Your Guide to Continuous Onboarding for Saas | Userpilot Blog

It’s a Never-Ending Story - What is Secondary and Tertiary Onboarding, and Why You Should See Onboarding As a Continuous Education Loop

Learn what continuous onboarding is and why organizations should use user onboarding software to embrace primary, secondary and tertiary onboardings. Let’s dive deep into the topic and the best practices to have a great onboarding experience.

First, a little primer on why user onboarding doesn’t stop with new users!


Continuous onboarding post summary 🍔

  • The whole point of onboarding is to push someone down the user journey, which means you shouldn’t stop at new user activation on the very first day.
  • You should implement ‘onboardings’ at every stage of the user journeyhence secondary, tertiary, and further onboarding experiences.
  • The different stages of your onboarding are correlated with different product growth goals and metrics – user activation and adoption, conversion, feature engagement, retention, advocacy, and revenue expansion.
  • Your company should use a mix of proactive and reactive onboarding to foster behaviors that correlate with success.
  • Onboarding optimization never ends…you can always experiment more to get higher adoption rates and hit key milestones.
  • …but it also leads to efficiency gains every time a new user falls into your runner – which means you’re basically building a user adoption flywheel if you see onboarding as a continuous education loop.
  • P.S. If you want to improve your adoption rates across different user segments and journeys: book a free demo for Userpilot!

    “Should we just do a product tour?” – I heard a CEO of a SaaS sales tool ask me and I cringed a little.

    Not just because I hate product tours and think nobody who values their time would actually spend it clicking through irrelevant functionalities they may never use before they’ve even seen the product…

    You don’t believe me? Here’s some proof I’ve collected from Facebook groups only:

    eveybody hates product tours

    How many times can you spot the word ‘hate’?

    … but also the ‘get done & get over it‘ mindset is plain wrong.

    If you’re ever ‘done’ with your onboarding, you’re doing it wrong.

    Continuous onboarding is essential for product growth

    Product folks who really own their product growth metrics and key performance indicators know that they will never be done.

    Because onboarding – meaning ‘new user onboarding’ – is just a tiny fraction of your user experience layer.

    To succeed at improving your user activation, adoption, engagement & retention – your company needs to think of your onboarding as the 1st step in a ‘continuous user education loop’.

    This is because each stage of your onboarding has a different goal related to your product growth strategy:

    user journey stages

    Continuous onboarding means you don’t stop at new user activation

    user journey userpilot

    You should implement an ‘onboarding’ program at every stage of the user journey: hence secondary, tertiary, and further onboarding checklists and flows (we’ll dive deeper into the onboarding UX elements later). At each step, you should establish trust with your users and provide them real value not just complete the initial onboarding and think that you’re all set.

    Now, let’s go into the different types of onboarding programs for each stage of your user journey and learn how you can have a great continuous onboarding experience keeping your focus on customers.

    Stage 1: primary onboarding

    Now, I can already hear all the Product-Tourers shout:

    But Emilia! My new user onboarding does the new job at is supposed to guide your users through your entire product, right?


    This is what the whole institution of product tours gets terribly wrong, and this is precisely why people hate them so much.

    Expecting your user to move to learn how to use the whole product in one go, top-down, is like expecting your teenage kid to be able to drive after taking their Theory Test.

    Both are likely to crash.

    Front-loading your new user knowledge about all the features they are not going to be able to use immediately is not annoying, but also futile.

    The goal of your primary ‘new user’ onboarding is not to push your new user right into the ‘pro’ stage in their user journey. It’s to get them to the ‘AHA! moment’ though the first 2-3 activation points.

    The ‘AHA!’ moment is when your user realizes the value of your product for the first time, but doesn’t necessarily experience the benefits firsthand yet.

    And this is exactly the point you want them to get to with your primary user onboarding.

    Now, think of two or three *absolutely critical* steps that your new user needs to take to ‘get’ your product.

    Which functionalities do they really need to use to see the value of your product?

    Let me give you an example.

    Take a social media scheduler allowing you to plan your posts to multiple social media accounts at once.

    What do you need to do to see the value of this tool?

    Link your social media accounts, and schedule your first post.

    You don’t need to show them how to invite their co-workers, group accounts by brand, use post engagement analytics, or generate client reports – not just yet.

    Look at Postfity’s primary onboarding process checklist and learn some best practices:

    postfity checklist

    They ask you to do the two main steps that are required for you to ‘get’ what a social media scheduler does.

    Clicking an item on the checklist (apart from the two ‘dummy’ tasks, that are there as a psychological hook based on the Zeigarnik Effect – read more about it here.) triggers two short flows of tooltips that take the user to perform these steps:

    Tooltip –> Action –> Tooltip –> Action –> Goal

    This way you’re guaranteed to get the users to perform the key actions without boring them.

    Ok, so assuming this went well, and your user is now getting used to using your core features regularly, and have clearly ‘adopted’ them, and you even managed to push them to pay – what do you do next?

    Don’t stop the onboarding process.

    Stage 2: secondary onboarding or continuous onboarding

    Secondary onboarding is where the fun starts. You can now use your in-app experience layer to onboard your activated users onto your secondary features, turning them into power users, and advocates.

    Let’s look at our infographic again to see how secondary onboarding maps into your user journey and product growth goals:

    This is the right time to show the secondary features of your product to your users and try to exceed their expectations.

    The goal is to keep driving more value to your users by showing them more and more ways how they can benefit from your product through a continuous onboarding experience.

    You see – secondary features provide you with more use cases. And more use cases means that your product will be more sticky. And that in turn – means higher retention rates.

