November 20, 2023

Converting free users to customers with the bowling alley framework

At this point, most SaaS folks know that user onboarding isn’t just important—it’s a necessary part of getting your free trial or freemium users to convert to paying customers.

But even companies that understand its importance can have trouble implementing a streamlined and effective onboarding experience. I’ve been helping SaaS businesses improve their user onboarding for years. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to help companies streamline their new user experience and improve activation, retention, and revenue is through what I call the bowling alley framework.

In case it’s been a while since you last attended a team outing or children’s birthday party at the lanes, here’s a quick refresher on how bowling works:

a diagram of bowling showing the ball, a straight line to the pins, and bumpers along either sidep

You’ve got 10 pins in a triangular formation at the end of a 60-foot lane, and your goal is to knock down as many as possible by rolling a ball down the center of that lane, avoiding the gutters on either side.

For skilled bowlers, those gutters present an enjoyable challenge. For beginners, having their ball roll into the gutter and ending a round scoreless is a frustrating experience. To make things easier and more enjoyable for these players, Phil Kinzer invented bumper bowling, in which a bumper on either side of the lane prevents balls from falling into the gutters.

Putting up bumpers virtually guarantees that players will knock down more pins and increases their rate of success.

The same principle can be applied to your product: Putting up the right bumpers help users avoid pitfalls and guide them to the desired outcome.

A diagram overlaying the bowling analogy on business goals. It shows a direct line form current state to desired outcome with conversational and product bumpers alongside the path.

When users get sidetracked or leave the product, it’s our job to nudge them back in the right direction with bumpers inside the product (product bumpers) and outside (conversational bumpers).

You’re probably already some of this. The bowling alley framework can help you do it more effectively.

To master the bowling alley framework, you need to do 2 things:

  1. Develop your straight line
  2. Put up your bumpers

We’ll take a closer look at each step below.

1. Develop your straight line

A straight line is the shortest distance between Point A and Point B. Developing a straight-line onboarding experience is one of the best ways to remove pain and friction in your product and get users where they need to go quickly.

In a sales-led organization, you’d take people from Point A to B through a sales cycle. A product-led company thinks bigger: Point B isn’t the moment someone fulfills a purchase order—it’s the moment when a user extracts real value from your product and decides: “yeah, this is a product worth paying for.”

The problem is that most users never make it to Point B. Why? Most often, we don’t know the desired outcome people are looking for, the reason they signed up to use your product. And when you don’t know what people want, it’s hard to deliver value.

Take Canva, for example. You can use their product to create posters, cards, presentations—you name it. There’s an almost infinite amount of use cases for Canva’s tool. Without some prescriptive guidance for new users, how would anyone know where to start? Canva is a simple tool; most users could figure things out eventually—but after how long?

To reduce their users’ time to value, Canva created clear, straightforward paths to various Points B. For instance, they created a webpage that shows exactly how to create a poster. On this page, you simply click the call to action to create a poster, and within seconds you’re editing a demo poster within the product.

By understanding the problems people were searching to solve (e.g. how to design a poster) and customizing the onboarding experience to help users solve them, Canva cut their time-to-value in half.

Making it easier for users to achieve value doesn’t just make for better a user experience (although it does, and that’s a critical component of product-led growth)—it’s how you get more free users to convert to paying customers. As Lincoln Murphy of Sixteen Ventures explains:

“You’ll get that ‘they convert to a paying customer’ outcome you want, by focusing on the outcome they want.”

Once you’ve identified your desired outcomes and have your straight line(s) in place, you’ll want to put up your bumpers to prevent users from ending in the gutters.

2. Put up your bumpers

There are 2 types of bumpers that we can put up, each of which can take a variety of forms depending on your product, audience, and strategies.

  • Product bumpers happen inside the product itself and guide users to adopt a product through using it.
  • Conversational bumpers educate users, bring them back into the application, and can prompt them eventually upgrade their account.

To guide users to a desired outcome within the product, you need both types of bumpers.

An image showing a path with coversational bumpers on the left side and product bumpers on the right.

Common product bumpers:

  • Welcome messages
  • Product tours and walkthroughs
  • Progress bars
  • Checklists
  • Tooltips
  • Empty states
  • Chatbots

Common conversational bumpers:

  • Onboarding emails
  • Engagement emails and newsletters
  • Push notifications
  • Explainer videos
  • Webinars
  • CS, support, and assisted sales

Product bumpers

Product bumpers help users experience value within the product. Of the 2 types of bumpers, product bumpers are arguably the more important. That’s because if you help people accomplish something meaningful through your product, they’ll likely come back on their own.

That’s not to say that conversational bumpers aren’t useful—they just play a different role. For instance, if someone signs up for your product but never actually uses it, the best product bumper in the world can’t help you.

One of my favorite kinds of product bumpers are empty states. Many products start new users off with a blank dashboard, but this is a huge missed opportunity. Pre-populating a dashboard with sample data or otherwise utilizing that blank space lets you immediately show new users what needs to be done.

Gmail uses an empty state to help users set up and personalize their account:

A screenshot of a product bumper—Gmail showing a checklist that tracks a users progress in setting up their account

Every product needs a few product bumpers to keep users on track. Take some time to identify places where your users could use some extra guidance to stay on the straight and narrow. Chances are, there’s room for improvement.

Conversational bumpers

Conversational bumpers can educate users, bring them back into your application, encourage them to upgrade their account, and strengthen their relationship with your product. Email, push notifications, explainer videos, social media, SMS—any communication medium can act as a bumper.

One of the best ways to educate users and set the right expectations is through user onboarding emails.

"The end goal of user onboarding emails is to eventually not need them, in the same way that you don’t permanently install training wheels—the point is to help see the adjustment period through, then let the “real” use take over. For software, that means habitual & unprompted use. To accomplish this, user onboarding emails should be set up to nudge people along through the most critical inflection points of the journey from signup to thriving user."
– Patrick McKenzie of Stripe on

Wistia’s Soapbox product is a great example of an effective user onboarding email. After I created my first video, they sent an email to encourage me to share it with someone else.

A screenshot of an email from Wistia showing a conversational bumper—prompting the reader to share their video with someone.

This email helped me learn more about Wistia’s features but also made it easier to experience meaningful value by sharing the video—which is one of the main reasons people sign up for Soapbox in the first place.

For your own product, take another look at your desired outcomes. Understand what users want to accomplish by using your product, and use your conversational bumpers to remind users of their goals and make it easier for them to achieve the value you promised them.

From free user to happy customer

Some people hate bowling. They only ever step foot in a bowling alley when they’re socially obligated to do so. But even the most bowling-adverse folks feel a sense of satisfaction when they get a strike.

B2B SaaS products can be a bit like bowling in this way—not everyone is going to love using your product right away. It’s software for work, after all. But helping new users knock down those pins quickly and without friction creates a delightful user experience and a sense of real accomplishment. Repeat that experience a few times, and suddenly users are having a great time—and receiving real value from your product on a regular basis.

After that, people want to play a few more rounds. They want to continue succeeding. All it takes at that point is a little nudge by the right bumper to get free users to convert to paying customers.

And the bowling alley framework isn’t just for onboarding. Bumpers can help guide users throughout their journey, helping them accomplish new tasks, expand into new use cases, and encourage them to become advocates for your product (you know, the people that drag everyone else to the lanes).  

Wesley Bush is the founder and president of the ProductLed where he spends his days teaching SaaS businesses how to flip the traditional sales playbook and ignite their growth engine with the Product-Led Growth methodology.

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