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The 4 stages of product adoption for product-led growth

Learn how to optimize the user journey from new user to brand advocate so you can establish product-led growth.
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Feedback loops are some of the most powerful forces in nature. They play an integral part in everything from the climate to human insulin levels. The true power of feedback loops is in their self-sustaining nature: input A leads to output B, which creates more input A in a continuous ever-growing cycle.

Feedback loops can be terrifying when it comes to climate change, but they’re a true godsend for marketers. At the heart of product-led growth is the belief that you can harness feedback loops to power sustainable growth. The goal is to turn a higher percentage of overall users into brand advocates. As you encourage more people to sing the praises of your product, they’ll invite more users to join. This fresh wave of users can then be converted, and the cycle continues and grows.

These systems don’t make themselves (which is good news for product marketers who’d like to keep our jobs). To create this feedback loop, you need to understand the stages of product adoption: activation, adoption, expansion, and advocacy. You also need to invest time and resources into making your system better at nudging users through each stage. As your system improves, the percentage of users who become advocates will grow, increasing your product’s reach and the number of new users signing up. No need to wonder where your next tranche of signups will come from—your product and system will do it for you.

What is a product adoption process?

A product adoption process is a company's multi-staged plan to encourage new users to become power users as efficiently as possible. These processes are built around specific product adoption stages that users naturally go through. The number and names of these stages aren't universally accepted, but they generally boil down to advancing users from a state of newbness (important technical term) to being a black belt in your-product-fu.

Aladdin GIF on a carpet ride
[Image Source]
Dramatization of how your users feel as they learn about your product.

The goal of your product adoption process is to map out these stages and then use messaging, flows, and UI that encourage users to take that next step toward being a brand advocate. As you refine your process, more and more users will skip the exit and become your ticket to powerful product-led growth.

Why should you care about the product adoption process?

A great product adoption process is kryptonite for churn and low engagement. Currently, 50% of users who pay for a SaaS product don’t even log in once a month. Chances are, customers with that level of engagement won’t be paying for long. However, what if you could improve those numbers? Even a 1% improvement in user retention could translate into a 25% increase in revenue.

The product adoption process is how you get users habitually coming back to your app or product, but that doesn't happen by magic. Planning an effective adoption process—and refining it through data-backed optimizations—are the only ways to crack the code on beating churn and promoting engagement.

But before you conquer the SaaS world with amazing retention and revenue, you need to understand what you’re optimizing—starting with how you define the stages of product adoption.

Appcues’s 4 stages of product adoption

Product-led growth has become a dominant force in modern business. Not only does it challenge the way businesses are run, but it changes the way you think about product adoption.

The traditional five- or six-stage models of product adoption don’t reflect this new product-led future, so we’ve come up with our own framework. Our stages begin with activation and end with advocacy—not product adoption. Getting people to adopt your product isn't enough if you want to grow in today’s climate. You need to make them believers in your solution so that they inspire more users to give your product a try.

How the old product adoption stages change into the new ones.

Basing your product adoption process on this four-stage model is the best way to optimize for natural and sustainable growth. It’s effective because it’s a more accurate representation of the kinds of user journeys SaaS products need to encourage to be successful.

1. Activation

The activation stage occurs during onboarding when users first interact with your product. These users may not really know anything about what your product does, but they’re willing to give it a chance to impress them—your goal is to do just that.

Moving users out of the activation stage requires you to convince them of your product’s benefits through an activation event or aha moment. When done successfully, users actually experience the real value of your product and are motivated to go beyond activation and onboarding into the adoption stage.

More resources on activation:

2. Adoption

The adoption stage is where users take off their shoes and get comfortable with your product. They’re done onboarding, and now you want them to settle into an established habit with your product.

The key to getting users through the adoption stage is encouraging user engagement. Boost engagement rates through in-app messaging, improved UX and UI, and even gamification—whatever it takes to get users coming back more often. The more users engage with your product, the better chance you have of growing them into power users that realize your product’s full potential.

After hours of research on adoption, here are the resources we found most helpful:

3. Expansion

During the expansion stage, users take a deep dive into your product—mastering all of its features and priming themselves for upsell opportunities.

Optimizations for improving in the expansion stage should focus on 2 areas: personalized communication and education. When users are ready to expand their usage, communication is there to nudge them into new opportunities. Equally important is making educational resources available and accessible. If users are inspired to learn more, they know where to go to find quality resources to help them learn about new features.  

