How Appcues customize their onboarding flow based on a “product adoption score” to increase retention.
VP of Marketing
Today on the show we have Eric Keating, VP of Marketing at Appcues.
In this episode, we talked about how Appcues differentiate themselves from the pack operating in such a competitive market, how they use their own service and why their marketing team owns customer onboarding.
We also discussed how big successful companies got away with shitty customer onboarding experiences and why you cannot afford to do it now. We then dove into the importance of continuous onboarding, and talked about how Appcues uses a “product adoption score” to customize their onboarding flow to set up their customers for success.
Eric Keating Interview
Andrew Michael: Hey, Eric. Welcome to the show. Great.
Eric Keating: [00:01:30] Thanks a lot, Andrew. Happy to be here.
Andrew Michael: [00:01:32] It's great to have you for the listeners. Eric is the VP of marketing and Appcues the product led growth platform that helps you convert users into raving fans with automated and personalized onboarding product tours, surveys, and announcements. Prior to accuse, Eric was a marketing manager and assume information, a digital marketing manager compete and VP of marketing at Zaius.
So my first question for you, Eric is acute, is operating in a competitive market. What is your team doing to differentiate [00:02:00] yourselves from the pack?
Eric Keating: [00:02:02] Yeah it's a great question. I think it is getting there are more competitors popping up every day. And the reason why is because it's such a big problem retention, especially in a, in an environment where we're so many products are, trying to be more self-service and easy to use.
And that not only is the market huge, but it's growing more and more companies are, starting to introduce software or introduce trials and freemium experiences, et cetera. And so what, what app to use says, from a marketing perspective, what we've really done over the years and what we continue to heavily invest in is delivering high value, high quality content.
To the space with really no gates at all. You'll be, it'd be pretty hard for you to find a form that we put in front of any of our content pieces. And the reason why that's so important to us is because this is a new space. We've been around for eight years or so. But it's new to a lot of folks.
When. When people buy at QS, it's often the first time they're buying this type of solution. [00:03:00] So there's a lot of education needed in this space. People are hungry for best practices and, figuring out how to approach this problem in general. And that's where we've invested, that's where we're continuing to invest.
And it's paying off.
Andrew Michael: [00:03:11] Very nice. And I'm also interested as well, because like before the show started chatting that launching a new startup, I started looking into different solutions now that I want to use for my user onboarding. And quite frankly, like looking at the different solutions on the market, I definitely found the onboarding experience at Appcues to be top-notch in terms of the whole experience.
Like it really was pretty smooth. It was easy to set up and. I think there was a good balance between like guidance and letting me figure things out to my own. And I think that's one thing I'm really interested specifically, like talking to companies where they eating their own dog food and they're using them products in specific places.
So maybe you can talk us through a little bit about this experience and how it's evolved over time. So I think obviously onboarding critical to generate attention. How have you been using your own service?
Eric Keating: [00:03:57] Yeah. Interesting thing about app cues is [00:04:00] that a marketing team owns our onboarding experience.
And I have some strong opinions on why why that's important here. It's here then. I actually, yeah, about six months ago, I gave this presentation for Greer Packers called product is new landing page. The, essentially what I was arguing is that people are starting trials of products.
They're starting to use products. As part of their learning experience, as part of their evaluation. We to really sum it up, we looked at some data about how people were interacting with our site. And, the average person you started a trial had visited, or the average, a new visitor, our website interacted with one or two pages on our website before they started a trial.
So how much education are you really. Or how much learning are you really doing? If you're looking at one or two pages now you're relying on using the product itself to educate you. So that really influenced the way that we thought about our onboarding experience. We realized that.
While we still want to try to get new users to this aha moment as quickly and as smoothly as possible. We knew that we had continued education to do as part of that [00:05:00] experience. And what we'd learned in the past is that, it's when our users see the end user experiences, the ones that the experiences that they can deliver to their users that really connects the dots for them.
So if you started a trial today your first thing you're going to see is we're going to pop up a few different UI patterns that you can deliver with app use. We're using our own product, right? And we're we approach it in a little bit of a, kind of a meadow way, which is, here's a slide out slide outs are great for X, Y, Z, click here to create your own.
