The New Member Onboarding Guide for Better Retention



There’s no doubt that it takes effort to turn a site visitor into a customer.

It can be even trickier for subscription or membership businesses because the one-time sale or lead capture isn’t the “end game” the same way it is in a more traditional ecommerce model.

You have to convince customers to buy into your product every day, every month, and every year — for the long haul.

And a simple “thank you for your purchase” email won’t be enough. You need to consistently engage and educate members, both immediately after sign-up and every day after, if you want to succeed.

You need a member onboarding process.

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Why You Need a Member Onboarding Process

Think of a new member sign-up as inviting a guest over to your house for the first time.

You wouldn’t expect them to know where you keep the glasses in your cupboard, or where to find the bathroom, or whether or not it’s okay to put their coat on your bed. You have to show them what to do. You have to play host.

As Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos puts it:

“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”

An onboarding process is designed to educate members on where to go, what to do, how to interact with your team, and, in the meantime, give them enough positive reasons to come back and hang out with you again.

According to Len Markidan, head of marketing at Groove, there are two major milestones in the life of any customer:

  • When they sign up for your product, and
  • When they achieve their first “success” with your product.

An onboarding process helps guide members to their second milestone: success with your product or service. That success can be a major factor in reducing churn over time.

As Neil Patel says, “Churn is a reflection of customer satisfaction. Customers may lose interest because they get confused on how to actually use your services.”

Good onboarding processes help you sell faster, retain and engage better, and understand the needs of your customers on a deeper level.

But good “hosting” — successful onboarding — shouldn’t be left up to chance. You have to be intentional about what you do and what you don’t do when bringing your members up to speed.

Here are the top five components of a successful member onboarding process.


1. Send Automated Onboarding Emails

Email is often the first touchpoint for a member or subscriber after signing up.

A welcome email, for instance, lets members know that their purchase was successful or that you’ll be following up with them soon.

But an onboarding email series is designed to do three specific things:

  • Create multiple points for connection — Even if a new member misses your welcome email, they will have multiple chances to build a relationship with you over the first few days and weeks after signing up.
  • Increase customer insights — An email series allows you to collect vital information about the type of content that interests your members and how they will likely interact or communicate with you in the future.
  • Encourage action — Getting members to make additional actions or engage with your business is essential, but it’s especially important if you offer free tiered memberships or subscriptions where they might forget to use your service after signing up.

There are a few ways you can approach creating an onboarding series, but in general, your series should consider including the following emails:

  • Welcome email — The first “hello” or “thank you” after purchase
  • Benefits email — An email explaining what’s included in their membership or subscription
  • Social proof email — Something that explains how other members are using your product or service and any other mentions of your business around the web
  • Questions/survey email — An email that asks for feedback or more information about customer preferences (see point #5 below)
  • Freebies/offers email — If applicable, offer an extended free trial, a discount for a referral, or another freebie like downloadable resources to engage members
  • Upsell email — Give members the opportunity to increase their engagement levels by going up a subscription tier or getting access to another product right away.

A welcome email should be sent within the first day or so after sign-up, with a benefits email and question/survey email sent within the first few days or weeks.

Studies show that 74.4% of subscribers expect a welcome message when they subscribe, but that 41% of brands fail to reach out within the first 48 hours. Even if you don’t send every email on the above list, it’s important to send out something.

If you don’t want to barrage your members with emails, consider combining email types (e.g. a welcome email with a freebie or offer) to maximize your impact.

But consider sending as many emails in your series as possible to give members more opportunities to connect and engage right away.


2. Offer a “Getting Started” Guide

Another major component to onboarding is instruction. If members don’t know how to use your service, they won’t stay members for very long.

In a 2017 benchmark survey of association marketing, Marketing General found that while 81% percent of associations sent a membership welcome email, only 35% included an explanation of their association to new members.

Education about how to use a product or service is important for all memberships, but it’s especially vital for SaaS or app-based products where members may need a little help getting started.

InVision, for example, created a series of video tutorials for new members.

Trello has an entire section of their site with various guides dedicated to helping users understand how to navigate their product.

Even having something as simple as a blog post or a few smaller, downloadable quick start guides can minimize frustration for members, encourage action and reduce churn.

When members know how to use your product, they’re more likely to use it regularly.