More resources on expansion:

4. Advocacy

The advocacy stage is where users become brand advocates who actively engage with your community and recommend your product to others. These users complete the product-led growth flywheel as they introduce new users who one day may become advocates into the activation funnel.

product-led growth flywheel

Build communities, resources, and referral programs to make the most out of your brand advocates. Your goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to bring in more users to your product.

More resources on advocacy:

The 5 and 6-stage product adoption models

Traditionally, product adoption models had five or six stages. These models don’t necessarily do a good job of representing the current life cycle of a modern user. However, just because they’re out of date doesn't mean that you can't learn from them.

The traditional stages of product adoption are:

1. Awareness: Users learn about your product’s existence.
2. Interest: Users research your product, learning about its features.
3. Evaluation: Users look at the pros and cons of your product versus others on the market.
4. Trial: Users decide to give your product a try and sign up for a free trial, freemium service, etc.
5. Activation: Users reach their aha moment and use your product to get real value.
6. Adoption: Users make your product their habitual choice for whatever you do.

The only difference between the five- and six-stage models is that the activation stage is absent in the five-stage model.

The advantage of these traditional models is that they remind you of the importance of acquisition. However, acquisition is not adoption. It needs to work in concert with adoption stages, but they’re two different processes: acquisition is for bringing in new users, and adoption is for creating brand advocates. For this reason, we removed acquisition from our product adoption model.

The other problem with this traditional model is that it doesn’t go far enough. It abandons users just as they’re committing to your product. Instead, we advise product marketers to keep on investing time and resources into users until they become brand advocates and complete the product-led growth flywheel.

Learn more about what drives product-led growth

There is more to product-led growth than this article could ever outline. That’s why there’s a website specifically devoted to educating you on how to create sustainable growth through product-led strategies. Learn more at the Product-Led Growth Collective.

JUMPSTART USER ENGAGEMENT

Thousands of product-led businesses trust Appcues to:

  • Boost user engagement through in-app messaging
  • Increase feature adoption with segmentation
  • Improve retention by identifying opportunities
Charts and graphs


Author's picture
Ramli John
Director of Content at Appcues
Ramli John is the Director of Content at Appcues and author of the bestselling book Product-Led Onboarding. He’s also a PLG Coach at ProductLed, where he’s worked with Mixpanel, Microsoft, and more to accelerate their growth.
Skip to section:

Skip to section:

Feedback loops are some of the most powerful forces in nature. They play an integral part in everything from the climate to human insulin levels. The true power of feedback loops is in their self-sustaining nature: input A leads to output B, which creates more input A in a continuous ever-growing cycle.

Feedback loops can be terrifying when it comes to climate change, but they’re a true godsend for marketers. At the heart of product-led growth is the belief that you can harness feedback loops to power sustainable growth. The goal is to turn a higher percentage of overall users into brand advocates. As you encourage more people to sing the praises of your product, they’ll invite more users to join. This fresh wave of users can then be converted, and the cycle continues and grows.

These systems don’t make themselves (which is good news for product marketers who’d like to keep our jobs). To create this feedback loop, you need to understand the stages of product adoption: activation, adoption, expansion, and advocacy. You also need to invest time and resources into making your system better at nudging users through each stage. As your system improves, the percentage of users who become advocates will grow, increasing your product’s reach and the number of new users signing up. No need to wonder where your next tranche of signups will come from—your product and system will do it for you.

What is a product adoption process?

A product adoption process is a company's multi-staged plan to encourage new users to become power users as efficiently as possible. These processes are built around specific product adoption stages that users naturally go through. The number and names of these stages aren't universally accepted, but they generally boil down to advancing users from a state of newbness (important technical term) to being a black belt in your-product-fu.

Aladdin GIF on a carpet ride
[Image Source]
Dramatization of how your users feel as they learn about your product.

The goal of your product adoption process is to map out these stages and then use messaging, flows, and UI that encourage users to take that next step toward being a brand advocate. As you refine your process, more and more users will skip the exit and become your ticket to powerful product-led growth.

Why should you care about the product adoption process?

A great product adoption process is kryptonite for churn and low engagement. Currently, 50% of users who pay for a SaaS product don’t even log in once a month. Chances are, customers with that level of engagement won’t be paying for long. However, what if you could improve those numbers? Even a 1% improvement in user retention could translate into a 25% increase in revenue.

The product adoption process is how you get users habitually coming back to your app or product, but that doesn't happen by magic. Planning an effective adoption process—and refining it through data-backed optimizations—are the only ways to crack the code on beating churn and promoting engagement.