And that experience, and also you, like you said, giving people the option to dismiss and explore on their own everybody's different, right? We try to accommodate as many different types of prospects as possible. But the end goal of our onboarding experience is to continue that education while we're getting to the new user, to the homeowner, as quickly as we can.
Andrew Michael: [00:05:49] Nice. And yeah, it's interesting concept. I think that marketing should own the in-app experience and definitely like I see where you're going with the product as the new landing page and where you're [00:06:00] educating. It's definitely an interesting concept. And yeah, like you said, considering, especially like when you're dealing with premium high volume of leads, typically people aren't paying too much attention.
They just want to try things out and see if it fits them and then go from there. Yeah. Really the education needs to transcend. I'm interested your take on this though as well, because I think a lot of times, like there is this gray area, like who should own this in app experience. And it often sits between either like marketing and it's typically like customer lifecycle marketing or product or customer success.
And then each one makes their case for why it should be them. And on the show, we've discussed this a few times with product and with customer success. Sort of thing. So I'm interested to understand your side a little bit deeper. Like why do you really believe? So one thing is obviously the education needs to continue, but why should marketing be doing education over a team?
Like customer success or product and yeah.
Eric Keating: [00:06:51] To, to start off, I hope this isn't cheating, but I'm not going to suggest a specific team at every company. The reason why it makes sense that app queues [00:07:00] is, and this is the other part of my strong perspective is that marketing owns pipeline and self service revenue.
And so if we own those goals think about a traditional marketing funnel where you've got let's I hope that you're focused on pipeline and not leads. That's a whole other story, but focus on pipeline count and value, if you own those metrics and you are introducing a pretrial experience and that free trial experience as part of the funnel, how could you as a marketer.
Be okay with there being a gap in that funnel. That's out of your control, right? If you own pipeline, like I said, and you're generating free trial leads, but you have no influence over what happens with those trailers. Then it's really hard for you to own those metrics, right? Because there's a big chunk of it.
That's out of your control. So for your app keys, because we do own self-service revenue and like I said, sales pipeline we own that experience. We are in control of our goals. Right now if another team [00:08:00] owned self-service revenue, it may be a different story, but at accuse that's the driver.
Andrew Michael: [00:08:04] Yeah. Yeah. That makes total sense. And definitely I can see especially when it comes to general retention, this is often the case where teams are like given ownership of the metric, but they have very little control over it. And we chatted about this in a previous episode. I mentioned this a couple of times.
I think it was with David from get lab where he argued essentially that. I made the argument that customer success is difficult for them to own the metric when I'm like, essentially they have very little input towards the product and everything. And it's that's one of the reasons why they should is because it should be their job to push product, push marketing to thing, and like owning the experience.
As part of that, I think everyone comes with a different perspective.
Eric Keating: [00:08:42] Yeah. Yeah. I think there's definitely a there's there. Parts of the argument that I definitely agree with. But at the same time and, we can talk more about the role that marketing can play in and, potentially et cetera overall.
But think about the skillsets that. You expect from a marketing team. You've got [00:09:00] typically, you've got people who can design, who can write copy, who understand what's motivating people to buy, especially in the onboarding process. And so those or even beyond a copy and design people who are comfortable sending one to many communications emails, et cetera, right?
Those are all things you've come to expect from a marketing organization. Whereas. Even the greatest CS teams, it's not really a traditional skill of, design is not, you don't usually have a designer on the CS team. So at a minimum, it's a collaboration.
Andrew Michael: [00:09:33] For sure. Yeah. And that makes sense too. I think obviously having the skill sets are evolving within teams and different roles are appearing in different orgs within the company now. But I definitely see your point on that, where it's like marketing is better suited in wages because they have the skillsets and the resources available to do a more effective job.
And I think it goes back a little bit to the experience components, which is something we touched on before the show today. It would be good to bring up. Is it how important it is to [00:10:00] create an amazing product experience?
Eric Keating: [00:10:02] Yeah. I think it's always been important. Although, historically it's been easy. If you think back anybody who's been in SAS for a while you think back 10 years, it was a bit different than it is today, right? You could kind of band-aid product gaps with, CS and account management, et cetera. And you can S you can still do that to a degree today, but.
