You’re here, so you probably already grasp just how dramatically software has changed in recent years. People want to try before they buy and largely prefer self-service experiences. New software products are being built to deliver on those expectations and legacy products are evolving rapidly just to keep up. But while a ton of progress has been made, we still have much to learn about the psychology of today’s buyer and the role our products play in the buying process.
My team recently fielded a survey aimed at learning more about the psychology and preferences of software buyers. Not surprisingly, we found that 90% of respondents prefer using a free trial or freemium access to learn about a product (versus talking to a salesperson or making an upfront purchase). More compelling was that 89% of respondents actively prioritize evaluating and buying software that they can try for free. In short, if you’re not offering a trial or freemium tier, your software may not even be evaluated.
But that’s not why I wrote this piece. You see, earlier this year, Appcues discovered that our own free trialers were exhibiting some surprising behaviors leading up to the creation of their accounts. It totally shifted the way we thought about the role of our initial product experience and how we onboard new users.
The sales-led funnel
Long before product-led, we accepted the idea of the funnel; starting with awareness, interest, consideration, and so on. (While I acknowledge that this traditional funnel framework is dated, it’s a useful aid and I’ll refer back to it a few more times before we’re finished.)
Once you’ve generated awareness and interest with content and advertising, you count on your landing pages, website, and nurture programs to educate. Eventually, your prospects are going to request a demo, talk to a salesperson, and if you’re lucky, sign a contract. At that point, the new customer has their account created for them and their firsthand experience with your product begins.
The product-led funnel
For a business offering a free trial or freemium plan, things look a bit different - the product is playing a role earlier in the process. Prospects are finding your solution, reading through your website, scouring reviews, and as a final step of that consideration phase, creating their free accounts and starting to use the product to validate their findings and ensure it’s a good fit before buying.
At least, that’s what I thought. In that same survey I referenced earlier, we found that across B2B and B2C SaaS users, just about half of respondents register for free trials and freemium products with the objective of learning about what the product does. Asked another way, only 27% of respondents indicated they understand what a product does before they start a trial or create a free account.
People are diving into products before they know a damn thing about them. As a result, your product now plays a role at the interest stage of the funnel.
In this scenario, a significant percentage of your prospects are landing on your website, reading your headline, maybe spending a few minutes learning, and then, at that point, they start using the product. And that means your product has new jobs to perform... the first of which is a little education and marketing.
Product is the new landing page
The job of your website, landing pages, nurture programs, etc. has always been to educate and convert. These days, your product is taking on at least some, if not most, of that responsibility - and that has implications.
It does not mean that new user onboarding best practices go out the window. The primary goals of new user onboarding are still to educate, motivate, and guide users to take action, and getting users to take that action - commonly known as the activation moment - is still the primary outcome you should be aiming for.
What it does mean is that you may want to reconsider your approach to achieving those goals. Getting users to realize the value of your product may mean doing a bit more education up front.
Appcues’ own product onboarding
Earlier this year, before we fielded that survey and before we really dug into our own data, my team formed a hypothesis: people were starting trials long before they truly understood what our product did.
When we dug into Google Analytics, we found that a significant percentage of our free trialers began as net new visitors who only viewed one or two pages on our website before creating their free trial account. Quick tip: you can run this analysis using Google Analytics’ Reverse Goal Path functionality. If you don’t have new account creation set up as a Goal, do it now! GA doesn’t track Goals retroactively.
We decided that the first job of our product should be to ensure new users understood what Appcues does. By prioritizing upfront education, we believed we could motivate new trialers to take action and realize value… maybe not faster, but at least more often.
So instead of guiding new users down the most direct path to activation, we revised our user onboarding flow to start by showcasing what our product can do - deliver beautiful, native-looking UI patterns to your end-users, inside of your product. We showed the end-result (those patterns) and essentially prompted users to build what they were looking at.
Almost immediately, we saw a spike in activations (people building content) and, surprisingly (at least at the time), a reduction in time-to-value (how long it took from the moment the account was created to the moment content was built). We started with a hypothesis based on gut, validated the hypothesis with data, and our first attempt had a huge impact… we felt really good about ourselves. Once we came back to earth, we started wondering if Appcues wasn’t the only business seeing new product users so early in the funnel. That’s when we fielded the survey, and that’s how this article came to be.
My recommendation? Make it a priority to understand not just how users are engaging with your product, but what they did before they started using it. Who are they? Why did they sign up? How familiar are they with the product? What will make them successful?
Those sound a lot like the questions a sales or service person would ask, don’t they? The best products today do a whole lot more than just work.