As product transitions from a supporting role to lead actor, companies are transforming the way they communicate with users, nurture relationships, and understand user behavior.
This product-led approach shifts the balance of power in favor of the user and upsets traditional ideas about what the customer lifecycle looks like. Leading with the product (versus sales or marketing) means that the product experience begins earlier and plays a much larger role in the user journey as a whole.
The way we understand and visualize this journey has been evolving for some time. SaaS businesses have been using Dave McClure’s pirate metrics framework for over a decade now. The pirate metrics—acquisition, activation, revenue, retention, and referral—have been so widely adopted and remain so useful because they provide companies with a way to quantify the customer lifecycle and offer a framework for a more scientific approach to growth.
But the pirate metrics were developed in 2007. While the principles behind the framework are still sound, a lot has changed since then. User expectations have never been higher, and there’s more competition than ever. To stay ahead, innovative companies in every vertical have been transitioning away from traditional business methodologies and embracing the opportunities and challenges of product-led growth.
Part of this transition involves rethinking the user journey and the strategies teams use to affect it at every stage. To this end, companies have been saying goodbye their siloed funnels and introducing variations of the flywheel model instead.
A flywheel model encourages companies to consider the user experience in its entirety and understand its potential for compounding growth.
We, the Product-Led Growth Collective, believe that making the transition from funnel to flywheel is critical to fully realizing product-led growth.
The Product-Led Growth Flywheel is a framework for growing your business by investing in a product-led user experience. In this framework, the experience is designed to generate higher user satisfaction and increased advocacy, which in turn drives compounding growth of new user acquisition.
It depicts 4 sequential user segments that correlate with stages in the user journey from awareness to evangelism—evaluator, beginner, regular, and champion—and the key actions that users need to take to graduate to the next stage—activate, adopt, adore, and advocate.
The goal is to focus company- and team-level strategies on optimizing the user experience to move users from one stage to the next. As the rate of users completing each action increases, the flywheel will spin faster, increasing the rate that users move from one segment to the next. This creates a positive feedback loop—as more users become advocates, they drive more acquisition, and growth increases exponentially.
We’ll take a much deeper look at each part of the flywheel in the chapters below. But first, a bit about how we developed the Product-Led Growth Flywheel.
We interviewed over 50 companies covering a range of sizes and business models—from direct-to-consumer companies with over 500 employees to B2B SaaS businesses with fewer than 10. Some companies relied strictly on large enterprise contracts with low volume and long sales cycles, while others were dealing with high volume and a diverse customer composition.
Over the course of our interviews, we talked with people in marketing, sales, customer success, support, and product. We asked them how they think about users, how they leverage product experiences to drive behavior, and what they thought was the most important accelerant for their company’s growth in the near and long term.
What we found was a consistent pattern: Companies are beginning to refocus their efforts on improving the end-user experience through their products, and this change can be felt across every functional area of the business. The top performers are rethinking their approach to sales, marketing, and service in an effort to meet today’s user expectations and deliver high-quality, self-service touchpoint at scale—typically through the product itself.
The companies we talked to are also becoming smarter about how they segment their users. They’re becoming more thoughtful and analytical about the goals their users are trying to achieve—and how they can support those goals—at different stages of their journey.
We used the insights from our conversations to inform the creation of the Product-Led Growth Flywheel. We shared working versions with the participants of our survey and iterated on new versions until we identified a model that best represented the way these forward-looking companies are thinking about their product users.
Now, let’s get to the flywheel.
Evaluators are just browsing right now, thanks.
These users are cautiously excited about your product as a solution to their problems. Whether they were compelled by your marketing or heard great things about your product from a current user, they’re here to realize the value they were promised.
If you have a free trial, freemium tier, or even a low-cost monthly plan, they’re probably evaluating a variety of solutions—including your competitors.
Evaluators are typically:
What they want from your product
Evaluators want to know that you understand their problem and can offer them a clear path to solving it. They don’t care about the nuances of your product or the wide range of use cases that you can address—they are solely focused on how you relate to their most pressing needs.
They are gauging the tradeoffs between your product, those of your competitors, and possible internal solutions. Ease of use, core functionality, and unique features are at the forefront of these users’ minds. Evaluators are searching for value but don’t want to work hard to find it.
How to deliver value
In short, guide evaluators to their aha moment.
Let evaluators experience your product in action and get a basic understanding of its core functionality. Don’t drag them through an exhaustive tour of every single feature—assume they are starting with zero knowledge but firm goals in mind. Use your onboarding experience to gather information about these goals and then selectively guide users toward the features that will help them realize value.