But before you conquer the SaaS world with amazing retention and revenue, you need to understand what you’re optimizing—starting with how you define the stages of product adoption.

Appcues’s 4 stages of product adoption

Product-led growth has become a dominant force in modern business. Not only does it challenge the way businesses are run, but it changes the way you think about product adoption.

The traditional five- or six-stage models of product adoption don’t reflect this new product-led future, so we’ve come up with our own framework. Our stages begin with activation and end with advocacy—not product adoption. Getting people to adopt your product isn't enough if you want to grow in today’s climate. You need to make them believers in your solution so that they inspire more users to give your product a try.

How the old product adoption stages change into the new ones.

Basing your product adoption process on this four-stage model is the best way to optimize for natural and sustainable growth. It’s effective because it’s a more accurate representation of the kinds of user journeys SaaS products need to encourage to be successful.

1. Activation

The activation stage occurs during onboarding when users first interact with your product. These users may not really know anything about what your product does, but they’re willing to give it a chance to impress them—your goal is to do just that.

Moving users out of the activation stage requires you to convince them of your product’s benefits through an activation event or aha moment. When done successfully, users actually experience the real value of your product and are motivated to go beyond activation and onboarding into the adoption stage.

More resources on activation:

2. Adoption

The adoption stage is where users take off their shoes and get comfortable with your product. They’re done onboarding, and now you want them to settle into an established habit with your product.

The key to getting users through the adoption stage is encouraging user engagement. Boost engagement rates through in-app messaging, improved UX and UI, and even gamification—whatever it takes to get users coming back more often. The more users engage with your product, the better chance you have of growing them into power users that realize your product’s full potential.

After hours of research on adoption, here are the resources we found most helpful:

3. Expansion

During the expansion stage, users take a deep dive into your product—mastering all of its features and priming themselves for upsell opportunities.

Optimizations for improving in the expansion stage should focus on 2 areas: personalized communication and education. When users are ready to expand their usage, communication is there to nudge them into new opportunities. Equally important is making educational resources available and accessible. If users are inspired to learn more, they know where to go to find quality resources to help them learn about new features.  

More resources on expansion:

4. Advocacy

The advocacy stage is where users become brand advocates who actively engage with your community and recommend your product to others. These users complete the product-led growth flywheel as they introduce new users who one day may become advocates into the activation funnel.

product-led growth flywheel

Build communities, resources, and referral programs to make the most out of your brand advocates. Your goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to bring in more users to your product.

More resources on advocacy:

The 5 and 6-stage product adoption models

Traditionally, product adoption models had five or six stages. These models don’t necessarily do a good job of representing the current life cycle of a modern user. However, just because they’re out of date doesn't mean that you can't learn from them.

The traditional stages of product adoption are:

1. Awareness: Users learn about your product’s existence.
2. Interest: Users research your product, learning about its features.
3. Evaluation: Users look at the pros and cons of your product versus others on the market.
4. Trial: Users decide to give your product a try and sign up for a free trial, freemium service, etc.
5. Activation: Users reach their aha moment and use your product to get real value.
6. Adoption: Users make your product their habitual choice for whatever you do.

The only difference between the five- and six-stage models is that the activation stage is absent in the five-stage model.

The advantage of these traditional models is that they remind you of the importance of acquisition. However, acquisition is not adoption. It needs to work in concert with adoption stages, but they’re two different processes: acquisition is for bringing in new users, and adoption is for creating brand advocates. For this reason, we removed acquisition from our product adoption model.

The other problem with this traditional model is that it doesn’t go far enough. It abandons users just as they’re committing to your product. Instead, we advise product marketers to keep on investing time and resources into users until they become brand advocates and complete the product-led growth flywheel.

Learn more about what drives product-led growth

There is more to product-led growth than this article could ever outline. That’s why there’s a website specifically devoted to educating you on how to create sustainable growth through product-led strategies. Learn more at the Product-Led Growth Collective.

JUMPSTART USER ENGAGEMENT

Thousands of product-led businesses trust Appcues to:

  • Boost user engagement through in-app messaging
  • Increase feature adoption with segmentation
  • Improve retention by identifying opportunities
Charts and graphs


Author's picture
Ramli John
Director of Content at Appcues
Ramli John is the Director of Content at Appcues and author of the bestselling book Product-Led Onboarding. He’s also a PLG Coach at ProductLed, where he’s worked with Mixpanel, Microsoft, and more to accelerate their growth.
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