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, strategies, and teams used to affect it at every stage. To this end, companies have been saying goodbye to 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 (PLG) 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 5 user segments that correlate with stages in the user journey from awareness to evangelism—Stranger, Explorer, Beginner, Regular, and Champion—and the key actions that users need to take to graduate to the next phase—Evaluate, Activate, Adopt, Expand, 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 that users complete each action increases, the flywheel spins 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.
It’s important to note that for certain products or user segments, some PLG Flywheel stages may not apply. For example, when you invite your teammates to a collaborative tool you’ve already adopted (like Slack, Miro, or even Appcues), the Evaluate stage may not apply to them. We’ll examine three examples below that show how the PLG Flywheel stages are more like building blocks (think Lego!) that serve as the foundation for you to visualize your user’s journey.
But first, let’s take a much deeper look at each part of the 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 touchpoints 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 think about their product users.
Now, let’s get to the flywheel.
Strangers are just browsing right now, thanks! They’re either compelled by your marketing or have heard great things about your product from others—but they don’t have a relationship with your product just yet. They’re in the early stages of looking for a solution to help them with a problem.
You can think of Strangers as casual furniture shoppers. Before entering a shop, they’re hunting online or perusing flyers for items they want—looking for deals that fit their budget.
As they go through the process of evaluating products (including your competitors) they might do any or all of the following:
At this stage, they’re casually browsing and not ready to schedule a demo or sign up for your product.
What Strangers are looking for:
Strangers want to know you understand their problem and can offer a clear path to solving it. They want to understand who your product was designed for and (more importantly) who it wasn’t intended for. And they want to quickly determine if your product fits their budget.
How to help Strangers evaluate your product
Before Strangers take the next step, they want to know three things about your product: (1) what it is, (2) how it differs from other solutions, and (3) how much it costs. So, make it easy for them to find it!
By getting to know your ideal customer, you can describe the problem in their own words and position your product as the best solution for them.
And you know what every potential customer wants more than anything? An easy way to find your pricing information. Even if you have a high-priced product, showing a price range can be helpful.
According to an Adweek study, 81% of customers research pricing and visit at least three websites before making a purchasing decision. Without straightforward pricing, customers think you’ve got something to hide. Not only are you losing brand (street) credibility, but you’re losing their trust.
Your goal is to get Strangers to take the next step and sign up for a free trial or account.
Who is responsible for the Evaluate stage?
Sales and marketing teams typically own the Evaluation phase, but that doesn’t mean other teams aren’t involved. In fact, product-led growth requires coordination and collaboration across teams—with every department playing their own unique role in the Evaluation stage.
For example, product and design teams can help guide messaging efforts by relaying the ideal customers’ problems, motivations, and Jobs-to-be-Done to customer-facing teams. Customer success teams can surface common new user questions so sales and marketing can address them during Evaluation. (It really does take a village to raise a healthy, thriving, and growing product-led company.)
Explorers are cautiously excited about your product as a potential solution to their problem. They’ve likely signed up for a free trial, created a freemium account, bought one of your low-cost monthly plans, or even scheduled a call with your team. But, at this stage, they haven’t made any long-term commitments and are probably exploring a variety of solutions at the same time—including your competitors.
For a brick-and-mortar furniture store, Explorers might have found an item they liked on your website and made the trip to visit your store. They’re now sitting on that couch or laying on that mattress that initially piqued their interest.
At this stage, you want to avoid bogging down Explorers by showing them all the bells and whistles of your product. You want to prioritize understanding their needs and showing them exactly how your product can help them with that.
In short, your goal is to guide Explorers to experience the product’s value for the first time (a.k.a, your activation moment). Keep in mind that activation moments look different for every company—but at their core, it’s when users internalize how your product can help them with their problems.
Explorers are typically:
What they want from your product:
Explorers are focused on how your product can help them with their most pressing needs. They don’t care about the nuances of your product or the wide range of use cases it addresses.
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 their minds. Explorers are searching for value but don’t want to work hard to find it.
How to activate Explorers:
To help Explorers activate, identify the key product actions users need to take to experience a product’s value for the first time. By mapping out your new user’s journey, analyzing product usage data, and doing user research, you’ll be equipped with all the tools in your arsenal to guide users to activate quickly and minimize their time-to-value.
One of the most common mistakes we see at this phase is dragging Explorers through an exhaustive tour of every feature. Remember, Explorers signed up with a goal in mind: to solve a problem or meet a need. Give them a map that shows them exactly what they need to learn to achieve their goals (and resist adding anything more!). If they want to explore a specific functionality, be ready to help them with in-product support, opt-in walkthroughs, or a user-friendly help center.
Who is responsible for the Activation stage?
Product-led growth requires coordination and collaboration across teams with every department contributing to activation.
That being said, the product team typically owns the Activation phase—oftentimes with the support of marketing, customer success, or a growth team member. Together, these teams bear the responsibility for driving Explorers to activate.
