has done lots of growth hacks to optimize its onboarding flow. I wanted to include this example second because, sometimes, longer can be better.
There is tons of value in onboarding profiling questions, guides, and more - especially for products in newer categories like Whatnot.
I hear you: Robinhood isn’t actually still one of the fastest growing consumer apps. Its MAU is actually declining.
But, just as recently as two years ago, Robinhood was one of the fastest growing consumer apps. And, in that period, if there’s anything Robinhood got right, it was design.
I also wanted to focus on a highly complex regulatory example. Financial companies like Robinhood have to collect address, date of birth, and many other scary items of information to onboard its customers. Yet, Robinhood still manages to do so better than most of its competitors:
So, what does Robinhood do to have less clicks in an onboarding than any other Fintech out there?
Let’s take a look:
Robinhood keeps the user input per screen to a minimum and it makes it really clear what it wants from the user.
On top of that, it doesn’t go overboard on ID verification methods. Some Fintechs add link bank account and document upload to onboarding. Robinhood bypasses those in favor of a simpler verification process. It takes the hit on slightly higher fraud to decrease onboarding friction.
I wanted to include Robinhood to show you even the most magical “straight to value” apps like Robinhood can have long signup processes.
Try to be the best within your industry and its constraints, not someone else’s industry.
Speaking of “your industry,” let’s switch over to the B2B side 👇
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