SaaS onboarding emails

How to Write SaaS Onboarding Emails for Brand New Apps

Marketing

Imagine you’ve just touched down in Paris. You’re standing at the top of the Eiffel tower, looking out at the Arc de Triomphe, thinking about all the delicious pastries and truffled sauces you’re going to eat. That’s when a fellow tourist turns to ask if you know of any good places to get some ice cream.

You want to recommend Berthillon because (after hours of googling) you’ve concluded that’s where you’ll get the best ice cream in Paris. Of course, the City of Lights has no shortage of ice cream, so there are a ton of other places your new friend could also go. Either way, it doesn’t matter because you don’t yet know how to get anywhere in this town.

You still want to help your new friend, so maybe you mumble some general advice:

“There’s a great place on Ile St. Louis.”

“You can stop at the Museé D’Orsay on the way there.”

“They have lots of really unusual flavors.”

But your new friend’s eyes glaze over as he nods, thanks you, and walks away to ask someone else for help.

Why?

The danger of sending uninformed onboarding emails

In your friend’s world, “good place to get some ice cream” might actually mean “literally anywhere within 2 blocks that has chairs” and “has a chocolate and vanilla twist on the menu”. He and his 5 kids may have been walking for hours—so they don’t need a magical culinary experience as much as they need a kid-friendly treat and place to sit down. The long lines and fancy flavors at faraway Berthillon won’t solve this problem.

Even if it did, he couldn’t get there based on your directions because they weren’t actually directions so much as they were a list of facts.

BerthillonTwo ice cream shops for two different “jobs to be done.”

If you write your onboarding emails the same way that hypothetical you gave the wrong advice to a fellow tourist, then your new users will also conclude that you can’t help them get to where they want to go—and they’ll give up and go ask someone else’s app for help instead.

Unfortunately, too many apps behave just like hypothetical you and blast out feature-touting emails to new users before they know why new users are giving the app a try—which is the equivalent of giving directions by asking someone, “Did you know the Louvre is here, too?”

What can you do to avoid this scenario?

Use your early emails to learn about your new users and use everything you learn to build an onboarding messaging strategy that will actually help people get to where they want to go in your app.

I’m going to show you exactly how two apps do that with two close readings of two new user emails. We’re going to consider:

  • What makes these emails reply-button magnets
  • What you can learn from the responses these founders get
  • What you can do with the trove of qualitative data these emails generate

Airstory’s Approach: Gratitude as a Persuasion Technique

Airstory is a new writing app from the team behind Copy Hackers. It’s built for writers, but not all writers have the same needs, pains, or goals. To eventually write messages that help content creators as much as they help copywriters, Airstory needs to know who’s signing up to give it a whirl and why…

…which is exactly what this pre-launch email from co-founder Lance Jones does:

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Why it’s a reply-button magnet:  Research has shown that demonstrating gratitude in certain contexts can make people more likely to respond to your request.

Lance expresses his gratitude in three places: “thank you”, “sincerely interested”, and “with appreciation”. It also demonstrates that he’s not some corporate robot somewhere—he’s a real person who’s genuinely grateful that you’ve given his product a shot.

How it’s working for Airstory: I asked Lance how this email is performing.

That email was embedded in the tool we were using to manage the pre-launch campaign. I’m afraid I no longer have access to the data… we stopped using it in February.

We send out a similar email when a new user signs up for Airstory, and we hear back from about 2% of users… there’s a link that we want them to click in the email, so getting them to reply isn’t a primary goal.

What we do (and did) notice about this question is that it typically gets very detailed answers. We learned what people are hoping to achieve, what kind of business/project they’re working on, and even other tools they use. The question is wide open intentionally… we read and respond to every reply.

Here’s a typical reply:

image2

What can do with this email? Open up lines of inquiryYou might be wary of believing your customers when they tell you what they want. “I would have built a faster horse” and all that. But this email actually offers the Airstory team a ton of actionable data. We conversion copywriters like to call it “voice of customer data” because….it’s the real live voice of your customer.

From this response, we know that this respondent:

  • Has started at least one business
  • Wants to change the way she does business
  • Has faced limitations with her other tools
  • Wants to be organized and effective with her copy
  • Is glad to be able to write things more easily according to how she thinks, rather than having to struggle with software

Each one of these facts is enough to launch us down a rabbit hole of inquiry that can help us grow our understanding of who’s using Airstory and what they need to hear to be successful with Airstory. Specifically, we can ask questions like:

  • How many Airstory users are entrepreneurs vs. solopreneurs vs. team members? Are groups using the app differently? Do they need different messaging?
  • This customer is writing copy and wants to get better at it—why? How is she using copy? Does copy enable her business? Or is copy what she sells? What’s the messaging difference for full time writers and solopreneurs who have to write?
  • It sounds like there’s something lurking underneath the surface here. If she’s starting a second business, what happened to the first? She wants to change her approach…does that mean she’s recently failed? Burnt out? Was that failure due to writing challenges?
  • She’s already starting to have more of an intuitive writing experience. What does that mean for her business?

