How Really Good User Onboarding Reduces SaaS Product Churn

When looking to decrease your product’s churn, it can be easy to purely focus on improving retention.

You might be asking:

  • How can I keep my users from leaving?
  • What features can I produce to make them more engaged with my product?
  • How can I give them more value with what’s there?

But be careful.

Don’t overlook the business metric that is the leading indicator of churn—and arguably the most important out of all of them—activation.

Activation is defined as when a user takes a specific action in your product to indicate that they’ve started using it. Every product has its own activation definition—at Appcues, it’s when someone sees an Appcues flow live in their own product for the first time.

And the best way to improve activation? Take a look at your onboarding.

The relationship between onboarding and churn

Greylock’s Casey Winters explains the connection: “When we really dig into growth problems, we often see that enough people are actually coming to the products. The real growth problems start when people land…and leave. They don’t stick. This is an onboarding problem, and it’s often the biggest weakness for startups. It can also take the longest to make meaningful improvements when compared to other parts of the growth funnel.

”Having high levels of churn, especially early in a user’s lifespan, is a classic sign that they aren’t discovering the value of your product quickly enough to justify their purchase.

For a new user, onboarding is the product. They’re not thinking of it as a separate process like, “Ah, this is great onboarding.” They’ll just think, “Wow, this is a great product.”

But implementing great user onboarding is harder than you might think. Over the last 5 years, we’ve helped more than 5,000 businesses onboard more than 25 million users, and in doing so, we created a robust framework for user onboarding.

Let’s explore the framework and how it can help improve your onboarding and fight churn.

What’s the EMBED framework?

The EMBED framework stands for Establish, Map, Brainstorm, Execute, and Do It Again. Each step is essential to understanding your users’ motivations, your product’s “aha” moments, and your team’s ability to work holistically.

We’ll cover a light overview of the framework here, but if you want to dive deep, check out our User Onboarding Academy.


The first step in the EMBED framework is to establish 3 things:

  1. The importance of onboarding. Even if you’re a believer, it’s important to align your team and company.
  2. The difference between good and bad onboarding. (There’s a big difference.)
  3. Your onboarding team: It’s good to have one owner of the project, but make sure to include cross-functional teammates for a diversity of thought, skills, and buy-in.


The next step of the EMBED framework is to map your user journey, focusing on the onboarding portion of the journey. When we say map, we mean it literally. Write out every touchpoint a person has when starting with your product.

As you map, it’s important to find the aha moment in your product—that lightbulb moment when a user realizes your value proposition. Mark that with a big star. You’ll want all of your effort be to get folks here.

You also might want to translate this into an analytics tool like Amplitude for more granular tracking. Brainstorm

The third step of the EMBED framework is to brainstorm potential solutions. To do that, you’ll need to look at both quantitative and qualitative data.

Quantitative data comes from lots of data points and is easily measured with numbers. You’ll use tools like Amplitude or Mixpanel to find it. It’s great for seeing exactly where users are dropping out of your product.

Qualitative data comes from 1:1 feedback and is hard to measure. You’ll use tools like Fullstory or user interviews. It’s great for finding out why users are dropping out of your product.

Ask open-ended, non-leading questions like:

  • Why didn’t you complete the task?
  • Why did you sign up for our product in the first place?
  • How have you done this task in the past?

Why and how questions make for the best qualitative questions.

Most people rely on only one type of data when making decisions—often anecdotal qualitative feedback. In reality, you need both to get the big picture.

To put it into practice: first, use quantitative information to find and focus on the biggest problems. Then, use qualitative data to “zoom in” to the level of the user to round out your understanding and solve the problem.


The second to last step of the EMBED framework is to execute your onboarding updates. When setting up your onboarding updates, think of both in-app onboarding and what happens outside of the app—email triggers, push notifications, webinars, video learning, and documentation.


The final step of the EMBED framework is to do it again. Your onboarding should be consistently audited and improved upon. Start over with establishing your idea of good onboarding, and follow the EMBED framework through again.

Onboarding never ends and neither should your fight to decrease churn.

How does the EMBED framework help reduce churn?

By embedding onboarding into your process, you’re really putting the user at the heart of it. You end up introducing true empathy for your users to your team, because you spent the time taking the journey with them.

Odds are that your product’s functionality is solid. You don’t need a big feature change to affect loyalty and retention, you just need tweaks and nudges to make the user successful.In this way, the most important objective for onboarding is counterintuitive.

It’s not to make your user better at your product. The true objective is to make your user better at what the product let’s them do.

Think of it this way: It’s not about getting the user better at knowing where the button is that they need to click. It’s about getting the user better and more efficient at the problem your product solves so they can use their newfound time and energy to be better at their real job.

Do that successfully, and you’ll churn-proof your product.