With all of these businesses going product led and having, free offering free trials and premium experiences. And a lot of custom, more importantly, consumer or customer preferences people want to self-serve. They want they expect personalized experiences, instant gratification, et cetera.
We, small fast growing startups doing this all the time, but you're also seeing companies like IBM introduced free trials and premium. And they're, as they're like the idea of an enterprise legacy organization, right? So this is not some fad but you have all these self-service experiences now and less one-to-one.
People management of customers. So what's [00:11:00] driving the majority of the experience today is the product using the product itself. And so yeah the ease of use of a product the delight of using a product the ability to get value out of it quickly those are they've always been important concepts, but. They are, they've never been more important than they are today.
Andrew Michael: [00:11:17] Yeah. I think I'd push back on the component. That experience always mattered because in my experience, like there are some companies that have done incredibly well and they haven't absolute shits experience And I don't want to name any names, but you can look out in the markets and you can see like companies now that are huge organizations that managed to get by without having this amazing experience.
But I think it goes to the point was what you're saying now is that just the competition has increased like unbelievably, so no longer, like a nice to have. It's an expectation now, like people aren't going to use your software. If you don't have an amazing experience, because they can go to another five other vendors and get a similar solution.
And And yeah, better expectations. So
Eric Keating: [00:11:57] A hundred percent. And those companies that you're [00:12:00] referencing without naming I think a lot of those companies were successful because they were the only option or one of very few options when they were growing up. Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew Michael: [00:12:09] Let's talk a little bit more then about this the concert experience. You also mentioned something interesting before the show that you've introduced at accuse when it came to the product adoption score and how you're going about looking into that. So can you talk us a little bit through that? Like where did the idea start? Why did you decide to this was something you wanted to do to begin with? And then how did you go about implementing it?
Eric Keating: [00:12:30] Sure. Yeah. One of the things that I've seen at virtually every company I've worked at, and I'm sure everybody relates to this to some degree is you think about churn prevention.
You think about renewables. And a lot of times in the past, you I've seen teams focus on, okay this company is coming up for renewal in three months. Let's start to really dig in. And and that just doesn't work or it's too late. In my opinion, now it can work, but I think it's not the best approach to, to wait till the end.
And so we, we [00:13:00] were early on taking that kind of approach at Appcues and through. Lots of great discussion and analysis. We realized that, Hey, we need to be much more strategic and deliberate about the first three to six months that the first three to six months is going to correlate with retention much stronger.
We can, if we can set these customers up for success early on we're going to retain more of them. And so what we did was we started to look at the behaviors of customers who had. Stuck around for awhile, right? We've been around since 2013, we've got customers that have been with us for many years.
What are the common behaviors of those customers who stick around for, X, Y number of months that we were happy with. And what we found was there were specific features of our product. Know, the usage of those features correlated really well with retention in a way that was so clear that there really wasn't like we were able to be pretty confident there wasn't a lot of bias in it or survivorship bias.
We also looked at what percentage of their [00:14:00] customer base are they. Communicating with using app cues, we and some other metrics. And we came up we basically narrowed it down to 16 different levers or factors into what we now call the product adoption score that we use internally.
And based on this score we're actually able to look at people are customers with over, certain score retain at this percentage versus customers with a score that we would consider less than ideal retain at a lower rate. Now we not only have more control early on, we're using this to inform how we onboard customers, both in a self-service way and through our CS team.
And we're using it to inform all of our communications, right? So about two thirds of our customer base is self-serve today. And this is where marketing comes in when it comes to the one to many communications, whether it's an app with app cues or. Sending emails. We are using this product adoption score to or the levers within the product, that options courts when form the cadence of outreach, the topic, [00:15:00] et cetera.
When we prompt customers to do to take certain actions and now that we have the score in place, like I said, it's an it's informing everything we're doing and starting on day one.
Andrew Michael: [00:15:10] That's very cool. And so you mentioned there's five or six key metrics or key actions users need to take within your app that are indications of the product options score.
Did you wake these actions as well then? Are there certain actions that you found to be like, this is the number one thing that we need to do and then and then if that's yes, did that then informs the onboarding itself and the way you driving users to take specific actions in the product?