Remember: Evaluators need a map to initial success, not an advanced user manual. If they want to dive deeper on a specific functionality, be ready to help them via in-product support, opt-in walkthroughs, or a user-friendly help center—but don’t overwhelm them with this information all at once. Make sure they don’t get buried in the details of your product and that they stay focused on finding value and addressing the problem they came to you to solve.
The goal is to guide evaluators to value and get them to activate.
Activation looks different for every company. But at its core, activation is a feeling that the user experiences—it’s a moment of relief and excitement when a user discovers the solution to their problem.
Entering a credit card or signing a purchase order is not a prerequisite for activating—in fact, companies can have a lot of users who purchase but don’t activate. (You’ll likely see them listed as churned accounts a few months later).
Instead, activation happens when a user sees your product’s value, has that critical aha moment, and experiences buy-in. Activated users want to learn more and are willing to invest time and energy into a product because they’ve seen it can be an asset in their life.
To help your evaluators activate, you need to identify the in-product actions that users experience as aha moments and which trigger activation. Identifying your activation events can be done by analyzing product usage data, user testing, and interviewing customers.
Once you’ve identified the activation events within your product, your goal should be to help your users get there quickly and minimize their time-to-value.
Who is responsible for activation?
Product-led growth requires coordination and collaboration across teams, and every department contributes to activation in one way or another.
That being said, sales and marketing typically own the evaluator stage, sometimes with the help of a dedicated growth, product, or customer success team member. Together, these teams will bear much of the responsibility for driving evaluators to activate.
To do this, they will need to focus on understanding users’ needs and reducing friction on the path to activation.
Secondarily, your product managers, designers, and engineers should be working to optimize your product for new users and collaborating with marketing or growth on in-app messaging and user onboarding experiences.
And while much of their focus will be on customers further along in the flywheel, customer success and support teams should be communicating customer pain points and insights about their evaluator experience to improve your activation engine.
Once a user has activated through these combined efforts, they progress in their user journey and graduate to the beginner stage of the flywheel.
Beginners understand how your product can meet their needs and deliver value—and they’re excited about it!
Due to this excitement, they’re spending more time with your product and exploring its features and functionality more deeply. These users may or may not be paying customers yet, but they’re mentally prepared to make that leap now that they’ve experienced the value that your product provides.
Beginners are typically:
What they want from your product
Beginners are starting to demonstrate signs of commitment. They’re eager to learn more to discover additional benefits your product may provide beyond the use case that initially brought them to you.
They may be trying to figure out how to incorporate your product into their current workflow and tech stack. They are likely starting to evaluate edge cases and identify workarounds for small issues that arise. It won’t be long before they start thinking about results and ROI.
These are the folks who are likely to be most interested in your best practices recommendations. Beginners want to learn how to use your product effectively and correctly from the start, and as a result they’ll likely benefit from extra support during this stage of their journey.
How to deliver value
Beginners are trying to get stuff done. Give them the freedom to do what they need to do, but remember that they’re still learning and are sensitive to blockers. Reduce possible friction by making extra guidance available and easy to access.
Beginners should be successfully completing key tasks with minimal friction and exploring your product’s range of functionality. During this stage, your focus should be on helping users build on the foundational knowledge they achieved as evaluators, discover additional features that may address secondary problems or make their workflow more efficient, and generally connect the dots between your product and their day-to-day.
The goal is to get users to fully adopt your product through habitual, more advanced usage.
Adoption is about forming habits and getting users to associate your product with a specific task or solution. Users who have adopted your product don’t put a lot of thought into deciding to use your product regularly, they just use it.
Take Slack, for example. If you’ve adopted Slack and you want to communicate with a teammate, you naturally send them a message in Slack, even though you could communicate with them via text, email, or phone. In this scenario, you’re simply thinking “I need to send so-and-so a message,” not “I’d like to use Slack right now.”
Product adoption means full buy-in—it’s when a user really understands the power of your product and depends on it regularly.
Who is responsible for product adoption?
Product, support, and customer success commonly own the beginner stage of the user journey, and will be focused on driving adoption.
Your product team should be working on removing friction—especially from frequently repeated tasks—and building motivation into the user experience.
Beginners tend to have a lot of questions, so your support team should be thinking about how they can get ahead of their users by proactively surfacing help and guidance.
And your customer success team should be focused on, well, helping customers be successful. The user’s experience at this stage has an enormous impact on the quality and duration of the user journey from here on out. To make sure they’re getting it right, CS should be advising beginners about best practices.
