Best Practices

Churn-informed onboarding and engagement strategies

Onboarding emails meet churn indicators. Steph Knapp discusses how you can identify and use weaknesses to optimize your overall onboarding and customer engagement strategy.

This week’s blog article comes to us from Steph Knapp in Nashville, Tennessee. You may know Steph from her Zendesk Onboarding Email Breakdown featured in our 2018 SaaS Roundup summary.

Steph Knapp is a SaaS copywriter and content marketer. She loves writing about onboarding emails and helping companies guide users to their “a-ha” moments.


Ah, churn. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Though the term likely makes you shudder, a customer churning isn’t always as unfortunate as you might think. Churn is a natural part of subscription businesses, but it’s everyone’s goal to make it as low as possible.

Churn is calculated after a user has left your service, but what if you could use it for a proactive measures instead of reactive tactics? Instead of looking at your churn rate as a whole and shooting in the dark in an attempt to lower it, you can use metrics to upgrade your onboarding and engagement efforts in an organized way. Let’s explore.

Pinpointing Churn Red Flags & Engagement Metrics to Find Weak Points

Churn on its own is a naturally lagging indicator. After all, that stat doesn’t pop up until after the deed is done. However, your users are sending you red flags that should act as warning signals for impending churn. Here’s how to spot the red flags that will, in turn, help you find the root cause of the issue.

Calculate churn risk factors in your business as a whole

Let’s start at the top. Start by zooming all the way out and looking at all of your customers together, and the resulting churn. First, keep in mind that not all churn is negative. Believe it or not, there is such an idea as “happy churn” (but we won’t be tackling that in this post). This type of churn occurs when a customer has done what they aimed to do, and leaves satisfied. Some of your churn may also be “passive,” such as when credit cards expire and cause accounts to lapse.

For the time being, we’re going to focus on active churn. This is the type that likely comes to mind when you think of churn, and it occurs when a user consciously chooses to leave. More often than not, customers leave because they aren’t gaining proportionate value from your product. It could be that the fit was never there, but churn also stems from disengagement. Think of it like a dusty treadmill in the basement — if you aren’t using it, you won’t reap the benefits. If you don’t reap the benefits, you’ll deem it worthless and sell it in a garage sale.

Churn red flags pop up wherever there is a lack or decrease of engagement. Some common churn indicators include:

  • A customer logs in less frequently
  • A customer isn’t using a key feature
  • A customer doesn’t reach out to Support anymore

Some of these, such as decreased login activity, are obvious. Others are less so. For example, a customer may stop reaching out to support because they feel so lost or frustrated; it’s easier to throw your hands up and walk away.

Want to learn more about tracking these churn indicators? Check out this post.

Segment users to find cohort-specific red flags

Next, take a more in-depth look at each customer segment. How do churn risk factors vary across segments?

For example, do high lifetime value enterprise users exhibit the same warning signs as more casual ad hoc customers? Perhaps users in different roles within their org or those with different end goals engage with your product differently. What’s a normal and healthy engagement level for one user segment may not be right for another group.

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about creating and using customer segments to increase retention, you’ll love our Retention 2.0 webinar.

Identify gaps in your customer engagement and success strategy

After you’ve found the red flags to look out for across all of your customers, you need to shift your attention to what’s happening (or not happening) just before these churn indicators present. Based on the red flags that users display, where might they need help?

For example, does engagement drop way off after a certain point in your onboarding experience? Is there a typical time period that users start to lost interest? Is one user segment having a harder time than others? These are the types of questions you’ll have to ask yourself.

This is the point in the process in which you need to pinpoint the ailment. Churn and its indicators are the symptoms and side effects of something amiss in your process, and these gaps in customer engagement and success are the root cause. Don’t sweat it if you don’t perfectly uncover the issue on your first try. Experimentation and improvement are much better strategies than taking a single shot.

Using Onboarding & Content to Reduce Churn

Alright, doc, are you ready to prescribe a cure for churn? The beauty of finding the gaps in customers experience that are resulting in churn is that you can direct your efforts to where it matters most. No more casting a wide net and wasting time and resources; we’re here to pack a punch in a meaningful way.

Evaluate current efforts

You probably thought we were done analyzing and investigating, but I promise we’re close. With your list of weak points in one hand, you need to compile a list of everything that a customer is seeing (or not seeing) at those points in their journey.

This step is critical because you need to determine whether you need to create new or upgrade existing content to support those points. What is your current onboarding and engagement strategy? If you don’t have a plan in place, then your first task is to create one. Armed with your newfound knowledge about churn risk factors, you’ll be able to create a customer success and engagement strategy from scratch that targets problem areas.

If you do have an onboarding and engagement strategy, take time to assess each element. Are you highlighting the features that move users closer to their goals, and are you supporting their effort with useful content?

Map and list out all of the touchpoints that are currently being used to engage with users.

Create or upgrade onboarding emails

Next stop — onboarding emails! This is a great place to look to improve if you’re seeing churn risk indicators such as a failure to complete onboarding. Sending consistent and helpful onboarding emails motivates users to get into your app, where they should be getting prompts and support. Make sure that onboarding emails aren’t simply a feature dump. Curate the tools that you’re highlighting and use emails to show the power and results of leveraging them, not just how to use them.

Weak onboarding emails could also be to blame for lasting issues, too. Though this is harder to identify, a user that doesn’t get off on the right foot is more likely to churn down the road. This could manifest in the form of users that are past the typical onboarding stage, yet fail to make use of key features.

Build up your free resources

If onboarding emails propel users into your app and in-app messages get them playing around, then free content helps them see a project through to the end. For example, Shopify doesn’t just give e-commerce business owners a platform. They also provide extensive checklists and guides that detail how to launch and grow their business. If there’s a feature that seems to be a sticking point for users, it may be worthwhile to create better documentation for it. This can mean upgrading blog posts and guides related to the task at hand or presenting information in a new format.

It’s also useful to create content that’s relevant for users, even if it relates to tasks beyond your product. A prime example of this is Shopify’s Ultimate Guide to Dropshipping. While Shopify doesn’t supply items to dropship, it’s a project their users may want to take on. Rather than focusing on Shopify features, the guide highlights the possibilities. Additionally, if users aren’t taking advantage of blog post and guides, it might be time to try webinars so that they can see features or strategies in action.

In addition to guides, content that shows off the result of using different features can also support users in their journey. Presenting case studies lets users see how other companies in a similar position to theirs solved an issue or tackled a project.

Deploy and test

After you’ve upgraded your customer onboarding and engagement strategy, you’ll need to regularly check back in to see if it’s done the trick. Using the same churn indicators and problem areas as before, assess whether your new content has helped users after it’s been deployed for a few months.

I’ll leave you with a final piece of advice so that you can reduce further churn with the help of upgraded onboarding and content. Make it omnichannel. If you’re using a mix of tactics, such as emails, promoted content, in-app messages, and more, you’ll automatically have a multi-channel engagement strategy. However, that doesn’t mean you’ve reached omnichannel nirvana. All of your messaging and engagements should point users in the same, streamlined direction. Remember to keep customer goals in mind, and use your tools and expertise to illuminate their path.

Guest Author

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