Eric Keating: [00:15:34] Yeah, absolutely. For example when you to first install app cues, which is really the only moment where you need to develop or access to the product code base, right? You can choose to do a very simple install or you can install and start passing over events from your backend.
Right event could be somebody, but for us and event is when somebody installs or when somebody downloads our Chrome extension. And what we found was that people who are [00:16:00] implementing in the beginning and sending these events over ended up being more successful longterm. Because when you are sending these over, you can be a lot more targeted.
You can be a lot more personalized, et cetera. And so that's it's it, wasn't shocking to learn that, but looking at the data, it was great to, confirm our hypothesis and then use that to inform our onboarding experience. So one of the things that we did as a result was when it comes time to install in our trial we provided the option, not only to look at our docs and do it self serve, but to get on the phone with an implementation specialist.
And it doesn't matter what size company you are. We will make the time to get on the phone with you and walk you through installation. Because we know that if you do, if you install app keys in a high quality way, in a way that, you're sending additional events over. Whether you're, a five person startup or a thousand person organization, you're going to be more successful with Accu. So it's definitely worth our time and energy.
Andrew Michael: [00:16:58] Yeah. That makes a lot of [00:17:00] sense. And then you mentioned as well around the period you looked at the six month mark. I think it was that you said. And so the activities before, okay. When it comes to that, then, like how long is your onboarding experience and flow that you built for yourself?
Do you have a time window where like you consider it onboarding or are you in the stage where you're constantly onboarding users, no matter which stage down the life cycle, yeah.
Eric Keating: [00:17:22] You could I've said before, you can think about onboarding as really never ending. So you've got the initial experience with your product. So just adopting any use case in the first place. But after that, you ideally want to get the your new customers to use your product more holistically. So you're then onboarding them to additional features. At some point you may, they may be ready to upgrade and move to a higher plan tier where they're even new features and capabilities.
So they'll need to be onboarded to that. Do you do a re a redesign of your UI, you're going to onboard them to your new UI. So there are always reasons, the reasons for onboarding never go away. Yeah. So yeah, I'll just start [00:18:00] there.
Andrew Michael: [00:18:00] Yeah. And I think it's an interesting concept as well.
Like the continuous onboarding, because this is something typically when people view onboarding, it's okay, this is the period. It's two weeks when they sign up, I'm going to send them a series of emails. Like one to show them off. Each X works one to show him our feature. Y works. And then the approach taken is typically like self-serving it's like from the company's perspective, what needs to get done as opposed to the.
The opposite way around of okay, what does the customer need to achieve? What are the actions I can do to make sure that they're the most successful in their job. And then basically I'd like you to have as well at Appcues really around actions taken within the app and then driving and fueling that forward.
Eric Keating: [00:18:41] Yeah. And I think the key or one of the keys for us, and I believe it is something more companies should do just general advice is be more prescriptive. If you take the burden of thinking off of your user and just say, Hey, our most successful customers are doing this.
We think that you should do this next that can actually [00:19:00] make users feel a lot more comfortable because you're being, especially with new product categories, right? Like ours a lot of these folks, like I said earlier, it's their first time using a product like this. They don't know. Exactly what to do.
So be prescriptive, tell them if they don't want to do it, they don't have to, but if you're being prescriptive, you can be very helpful and hopefully make a system that works well for your business as well.
Andrew Michael: [00:19:22] Yeah. Cool. Next question then. Barring Appcues cause it would just be the cop-out answer.
Who in your experience has the absolute best onboarding experience you've experienced? From a software.
Eric Keating: [00:19:37] That's a good question. Man, . I think it's hard to choose one.
I would say that, like I said earlier, every business has different needs and depending on who your audience is there, different approaches to onboarding will work well. But, I've seen a handful of really great examples. One that I really liked was I think it was Grammarly.
They have this learn by doing approach. They. I don't know how to pitch their [00:20:00] product, but they'll help you write better. Okay. If you log in, is it so if you log into their product to use it, you need to write something, and they're gonna give you suggestions.
So what they did at least the last time I checked it out as they had pre-populated content and they. Walked you through editing this pre-populated content. So it took the work off of the user. That user did not have to populate it with anything. It was right there for them. And as soon as they logged in, they could start interacting with the product and by interacting with it, learn how to use it.
