The No-Bullshit Guide To User Retention

5 minute read

The effectiveness of “growth hacking” is dwindling.

Over the past few years, retention tricks and snappy CTAs have provided sharp product managers and marketers some much-needed relief. With relatively little execution, they were able to spark the interest of prospects and engage existing users. But as the rest of the industry caught on, these hacks have become commonplace and less effective. 

When it comes to user retention, it's time to shift the focus from hacks to quality and usability. For that, you need to gain a deep understanding of your users and give them what they really want—an incredible user experience.

The happier your users are with the product, the longer they stick around, and the better your retention numbers are. Understanding how your users progress can help you know what action to take at each stage. Here are the four stages of retention that each new group of users should progress through.


For you to achieve the dharma of user retention (stage 4), you must get to know your users, meet and exceed their expectations of value, gather data, and iterate. Here's the ultimate no-bullshit guide to sustainable user retention.

Stage 1. Learn Your Users' Needs

Every product team thinks they know their user base—especially if they “are their own audience.” But you can't make important judgment calls based on a tiny sample size of who you think your users are. Be diligent about getting to know your actual users, so that you can make decisions for them, not for yourself.

Here's how to learn exactly who it is you're trying to retain and keep from churning.

Maintain Personal Relationships

Sales reps usually do an awesome job at getting to know the customer. While trying to pinpoint their business's problems, sales reps use small talk to get to know the user as a real person. They find out things like the size of their business, internal procedures, even how much the CEO likes Nicaraguan coffee.

But in the handoff to the product team, that invaluable information gets lost somewhere. That's why some startups are now assigning a retention specialist to every user. Their job is to keep the user happy and be their point person on any problems or questions they might have about your service. Even if you don't have the resources to hire dedicated retention teams, improving handoffs and documenting customers interactions can go a long way.

Send Surveys to Happy Customers

A few carefully timed surveys are integral to getting to know your users. But surveys can come across as self-serving, so you have to be extra careful in how you position yours and when you send it.

Here's how to manage surveys for users in different stages of their lifecycle:

  • Early-stage users (0-7 days): Personal emails sent to users who are engaged in the week after onboarding. Send a personal email asking your users how comfortable they are using your app and offer to answer any questions. Reps at even offer to set up a phone call to gather feedback and answer any questions.
user retention
  • Middle-stage users (8-90 days): As users grow to love your product, it's important to figure out why. But at such an early stage, users aren't yet invested enough in your product to spend time on surveys. Try offering a prize or entry into a drawing.
user retention auth0
  • Late-stage users (91+ days): Users who have been with your company for over a year should be on their way towards becoming advocates for your brand. Use NPS surveys to see whether they're reaching that point, and what it is about your app they love.
user retention nps

Practice All-hands Support

Interacting with the customers isn't just good for the customers—it's good for every person at your company. The more people in different roles that get face-time with real users, the more they will adopt a user-centric mentality. Product planning, dev rooms, and even all-hands meetings will include conversations about improving the user experience.

This is why video hosting startup Wistia makes every employee in their company work customer success. They call it all-hands support. It helps everyone work together to understand customer issues, and then keep users front-of-mind for future product developments.

Stage 2: Meet Expectations to Reduce Churn

Your marketing campaign is when you make all the promises. You advertise whom your product will benefit, what problems it will solve, and how useful it will be in the long-term. Once a prospect becomes a user, it's time to deliver.

While it might seem like all you have to do is create a great product, it actually means much more than that. You have to point users to the value, and constantly reinforce and add value throughout their lifecycle. Here's how.

Nail First-Time Onboarding Flow

User onboarding is the easiest and most effective way to fix a user retention problem. A bad onboarding flow will result in users getting frustrated, missing the value in your app, and ultimately churning. But a great onboarding flow gets users to recognize how vital your app is to their work.

But onboarding is a tricky beast. Overwhelm users with features and “helpful tips” and they won't even know where to begin. But give them too few details, and they'll be left in the dark. Here's how you can achieve a happy medium:

  • Pick one workflow. Think about your core value, and come up with a single workflow that you can guide your users through to see that value. Dropbox takes you through the process of uploading a single file and everything you can do with it (access it, share it, etc.).


user retention dropbox
  • Customize the experienceMost B2B products have several use-cases. Instead of having to pick just one onboarding workflow, create a different one for each buyer persona, and have them choose for themselves. Here's how blog comment hosting platform Disqus does it.
user retention disqus
  • Supplement with email. Email isn't to repeat, it's to supplement. Guide users back into the app where you can do the explaining in-context.
user retention trello

Set Expectations

Think about how annoying it is when an app you never use sends you push notifications announcing a new feature. Now think about how worrisome it is when you don't get a push notification after an Uber dropped you off at your destination. The difference is a matter of expectation.

In order to guide your users towards the value you promised, you have to set expectations for how and when you will reach out. Here are a few ways of doing that:

  • Tell them, flat out. Let them know the frequency of your outreach and the reason for it from the get-go. You can do this with your welcome email or your welcome page, but set expectations from day 1.
user retention zapier
  • Be consistent. Many apps hit their users with a welcome email, and onboarding in their first week, and then drop outreach until they want to advertise something. Keep your channels of communication open by sending weekly or monthly insights.
user retention crayon
  • Always deliver value. Irrelevance is the death of engagement. One irrelevant email earns you a spot in the spam folder. One annoying push, loses you the privilege of getting immediate customer attention. Use lifecycle emails to give users information that's valuable here and now.
user retention buffer

Overcome Feature Blindness

Feature blindness is a modern phenomenon where users are so accustomed to a constant flow of visual stimuli that they naturally ignore anything that isn't a core part of the product. This feels like a stab in the heart to your dev team that has worked tirelessly to make a product for those very users. Luckily, there's a cure.