    Tertiary features – in turn – are often the ones you can’t directly see. You can’t see them until you have used the product long enough to see the…ROI. E.g. your email marketing analytics will not appear until you have sent a few emails. The adoption rate of your experiences in Userpilot will not be visible until you have actually created a few experiences and published them.

    But it is the tertiary features that actually keep you coming back for more – because you can clearly see the ROI and get internal buy-in from your team.

    Driving more and more value

    You can do it the same way as you do with primary onboarding – via checklists and experience flows -or with native tooltips at later stages of the secondary onboarding, once your users have become quite confident in using your product but are not power users yet.

    Native tooltips are small icons (‘i’ or ‘?’) appended to selected elements on your UI – which trigger a tooltip with more information about the less-obvious feature behind it only when the user hovers over them.

    native tooltip userpilot

    That way, you can let your users explore freely, and discover new features in context, without interrupting their natural workflow. Basically – let them choose their own journey – but don’t let them play completely unsupervised. Just as you would with teenage kids.

    At this stage, you will need to dig deep into your user behavior analytics to design your secondary onboarding path well.

    By seeing what your users actually do in the app, you can use secondary onboarding to reinforce good habits and eradicate bad habits inside your app.

    And by good habits I mean those behaviors that correlate positively with high NPS scores, high retention, and low churn. Conversely, bad habits (app usage patterns) are those that correlate positively with low satisfaction, high support ticket volume, and higher churn rates. You will need user analytics tools and do some cohort analysis to understand those, of course.

    Then – when you’ve established what you want them to do and what you don’t want them to do further down their user journey – create a mix of proactive and reactive onboarding experiences to foster the desired behaviors.

    Proactive and reactive? Huh?

    Let me explain.

    Proactive onboarding experiences are when you take control of your user’s journey inside your app and proactively lead them towards a specific action.

    The most radical way to do this is by the so-called driven actions: where you literally take control of your user’s mouse and point them to a feature you want them to use.

    driven actions userpilot

    This feature is unique to Userpilot.

    On the other hand, when your user does something they shouldn’t (or doesn’t do something they should) – you may want to react to that with the right in-app experience.

    Just look at what Hubspot does:

    hubspot secondary onboarding

    When you copy and paste email content in Hubspot repeatedly it will gently…slap you into realizing you could have just saved it as a template. Which by the way is a premium feature you will need to pay extra for.

    Smart, huh?

    User Webinars

    Another way how you can use your in-app experience layer is by marketing user webinars.

    These – unlike marketing webinars for your leads – are designed especially for certain segments of your users to help them derive even more value from your product. Userpilot has managed to massive increase our trial-to-paid conversions (read the full story here).

    Stage 3: tertiary onboarding

    Finally, we have arrived at the stage in your user journey where the users are activated, paying, and happily using most features of your app the right way making the onboarding process smoother.

    Some of them maybe even turning to power users and advocates – spreading the good word about your product.

    Is it time to leave them alone?


    Feature Releases & New Feature Onboarding

    As your product grows, you will be surely adding new features that will drive even more valuable even to the most active group of users.

    Sending an email with a feature release is so 2010 though. Why not inform your users about the new features right where they need them – inside your app and provide training materials for their own development?

    Placing your feature release in an in-app modal or slideout also means that you can trigger an onboarding program experience that will help your users adopt that new feature when they interact with the release.

    Health Checks

    Also – even in the case of advocates – you’re not exempt from running health checks on your users.

    Tertiary onboarding also means asking your powers users about feedback on the new features, your support, and their overall experience with your product. In this way, you can get an overview of whether your product meets their expectations.

    You can do it easily with onboarding software that has features like micro surveys or qualitative follow-ups on your NPS survey.

    This feedback will help companies understand what makes a user an advocate, and create more proactive onboarding experiences for basic paid and lazy paid users unlocking more growth opportunities.

    This means that it’s a continuous learning process and with each onboarding stage progress – your overall ‘onboarding machine’ gets more and more efficient – which makes it into a user adoption flywheel: a mechanism that becomes more efficient with every rep.

    user adoption flywheel

    Reinforcement and further onboarding at this stage also opens the door to account expansion and revenue growth – remember the Hubspot example? If your power user learns they could get even more value in the higher plan and the ROI on the upgrade is positive – why wouldn’t they upgrade?

    Is continuous onboarding still all onboarding?

    Sounds good, but is that all really…onboarding?

    Well, according to the Oxford Languages Dictionary () onboarding is ‘the action or process of integrating a new employee into an organization or familiarizing a new customer or client with one’s products or services.

    So – regardless of the stage of the user journey your user is in, if you’re using UI elements to familiarize them with different aspects of your product – then it’s still onboarding.

    And yes, it never stops. It may sound like a bummer at first (What? You mean we’ll never be done?), but once you’ve learned to love creating new experiences to optimize your user journey – you will get hooked. Wanna learn more? No problem! We have a full guide for you so you can dive deep into user onboarding best practices and make the most out of your users.

    For better results, make sure to run experiments to optimize your experiences and unlock more resources even further. Make it a habit to make one onboarding process optimization experiment per month like Jeroen Corthout did @Salesflare and discuss it with your team members.

    And of course – just a gentle reminder that you can build all of the experiences I described above with onboarding software like Userpilot. And you can try it for free. Why not book a demo then?

    About the author:

    Emilia Korczynska userpilot

    Emilia Korczynska is a marketing manager at Userpilot, obsessed with SaaS product growth and content marketing.

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