So I really liked that. Learn by doing approach. And then I'll just one more example. think last time I checked with Twilio and they have a number of products obviously, but they. They actually introduced quite a bit of friction into the beginning of their experience. So you might hear that reducing friction is the idea.
It's not always the case. I could talk about that for a while too, but what they do is they basically interview. New users, as soon as they get into the app, [00:21:00] who are you? What's your role? What are you trying to achieve, et cetera. You go through three or four screens answering their questions, and then based on what they learned in that process, they completely customize the rest of the experience to you.
And so I think I w I really loved seeing that because it was contrary to, to what most people will say is a best practice, which is removing friction. And from what I understand is working where it's worked really well for me.
Andrew Michael: [00:21:23] Yeah. It's funny that you should sell that because actually the company, they just recently acquired segments. We had Ellen endorphin on the show and this is the executor. Concept we talked about was how adding friction can actually increase retention and set your customers up for success. And because I think I love this one as well. Like I had an interview earlier today, actually we talked about a different concept, but where we have these contradictions to the norm and where people believe okay, this is getting them through as fast as possible, get to the heart and the wild moment.
And that's what you need to do for onboarding, but sometimes just. Taking a slower approach can actually help set them up for success. So I think in segment's case, actually it [00:22:00] was, they found that if they just let their customers get on with things and start getting things up, that actually hurt them further down the line because people then ended up sending bad events into their system.
And without a solid tracking plan to start with it just created a mess for them. And they got back to the same situation that came in before they started segments. So they actually. Force you, I think in a force might be a strong word, but in the beginning, really to get a solid tracking plan together. So you get, you set yourself up for success.
And then they found that there was like a game changer in terms of adoption in terms of retention, because they'd help the customers. It might not have been the traditional normal, like just go and run with it and get started and do whatever you want. But in terms of the onboarding experience, it was really a game changer from that side.
Eric Keating: [00:22:41] Yeah, there was another really good example of, I won't name the company. I was talking to somebody who manages this experience for a business that makes it easy to build websites. And what they've found through lots of experimentation was that adding a requiring a credit card to start a trial, [00:23:00] and then asking users to name their website, choose a domain, et cetera, before they started building.
Ultimately ended up, even though the number of people that started using their product decreased it ended up that more people were publishing websites. And so basically they found that by, by adding this upfront investment naming your project, even though fewer people started building a website, more people ended up publishing a website and that was the, what was most important to them. So that's just another great example. I think.
Andrew Michael: [00:23:30] That's interesting. It's also, like you mentioned a few different examples now and a few different points that are important when it comes to onboarding. So I think one is the concept of ownership, like giving users a way to create control of their environment and put their name and their flag on it is definitely a strong point.
I think obviously Sometimes being a little bit counter-intuitive and putting a bit of friction can actually be good for the experience. And then the last one, I think as well is I love it is using your own product to [00:24:00] onboard your users and really learn by doing along the way. I think if there's ever a case where you can use your tool to explain your tool you're in a very lucky position and.
It's something as well, like previously at Hotjar we tried to using do, obviously they do things like polls and surveys that's something that you can easily pull up during sign-up and say, Hey, here's a poll. Let us tell us a bit about yourself. So you, when you get to show the product to you get to learn about the user, like if you can think about smart ways about using your product that can actually serve both of you.
I think that's a really powerful way to actually get the message.
Eric Keating: [00:24:32] Yeah. Oh, a hundred percent. Yeah. Agreed.
Andrew Michael: [00:24:35] Cool. I think we're running up on time. So I'm going to save a question to ask every guest is a little bit of a twist to it now, but it's pretty much the same question. Every time, a little mention a hypothetical scenario, you're joining a new company.
Churn retention is not doing good at all. The CEO comes to you and says, Hey, Eric you need to fix this at your job. You have 90 days. But You're not going to go and speak to customers and find out the problems and do the typical things that everybody [00:25:00] says. And so rightly you should speak to customers and understand the pain points, but rather you're going to pick something from your past experience that was effective and work to crush turn.
And you're going to run with that. What would you pick?
Eric Keating: [00:25:13] Am I allowed to look at data let's assume.