We can ask her these questions in one-on-one interviews and note when these responses pop up in other scenarios. The more we know about exactly where this new users is in her life, the more we can make it easier for her to get where she wants to go…using Airstory.

The key to making an email like this work for you: Lots of emails ask similar questions but with a much more ominous tone. Humans like connecting with other (cool, genuine, grateful) humans. Showing that you’re a real human can make your email one that people actually want to respond to.

Tiny Reminder’s Approach: Camaraderie + Quick Win = Swipeable Copy

Jane Portman of UIBreakfast launched Tiny Reminder earlier this year to help people automate the process of following up with clients—which is a huge and diverse demographic.

She sends this email to new users:

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What makes it a reply-button magnet: This email subject line is squarely focused on the recipients (people who are busy), signals that they’re not alone (they’re part of a club now), and—this is important—it’s not about the product. “Welcome to the Tiny Reminder Club” would have been accurate but less focused on the reader.

The second thing that works in this email’s favor is that Jane asks one straightforward question before her more nuanced question. This approach might motivate more people to respond to the second question because readers feel like they’ve already had a small, quick win by answering the first question. (Of course, I can’t say for sure. It might make for an interesting test.)

How it’s working for Tiny Reminder: I also asked Jane how this email was performing.

About 10% of new users respond to this email (which feels like a lot). 

It gives great insight on each individual user which helps shape a larger picture. I carefully log all incoming messages and refer to them while writing sales copy. My last question (“How did you hear about us?”) also gives a good idea where the most responsive users come from. 

Responses vary dramatically in length, but both short and detailed responses are equally valuable to me. Also, they’re generally very friendly.

Here’s a typical reply:

image4

What can Tiny Reminder do with this email? Build a list of messages to test: This email is another gold mine of customer pain points and potential messages.

From this email, we know that this respondent:

  • Has a freelance web design and development business
  • Struggles to manage bad clients
  • Has trouble getting clients to respond at the end of an engagement
  • Isn’t getting paid when she wants to because clients are unresponsive
  • Finds it difficult to remember to email her client again and again

Just like the Airstory response, this message gives us multiple threads of inquiry to tug at and copy to try. Based on this email, we might want to learn more about what exactly makes it so difficult to get responses from clients.

We could test future trial messaging that shows freelancers how easy it is to use Tiny Reminder to address the biggest pain point—getting paid—with subject lines that look like this:

  • Remember to email your clients….without remembering to email your clients
  • Finally get the response you need to finish projects and get paid
  • Can your business flourish if you have unresponsive clients?

If our interviews and research also teach us that our Tiny Reminder users struggle to get responses from clients because it’s hard to write emails that actually result in responses, we can go one step further with our onboarding education:

  • How to make it wildly easy for your clients to respond to your emails
  • How to write an email that actually gets a response (according to data)
  • The magic reminder email that will get you paid today (with a template)

The key to making an email like this work for you: You can’t manufacture camaraderie, so don’t try to force a community around your product. Instead, focus on building community around your customers.

You’ll only be here once.

Right now, you have an an incredible unfair advantage over your larger competitors: you are at the starting line.

Maybe you have 5 new signups a day. Maybe you have 10. Yes, you also have a thousand other things on your plate, but one day you’ll have 100 new signups a day…and even less time to get to know your new users.

Everything you learn now you can use to segment your users and write future messaging that actually helps your customers reach the a-ha moment where becoming a customer is, in Lincoln Murphy’s words, the next most logical step—and you can move more quickly than you will ever be able to move again.

While everyone else is writing emails based on what they think know about how new users use their app, you can start slowly building a vast and nuanced understanding of your customers.

About the author: Alli Blum helps SaaS apps build messages that get customers at howdotheygetcustomers.com. Go here to get her free checklist on what you need to write new-app new-user emails that people actually want to respond to.

Special thanks to Lance Jones & Jane Portman for generously sharing their results. Photo credits: Paul Munhoven and David Monniaux.

  • Anne Kavanagh

    I love the idea of using early feedback from new users to test out subject lines for onboarding emails — brilliant! Hadn’t realized that if you ask the right way in your first email, you can get super-rich Voice of Customer data from them right off the bat. Thanks for some great tips!

  • Sophia Le

    Love it, Alli! I’m constantly amazed when I talk to clients with upcoming SaaS products and they downplay the importance of onboarding emails. For a business to last, founders need to constantly be thinking about the step beyond launching – knowing what their customers think. Thanks for the great tips.

  • Maria

    This is so helpful! A great argument for both early data collection and collection at all. You *are* likely to get responses with useful data. I’ll definitely use this info in future customer conversations. Thanks for the great info!

  • I like the idea of using gratitude to learn more about your users. It’s more personal than asking users to self-segment by clicking on a link.

    I’m always amazed at the ideas that come out of voice of customer data. The research almost always reveals insight that’s off a SaaS owner’s radar; and often opens up opportunities beyond copy strategies, like biz development ideas.

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