3. Build “First-Time” User Experiences

Another component that can make or break the member onboarding process is user experience (UX).

Members (users) will have many experiences with your business over the customer lifecycle.

While some of them may be good (experiencing success with your product, for instance) and some may be bad (running into a bug or error), over time members will learn how to interact with you based on your reactions to those experiences.

Consider the principles of UX design, for example. Every interaction a member has with your business should be valuable, useful, desirable, and accessible.

The more you live up to those standards, the better UX your company will have in the eyes of your subscribers.

But you can’t offer great UX to long-term members if your first-time user experience (FTUE) — your very first impression — isn’t great.

Members will rarely stick around if they don’t like you right out of the gate.

From the very first touchpoint, members should feel that their welcome was tailored to them. They should feel comfortable with your communication style, your branding, your color scheme, and even how your website is set up.

FTUE best practices include things like:

  • Making sure the sign-up process is smooth and easy to understand
  • Keeping designs (for guides, resources, emails, etc.) minimalistic and on-brand
  • Making your website easy to navigate and customer support easy to find
  • Offering member portals which can be easily accessed and personalized
  • Creating tailored and exclusive content based on their preferences
  • Readily responding to customer service complaints when submitted
  • And more.

Canva, for instance, has a great FTUE for member sign-ups. When you land on their site, you’re greeted with a clear-cut sign-up request (including multiple sign-up options, like social media logins).

After sign-up, you have three options for what you want to use the product for (this defines the member type): work, personal or education.

Finally, you’re given access to a getting started guide to help you use Canva, which can also be skipped if you want to get to it without delay.

Good FTUE defines the relationship you have with your members.

It lets them know that you care about first impressions and that you care about who they are as individuals, what drives them to use your product, and how you can help them make the most out of their membership.

Learn more about FTUE here.


4. Create a Content or Feature Spotlight

The onboarding process doesn’t stop once members are using your product.

In fact, you may have to keep educating members for a while after they come onboard. Chances are good that even your long-time members don’t really use every product feature.

New members especially won’t know about your features or any of the content you’ve already produced or the sheer amount of benefits their membership type offers.

That’s why part of the onboarding process should always include information about things they may not know about.

Give them:

  • Access to content (blog posts, resources, guides, etc.) you’ve already produced
  • Highlighted product features or member benefits via newsletters or promotional emails
  • Free trials or extended access to products that aren’t included in their membership tier
  • Opportunity to get notified right away for new product or feature releases
  • Access to other touchpoints that will keep them informed (Facebook groups etc.)

As this membership founder puts it, “Get your members to actually do or start something that puts some ‘skin in the game’ and gets them invested in your site.”

This could even be something as simple as sending a question-and-answer email about what’s new with your company like Airbnb does.

The more members know about their benefits, the more likely they are to use them.


5. Ask Members for Feedback

The final component of a good onboarding process is feedback.

Gathering feedback from new members is not only a nice way to welcome them (it shows that you care about their preferences from the start), but it’s also a great way to ensure their experiences improve over time.

And it’s absolutely imperative for businesses that struggle with customer satisfaction.

If you have high churn rates for new customers, getting feedback will be one of the most important onboarding steps to take.

Studies show that while the majority of businesses believe they offer good customer service, customers don’t always feel the same way.

Some of the best ways to gather feedback include things like:

  • Member Orientation survey
  • New Member Welcome questionnaire
  • First-time Member Quiz

This will help you ascertain things like their desired outcomes for using your product, how they measure success, how their bosses measure success, content preferences, and their learning styles (do they like videos? Interactive guides? Blogs?).

The more you can tailor their experience to their needs and preferences, the better your retention rates will be.

Grab Our Free Download

The Membership Welcome Email Series Walkthrough

Free Download

Final Thoughts

Every membership and subscription business needs an onboarding process.

The core components of the process should include:

  • Onboarding emails (welcome emails, etc.)
  • Educational resource (getting started guides)
  • Good FTUE and UX design
  • Curated content and feature highlights
  • Surveys and feedback

What each of those components looks like individually is up to you, but the more you can do to make sure that first-time members understand your business, the better of you’ll be in the long run.

After all, a good first impression can last a lifetime.

Joanne Penn

Joanne is a content strategist at MemberDev. She helps B2B and SaaS companies promote their message and drive engagement through well-researched content marketing.

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