Andrew Michael: [00:25:17] No, that's just a the typical answer we get for this on the show is I will speak to customers. I look at data and then that will inform my decisions. One is assume that you've had all this, and you're going to pick something that you've done in the past.
That's been effective.
Eric Keating: [00:25:31] Sure. Yeah. What I was going to go with is our product adoption score. Cause I just feel like it's working so well for us. I'm so glad we did it but data and customer interviews aside something that's worked for me in the past, my last company I was at we. We had a it was a combination of a CRM, CDP and marketing automation for e-commerce businesses.
And part of the, what really unlocked all the value for our products is when you fully installed and got a lot of data flowing into the system. But what you could do [00:26:00] very quickly was to send, to set up some transactional emails. So for example, in the e-commerce space and abandoned cart email, and what we were doing. First was trying to, we were focused on getting Getting people to fully install and get a lot of data flowing. And that was really what we were trying to get every new customer to do. We realized how quickly, how much more quickly we can show value by moving right into a triggered email use case.
And and that ended up working so well. Satisfaction the first month spiked. And so the takeaway is that I think is applicable to every business is look at, look for ways that you can deliver value to your users as quickly as possible. Even if it may not be the long-term value you're trying to offer.
If you can get users to see value on day one, day two in some capacity I would explore that I would explore, changing the way you're onboarding customers, whether it's, but self-service within app experiences or with CSMs and adjusting that to focus on that, fastest path to value approach.
Andrew Michael: [00:26:59] Yeah. [00:27:00] As long as it's not impacting your future potential,
Eric Keating: [00:27:04] I don't have access to board at Andrew.
Andrew Michael: [00:27:06] Absolutely. So last question then what's one thing that, today about general attention that you wish you knew when you got started with your career.
Eric Keating: [00:27:12] And sorry if it's a cop out, but it's, it was not obvious to me early in my career that. The beginning of a customer's experience with your company is far more important than when you're getting close to their renewal date. And by focusing on those early experiences, you are much more likely to improve churn than to try to save a customer who is planning on churning.
Andrew Michael: [00:27:37] And all of you should do is use Upcase.
Eric Keating: [00:27:39] Just use all your problems, go away
Andrew Michael: [00:27:42] a hundred percent agree with you as well. I think this is definitely one thing as well that on the show we don't over the years and it had previous experience with, is that the biggest impact you have Israeli those early days is their onboarding adoption activation.
And the biggest thing is it's compounding interest as well as if you're able to make improvements from there, it just compounds. Definitely the [00:28:00] place to. To focus your attention. Great. Eric has been a pleasure hosting you today. Is there any final thoughts you want to leave the listeners with?
Like anything they should be aware of your work? Keep up to speed with.
Eric Keating: [00:28:10] Depending on when this episode is published, we are launching some big product updates in a couple of weeks early April. And that is going to probably double the value that you're able to get from our products.
So I hope this the timing lines up well but we're going to be very focused on continuing to educate the product, the the market on user onboarding and product adoption. And I definitely encourage you to check out all the resources we have available. So I think those will be listed on the the page here, right?
Andrew Michael: [00:28:35] Yeah, absolutely. So I think this will be you would have launched by then with Tsipras comes out, but we'll definitely make sure to leave some notes in the show notes for listeners. If you listened to this haven't you haven't heard what Appcues is doing. Go check it out the links on the page and be interesting as well.
I'm excited to see what you've coming up with. So thanks so much, Eric, for during the show and I wish you best of luck now going forward.
Eric Keating: [00:28:55] Same to you, Andrew. Thanks a lot. Yes. All right.
[00:29:00] Andrew Michael: [00:28:59] And that's a wrap for the show today with me, Andrew, Michael, I really hope you enjoyed it. And you're able to pull out something valuable for your business to keep up to date with churn.fm and be notified about new episodes. Blog posts and more subscribe to our mailing list by visiting churn.fm. Also, don't forget to subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google play, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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My name is Andrew Michael and I started CHURN.FM, as I was tired of hearing stories about some magical silver bullet that solved churn for company X.
In this podcast, you will hear from founders and subscription economy pros working in product, marketing, customer success, support, and operations roles across different stages of company growth, who are taking a systematic approach to increase retention and engagement within their organizations.