Together, these 3 teams should be helping users build great habits, integrate your product into their workflows, and realize more advanced product value faster than they would on their own.
When users adopt successfully, they move through the flywheel and become regular users of your product.
Regular users are the bread and butter of your user base. If your product was a coffee shop, these are the folks who’d have a usual order, carry a half-punched loyalty card, and know where the straws and stirrers are kept.
These users log in frequently and rely on your product for multiple use cases. They may not always get excited about using your product, but it has become key to achieving their goals. Switching to another solution would be costly, because they have already invested time, effort, and data in your product.
Regulars have mastered the core use cases and are curious about the other problems your product can solve. They’re very familiar with your interface and are unlikely to need much regularly support—just remember that any changes to your product can cause friction disrupt their workflows.
Regular users are typically:
What they want from your product
Regulars want to enjoy using your product—they use it frequently, after all—and they are easily frustrated by friction. Since your product is fully integrated into their workflows, there is a tangible business impact for these users when something in your product breaks. Regulars are also the most likely to be disturbed by a redesign, since it disrupts their normal routine.
These users are often searching for new ways to obtain value from your product, either through new use cases or through efficiencies that save them time on existing tasks. They’re interested in new features, updates, and continued education. Most regulars enjoy learning about advanced features and functionalities and about how they can extract more value from your product.
Regulars are also likely curious about how your product will grow with them to address their evolving needs. This group of users is likely to have opinions about new directions for your product—integrations, use cases, features—and can be a valuable source of feedback.
How to deliver value
Be proactive. Just because they’re regulars doesn’t mean they don’t need your attention.
They can still get tripped up or forget how to perform certain tasks (it’s been a while since they completed onboarding, after all), so give them opt-in access to the same type of support that you provide your new users. But remember, regulars are productive and functioning users of your product—whatever help you give them should be unobtrusive.
To keep these users healthy and maintain their enthusiasm for your product, remind your regulars that they’re important to you by offering them exclusive looks at new product features. Spend adequate time gathering and understanding their feedback and follow up with them to let them know how their feedback was used to improve your product.
Educational content is another great way to engage users at this stage of their journey. Try creating high-value content like a customer-exclusive webinar with a best practices showcase, the story of another user’s success, or even a deep dive into an advanced product feature.
Don’t bombard regulars with too much communication, but do check up on them to make sure that they are having a delightful product experience—and find out how you can make it even better.
The goal here is more than just habitual usage or product adoption—it’s emotional. To move users through the flywheel, you need them to adore your product.
Users who adore your product don’t just use it frequently—they enjoy using it, look forward to accomplishing tasks, and have a real desire to expand into new use cases.
Once a user adores your product, they may take it in directions you never expected. These users are passionate and will push the limits of your product to try to unlock new solutions and further engrain your software into their workflows.
These users are eager to provide feedback and insights. They’re the folks that you want to consult about your near- and long-term product roadmaps.
Getting users to adore your product requires providing them with a consistently delightful experience—both with your product and with any human touchpoints they have along the way. And it requires establishing a two-way relationship between customer and company, wherein both sides give and receive value from one another.
Who is responsible for getting users to adore your product?
Remember, product-led growth requires a company-wide commitment to delivering an exceptional user experience. Every team in your company should be concerned with creating a product that users will adore.
But it’s your product, marketing, customer success, and support teams who will be most focused on nurturing regulars. These teams should strive to ensure that your users’ experiences are delightful, develop company-customer relationships, and build positive product sentiment that moves users onto the next phase of their journey.
Product should remain focused on improving processes, removing points of friction, and continuing to deliver value-add features. They should be working with marketing to maximize awareness of these improvements and ensuring that regular users stay engaged. And product should take advantage of any opportunities to solicit feedback from regulars—when done right, this helps the customer feel special and the team walk away with a valuable perspective.
Customer success and support should remain focused on surfacing best practices and minimizing friction by getting ahead of users’ questions. The support team should be prepared to answer increasingly advanced questions, revisit the basics, and perform triage when bugs arise or users run into unexpected blockers.
Together, your teams should be focused on minimizing points of frustration, communicating and leveraging customer feedback, and creating an ongoing product experience that users continue to love.
Because when a user adores your product, something special happens. The relationship is no longer just utilitarian—the user now has an emotional connection to your product. They are committed to what you are providing now and are invested in seeing how your product will evolve in the future. Losing your product from their techstack would be a painful blow.
When a user truly adores your product, they graduate to the ultimate stage of the user journey and become a champion.
