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Onboarding Email Automation: Time-based vs. Action-based; Which is RIGHT for you?

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This post will feature onboarding emails; how they improve your SaaS’ value to your users as well as the strategies of structuring them. By the end of the post, you will figure out the best way to create happy users and ultimately prevent them from getting away.

  • Why are emails important in user onboarding?
  • What are the components of effective onboarding emails?
  • In onboarding email automation, which should you choose; Time-based or action-based?

You are getting a couple of new sign-ups for your SaaS — probably a free-trial. , But, most of them did not return. Your marketing efforts have gone to waste and you want to figure out why? It is usually one of three things: your SaaS is not what they thought or need; they get distracted by other things; or they do not see a path to value, quickly.

How, exactly, do you keep your real prospects motivated and engaged? How can you deliver them to their ”aha moment”?  After a user signs up, the primary goal MUST BE to show them the value that your product is promising to bring to their lives. Here is where effective and engaging user onboarding emails get in!

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Your onboarding strategy will draw the line between acquiring deeply invested new users from being completely unsuccessful.

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This post will feature onboarding emails; how they improve your SaaS’s value to your users as well as the strategies of structuring them. By the end of the post, you will figure out the best way to create happy users and ultimately prevent them from getting away.

  • Why are emails important in user onboarding?
  • What are the components of effective onboarding emails?
  • In onboarding email automation, which should you choose; Time-based or action-based?

Why are emails effective in user onboarding?

Customer onboarding is guiding users to find value in your SaaS application. During this process, the objective is to deliver them to their “aha moment,” that time when they’ve understood and internalized your service’s value — the sooner the better, for both of you! While onboarding can make use of different channels such as documentation, webinars, and chats, email by far is the most essential of this entire system. Email marketing is not dead. For years, it has remained the best tool to both attract and retain users.  In 2019, a survey said email marketing delivers an average ROI of 4400%, which explains it all.

Emails are important during onboarding because they:

  • Are easy to create, set target, and deliver; at the same time, simple to understand in the part of the user.
  • Can be present, simultaneously, in many places.
  • Are accessible wherever the customer is.

What are the components of effective onboarding emails?

Yes, emails can be easy to create. However, you do not want customers to treat them like any other email in their inbox. You need to put together an outstanding customer onboarding email sequence to get an oversized return of investment (ROI). We will never aim for typical unengaging emails because we do not want customers to think that our value is just like any other. So, what makes a great user onboarding email sequence?

  1.   There should be a goal or a number of micro-goals to help you with your content. One good thing to remember is that emails are not great with teaching users how to do it. Rather, it is excellent in telling them WHY THEY SHOULD ENGAGE.
  2. The value proposition should be clearly presented through a personal tone to establish product knowledge with a single call to action to keep the interaction smooth.
  3. Constantly reach out to make sure that the users are on track. Your ability to respond quickly with whatever information the prospect is expecting is a major element in the onboarding process success. Sending follow-ups will show them you are with them every step of the journey.
  4. Automation is a great tool in both lessening your work and increasing your reach. When you automate onboarding emails, you can walk through each of your customer’s journey while helping them achieve one goal at a time. Automation will allow you to create personalized customer journeys, and there is no better way to do it than targeting them with the right message.

Automation: Time-based or Action-based?

Spending hours writing emails for each one of your users will not make sense. Moreover, you would not want to deliver blasts of generic emails to the entire user list. Irrelevant messages, more often, is the reason why people unsubscribe.

So, how do we avoid this from happening?

The answer is Automation; sending targeted emails at predetermined times or as a response to customer actions. The GOAL here is to deliver the right message to your customers at the “best” time possible.

Here are the reasons why email automation will help your product:

  1. Email marketing automation can have personalized fields. Emails with personalized details, the subject line, and content, for example, are 26% more likely to be opened that than generic messages.
  2. The biggest benefit is having the ability to send out relevant messages MORE. With automation, users can be segmented into different groups and personalize messages to each of the groups according to demographics, purchase behavior, or interests. MailChimp revealed that marketers who segmented campaigns generated higher open rates of 14.3% and higher click-throughs of 100.95%.
  3. You can have a series of automated emails, drip campaigns, regularly for a determined period. Drip campaigns are great to nurture people on their journey. These emails can be used to demo how your service works, answer FAQs, or plainly keeping the leads interested until they want to buy. Drip campaigns have a higher open rate of 80% and click-throughs of 300% more than ordinary email campaigns.

 Time-Based Email Automation

The time-based sequence sends emails according to [the passing of] time. Most initial trigger is post FREE USER SIGN-UP; after that are a series of emails that have a pre-determined send schedule, both time and day. There are a lot of ways that this can be put together, but the best practices include:

  1. Do not show-off features all the time. Just choose a few critical features and user actions to highlight.
  2.     When highlighting features, remember to present the benefits and how they can use it to their advantage. You can also incorporate case studies and additional resources.
  3.     Make your Call-to-action buttons clear and easy to see.

What are the benefits of time-based email automation?

  • The easiest kind of email automation to set up.
  • You only need a few emails; no need to create other versions, while waiting until the targeted user makes a move.
  • It is easier to optimize content and subject lines when customers are receiving them at the same time.

Time-based, however great, has disadvantages. For instance, the emails are the type that cannot be fully customized. Also, the possibility of sending the same content in different words is high. If a user is on a different step than the emails being received, the chances of confusing them or losing them are higher. On the other hand, if a user jumps toward the latest email and skips those that came first, he/she may skip some critical actions that are essential in the process.

Action-Based Email Automation

Behavior-triggered, or action-based, email automation essence is providing the user the right content at the right time. The best end-result of this campaign is retaining customers because you [and your service] are focusing on the exact value that your customers need when it does the most good. Like time-based, there are pretty much hundreds of ways to structure them up, but the best ones include:

  1. You can test new messaging styles, information formats, and content angles and learn which encourages a user more to take action.
  2. The sequence is more organized because you can document the learnings one step at a time.
  3. You can support users based on their journey. For example, you can congratulate them upon completing a feature.
  4. Responding to their inactivity can be easy. You can win them back through re-engagement emails or introduce a feature and highlight the benefits that it could bring them.

What are the benefits of action-based email automation?

  • Since the series of messages are customized for the users, each of them will feel relevant all throughout.
  • Your users will receive information when they are ready for it; so it will make sure that they are not skipping a critical stage.
  • Action-based emails have higher open rates than any other typical marketing email.

While this email automation campaign is promising, it also has its own share of disadvantages. First, the setup and its maintenance are complex. Second, you are more likely to structure up more emails according to client behavior; and establishing the behavior first and foremost could be effort and time-consuming.

Your service won’t matter if your users do not appreciate its value. That is the importance of email onboarding for SaaS businesses. Through targeting users either time-based or behavior-based email campaigns, you are growing the user base and reducing churn, while helping them get the most value out of your service.

So which is right for you?

If you have a highly structured onboarding process (e.g., step1 had to be completed before step 2 can be done, then step 3, etc.) then action or event-based email automation will probably work best for you. 

However, if you offer a more complex tool that anything can be done at any given time, then time-based would be easiest. However, you may want to still design milestone-based sequence for important features…say, “Now that you have done X, here are all the great things you can do, a case study, etc.. So both can be used.


Saturn Funnels’ onboarding emails will help you increase your trial-to-paid conversions, significantly. We have both time-based and behavior-based email sequence campaign templates that you can easily customize. To learn more, visit Saturn Funnels!

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