Recommend features in the context where they're most necessary. That way you're addressing a need as it comes up, instead of when a user is focused on using other, more familiar features. Here's an example from HubSpot:

sidekick retention experiment

Instead of sending an email suggesting that the user reactivate Sidekick, HubSpot does this for users after periods of long inactivity, using a tooltip to reintroduce the feature. This way, users see how the feature would affect them in the context of their routine use. 

Stage 3: Go Above and Beyond To Increase LTV

If you've kept your promises and met expectations, it's time to surpass them. As YC founder Sam Altman says, it's better to have a small user base that loves your product, than a large user base that likes it. You can always grow your user base, but it's harder to go from like to love. While you still have a reasonably small user base, go out of your way to wow them, so that they never want to leave.

Here's how you can go above and beyond to increase your users' lifetime value.

Surprise and Delight

When you offer promotions to inactive users, or offer an upgrade to users right before they unsubscribe to your app, users quickly see this for the ill-disguised retention strategy it is. Instead, show appreciation for your users proactively, not reactively. Don't wait until they're on the brink of churning to throw some last-ditch attempts at them.

Surprise your users with “just because” upgrades or with beta-testing privileges. This will trigger a surprise reciprocity that will compel users to want to stick around. Zappos famously does this for all their customers. Even though they promise 3-4 day shipping on their website, they'll upgrade most customers to priority shipping, just to keep them enamored with the service.

user retention zappos

Have the Best Support Team

Having a responsive customer support team is great, but having a support team that leaves a lasting impression is significantly better. No one likes to email in a support question, chat with a bot, or bounce back and forth between various reps who have no idea how to help them. If your reps can provide an experience that isn't just helpful, but memorable, your users won't even think about churning.

Check out this experience from JackThreads that made such a positive impression on the customer that they circulated the conversation online:

user retention jill

Celebrate Successes

Unfortunately for us, users have much better things to think about than our apps. So they're rarely thinking about whether the product has been up to snuff. On the one hand, that might mean they're happy enough to stick around. But alternatively, they might one day question whether they actually need your product. Reinforce your app's value by celebrating your users' progress.

Use milestone or anniversary as a reason to reach out to your users and remind them why they're using your app in the first place.

user retention canva

Stage 4: Use Data to Optimize

Once you've gotten at least a portion of your user base to stick around, it's time to optimize. You want the journey to Aha! to be as short as possible, so you can win the users that make snappy judgments and don't stick out a steep learning curve.

You can do that by taking a deep dive into user behavior. You can learn what behaviors separate the lifers from those who churn, and what features are getting the most attention from long-time users. From there, you can work backwards, making laser-focused improvements in product, feature adoption, and onboarding.

Find the Sticky Stuff

Whether you have built-in analytics, or you choose to integrate an analytics platform, make sure you learn where users are spending the most time in your app. Then, ask yourself:

  1. Do my stickiest features tap into my product's core value. If yes, how do you get users actively engaging with those features faster? If no, you have a product problem. Rethink how you position your product and what problems it actually solves for the user.
  2. What makes these features sticky? Is it accessibility or is it functionality? If most users are taking advantage of your scheduling feature because it's the first thing they see, try positioning a core feature in a more visible spot. Is a relatively hidden feature getting a lot of attention? Then nudge more users towards it so it can make a bigger splash.

Many tools, such as Amplitude, even measure stickiness for you. That way you can focus on making retention-boosting adjustments, rather than gathering accurate data.

Look at Heatmaps to Find Friction

Heatmaps show you users' clicking and browsing habits. You can learn where users are looking, and where they're getting tripped up. Here are the most popular tools, and how to use them to find problem areas:

  • Crazy Egg: This is a great tool for websites. If you have an online app, you can see what UI elements are getting attention and which are getting overlooked. You can also see scroll patterns, mouse hovers, and clicks.
  • Appsee: This is a purely mobile tool. You can see touch heatmaps and analyze how users spend their time just before exiting. Collecting enough of this data can help you find points of friction, and adjust design accordingly. It's also super easy to integrate, only requiring a dev to drop in a single line of code.
user retention heatmap

Use Segmented Emails

For certain products, there is no catch-all solution to onboarding and feature adoption—nor does there need to be. Use a personalized approach for each of your different buyer personas. Clearbit managed this by segmenting their users based on their job title.

Using their own API, they used to send different onboarding emails to marketers, sales reps, and developers. Recognizing that they couldn't quickly engage all categories of users, they made three separate focused and relevant email campaigns, guiding to their respective Aha! moment.

Learn, Apply, Adapt

Resorting to retention hacks is only going to distract you from creating a quality experience and guiding your users to value. So cut the hacks and turn to thought-out strategy. Work on constantly getting to know your users and improving their experience with your app. Constantly improving, learning, and adapting is the only path to user retention and healthy growth.

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