Your champions are eagerly watching your every move. These users want more capabilities and more power from your product—not because they necessarily require them, but because they love your product and are actively invested in your success. If you were to shut the doors tomorrow, they would be devastated.
Champions are the users who recommend your product to their colleagues, friends, and social media followers. They have formed an emotional connection with your brand and your product—at this point in the relationship, you are providing value outside of the job to be done.
These users may still require help, but it’s usually because they’re pushing your product to its limits or thinking about advanced use cases that require a depth of product knowledge that some of your employees may not even have.
Champions are typically:
What they want from your product
Champions enjoy feeling like a partner or friend to your business. They want to actively participate in your future because they are invested in it.
These folks have pride in the work they are doing with your product and appreciate recognition for their accomplishments and contributions. They want are excited—and often expect—to be the first group to try new features and provide feedback. They’re not only willing but eager to participate in case studies, leave glowing product reviews, and be a reference for prospective customers.
How to deliver value
Champions think your product is special. Let them know the feeling is mutual. Offer them swag, advanced guidance, power-use features, and first dibs on beta versions.
You can ask for things from these users in return. Whether it's leaving a product review, completing a survey, collaborating on a case study, or sharing your product with friends and colleagues—you've earned it, and champions are the ones who won't hesitate to help you out. You could even invite champions to join your customer advisory board.
Actively reach out to hear about their successes and ask if you can share them with others. Include your champions in the future of the company, make them feel special, and let them know that their feedback is crucial to the continued success of your product.
When thinking through the Product-Led Growth Flywheel, the goal at this point is clear—you want your champions to advocate.
Advocacy is what makes the Product-Led Growth Flywheel a flywheel. Advocacy—inviting other users to your product, leaving reviews, actively evangelizing—drives awareness and evaluator interest in your product, completing the cycle and leading to compounding growth.
It usually just takes a little nudge to get your champions to become advocates for your product. These folks love your product and want to see it succeed—but they might not take the next step on their own. They’re eager to participate in the future of your company, but they may still be waiting for an invitation to do so.
Try asking your champions to participate in a case study about the impact your product had on their own success or to leave 5-star reviews on G2 Crowd and Capterra.
Advocacy can also come in the form of a private conversation between the user and your team. Champions may advocate for new features or creative solutions to a roadblock they are facing. They do this because they are invested in the maturation of your product and want to see it evolve with their needs.
Third-party reviews and case studies from successful users are powerful forms of social proof, and this sort of advocacy fuels growth and attracts new evaluators to your product. Not only that, but when your champions advocate for their own evolving needs, they can help you move your product in new directions and stay on top of the market.
Who is responsible for encouraging advocacy?
Your customer success, marketing, and product teams should own this part of the user journey and encourage champions to advocate for your product.
Customer success should focus on cultivating strong relationships with champions and leveraging their knowledge of individual success stories to suggest case studies.
Marketing should ensure that users who want to advocate are doing so effectively by identifying opportunities for champions to influence new prospects.
Meanwhile, your product team should continue working on ways to excite and engage your users, while also making champions feel special. Providing early access to beta features, requesting feedback, and giving exclusive access to new roadmap directions are all impactful ways to nurture the relationship with champions.
Working together to promote customer advocacy around your product fuels sustainable and efficient growth by keeping the flywheel spinning.
As Liz Li, Director of Product at Linkedin said at GrowthHackers 2019: “Growth is not just about moving metrics up and to the right.” Growth quality matters, too—a blind focus on quantity creates a leaky bucket wherein you are “adding users to the top of your funnel, only to lose them on the other side.”
The Product-Led Growth Flywheel emphasizes the importance of quality growth. It’s about getting the right users into your flywheel and making sure your entire company is empowered to move those users along their journey toward advocacy.
Product-led growth is a company-wide effort. The Product-Led Growth Flywheel was designed to provide clear guidelines and focused outcomes for every team, and to help businesses understand the way that a product-led strategy fuels exponential growth.
This flywheel isn’t the only flywheel—and it doesn’t have to be. The wonderful thing about flywheels is that, unlike siloed funnels, they can connect to and power each other like gears in the system. Your marketing team may have a more granular, marketing-specific flywheel that feeds into the product-led growth flywheel somewhere around evaluator stage. And sales may have a flywheel that connects with activation.
However your company ends up using and adapting the Product-Led Growth Flywheel, the most important thing to takeaway is that company growth isn’t just a matter of net new signups and revenue. It’s about ensuring that users of your product are set up for long-term success, have a truly exceptional experience, and continue using your product to achieve their goals for years to come.