To do this, focus on understanding users’ needs and reducing friction on the path to activation.
Work with your product managers, designers, and engineers to optimize the product for new users. Then, collaborate with marketing or growth on in-app messaging, email sequences, and user onboarding experiences.
To make your activation engine even stronger, ask your customer success and support teams to regularly communicate customer pain points and insights about their experience.
Once a user has activated through these combined efforts, they progress in their user journey and graduate to the Adoption phase of the flywheel.
Beginners understand how your product can meet their needs and deliver value—and they’re excited about it! But, that excitement can just as easily fizzle out as it can motivate users to adopt the product into their workflow.
That’s why the Adoption phase is so important. Product adoption means full buy-in—it’s when a user really understands the power of your product and depends on it regularly. At this stage, the goal is to help Beginners form habits and 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 want to communicate with a teammate, you send them a message in Slack—even though you could communicate with them via text, email, or phone. In this scenario, you’re thinking, “I need to send so-and-so a message,” not “I’d like to use Slack right now.”
What Beginners want from your product:
Beginners are starting to demonstrate signs of commitment. They’re eager to discover the additional benefits your product provides 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. And it’s likely they’re starting to evaluate edge cases and identifying workarounds for small issues that arise. It won’t be long now before they start thinking about results and ROI.
These folks are most likely to be in your best practice recommendations. That’s because beginners want to learn how to use your product effectively and correctly from the start. As a result, they’ll benefit from extra support during this stage of their journey.
How to help Beginners adopt your product:
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 sensitive to blockers. Reduce any possible friction by making extra guidance easy to access.
Beginners should successfully complete key tasks with minimal friction while exploring your product’s range of functionality. During this stage, focus on helping users: build onto the foundational knowledge they gleaned as Evaluators, discover additional features that address secondary problems/make their workflow more efficient, connect the dots between your product and their day-to-day.
Remember: the goal is for users to fully adopt your product through habitual, more advanced usage.
Who is responsible for the Adopt stage?
Product, support, and customer success teams are commonly most focused on driving adoption.
Your product team should work on removing friction—especially from frequently repeated tasks—and building motivation into the user experience.
Beginners tend to have many 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 on best practices.
Together, these three teams help 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. Pretend your product was a coffee shop, Regulars are folks with usual orders, carry a half-punched loyalty card, and know exactly where you keep their favorite sweetener.
Regulars have mastered core use cases, log in frequently, and are curious about the other problems your product can solve. They may not always get excited about using your product, but it’s become key to achieving their goals. Switching to another solution would be costly because they’ve already invested time, effort, and data into your product.
It’s time to deepen your relationship with Regulars by introducing them to new problems your product can solve and advanced features that can make their jobs even easier. The goal of the Expansion phase is to engrain your product into their workflows, increasing the likelihood of them sticking around forever.
As Regulars discover new use cases and advanced features, they’ll naturally upgrade to higher-tiered plans and purchase premium features or add-ons. For example, a sales team that uses a calendar scheduling tool might upgrade to a higher-tiered plan to access a feature that distributes leads round-robin to account executives. Freelancers using the same scheduling tool might upgrade to unlock features to accept payments for paid consulting hours.
Regulars are typically:
What they want from your product:
Regulars want to enjoy using your product—they use it frequently, after all—and 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.
Regulars are often searching for new ways to obtain value from your product, either through new use cases or 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 how they can extract more value from your product.
Regulars are 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 direction for your product—integrations, use cases, features—and can be a valuable source of feedback.
How to help Regulars become Champions:
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 new users. But remember, regulars are productive and functioning users of your product—whatever help you give them should be unobtrusive.
To keep Regulars enthusiastic about your product, remind them how important they are 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 they have a delightful product experience—then 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.
Who is responsible for the Expand stage?
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 love enough to continue exploring and expanding to new use cases.
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.
The product team should remain focused on improving processes, removing friction points, and delivering value-add features. They should work with marketing to maximize awareness of these improvements to ensure that Regulars stay engaged. They should also take advantage of any opportunity to solicit feedback from Regulars. When done right, this not only helps the customer feel special, but the team walk away with invaluable perspective.
Customer success and support should focus on surfacing best practices and minimizing friction by getting ahead of users’ questions. The support team should be prepared to answer advanced questions, revisit the basics, and triage bugs and unexpected blockers.
Your Champions are eagerly watching your every move. They want more capabilities and power from your product—not because they require them, but because they love your product and are actively invested in your success. If you were to shut your doors tomorrow, they’d be devastated.
The goal now is to turn that passion into action by getting Champions to recommend your product to their colleagues, friends, and social media followers. 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 takes a lil’ nudge to get your Champions to advocate 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. Ask your Champions to participate in a case study about your product's impact on their success or to leave a 5-star review on G2 Crowd and Capterra.
Advocacy can also come from a private conversation between the user and your team. Champions may advocate for new features or creative solutions to a roadblock they face. 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 that’ll help you stay on top of the market.
Remember, even Champions require help from time to time—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 Champions 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.
Champions pride themselves in the work they’re doing with your product and appreciate recognition for their accomplishments and contributions. They are excited—and often expect—to be the first group to try new features and provide feedback. They’re willing and eager to participate in case studies, leave glowing product reviews, and happy to be a reference for prospective customers.
How to help Champions to advocate for your product:
Champions think your product is special (so be sure and let them know the feeling is mutual!). Offer them swag, advanced guidance, power-user features, and first dibs on beta versions.
In return, you can ask Champions to: leave a product review, complete a survey, collaborate on a case study, share your product with friends and colleagues, or even join a customer advisory board. Champions won't hesitate to help you out.
TL;DR: Include your Champions in the future of the company, make them feel special, and let them know that their feedback is crucial to your success.
When thinking through the Product-Led Growth Flywheel, the goal at this point is clear—you want your Champions to advocate.
Who is responsible for the Advocate stage?
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 cultivate strong relationships with Champions and leverage 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 your relationship with Champions.
Working together to promote customer advocacy around your product fuels sustainable and efficient growth by keeping the flywheel spinning.
The Product-Led Growth Flywheel is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all description of your user’s journey. Some PLG Flywheel stages may not apply to certain products or user segments. Below we unpack three examples that’ll help you understand how to frame the five flywheel stages as building blocks in your product’s PLG Flywheel.
For multi-player products like Slack, Miro, and even Appcues, the product’s value increases as users invite colleagues to use the product.
Let’s take a look at Slack’s PLG flywheel. How did your company adopt Slack?
I don’t know your company’s story, but I’m guessing this is how it happened: Jane heard about Slack from a friend and signed up immediately—so she doesn’t spend much time in the Evaluation stage.
Jane invites a close colleague from her team to test out Slack as a messaging and collaboration tool (i.e., the Activation stage). At some point, she’s convinced that Slack can help her cut down emails and increase collaboration across her team. She’s adopted Slack into her workflow.
But the true value of Slack is when her whole team is on the platform, so she starts inviting everyone in her team (Expansion). Each newly invited team member goes through the Activation and Adoption stage as Jane invites them, welcomes them on Slack, and includes them in relevant Slack channels.
At this point, Slack might consider them a Product-Qualified Account (PQAs), which signals to Slack’s sales team that it’s worth reaching out to Jane’s company to help her get the whole company on Slack.
Eventually, the whole company is on Slack. Jane recommends Slack to other people (Advocacy).
As you can see with this example, the micro-flywheel around Activate, Adopt, and Expand is important in getting an organization to adopt a product. This loop illustrates how users become Product-Qualified Leads (PQLs) and (eventually) PQAs once enough users from a company become PQLs.
Certain products have viral loops (a process that drives new referrals for continuous growth) embedded in them. For example, Drift’s free chat widget includes a “Chat ⚡️ by Drift” link at the bottom of the chatbox. It drives brand awareness and website visitors to Drift’s website.
For free users of Drift’s chat widget, their PLG flywheel skips the Expansion phase and goes straight into Advocacy with the “Chat ⚡️ by Drift” link. Users may not be intentionally advocating for Drift through this approach, but they trade off having access to Drift’s free chat widget by displaying a link to Drift to their website visitors.
So Drift’s free users go through the Evaluate, Activate, Adopt, and Advocate stages. It’s only when they become paying customers that they have the opportunity to invite colleagues and access premium features (Expand).
Wise.com (formerly Transfer Wise) makes it easy for businesses to pay international suppliers and freelancers. The PLG Flywheel for a business using Wise.com to make payments could be different from an internal supplier using it to accept payments.
A business may go through all five stages of the PLG Flywheel to evaluate and adopt Wise.com as the platform they use to pay suppliers and freelancers. They go through the Expand stage when they invite managers who have the authority to approve and pay invoices. Finally, Advocacy occurs when they start transitioning suppliers and freelancers they work with onto Wise.com.
Conversely, suppliers may only go through three stages of the PLG Flywheel—Activate, Adopt, and Advocate. If the business they’re working with communicates that they’ll be using Wise.com exclusively to pay international suppliers, they might not have the choice to evaluate Wise.com. They’d have to sign up for it, fill in their banking details, and accept payment through Wise.com. After realizing how much they’ll save in fees by accepting payment through Wise.com and how easy it is to use, they might encourage their clients to use Wise.com (Advocacy).
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 how a product-led strategy fuels exponential growth.
This PLG 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 at the evaluator stage (that’s great!). And sales may have a flywheel that connects with activation (go sales!).
However your company uses the Product-Led Growth Flywheel, the most important takeaway is this: company growth isn’t just a matter of net new signups and revenue. It’s about ensuring users are set up for long-term success, have a truly exceptional experience, and continue to use your product to achieve their goals for years to come.