A Guide to Getting Started with In-App Messaging

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Sales and marketing teams have long relied on the power of lifecycle messaging to get more and more users through the door. Beautiful, personalized landing pages and emails are the norm, not the exception.

Lifecycle messaging has increasingly expanded into the product, and for good reason. As software experiences get better and better, users have little to no tolerance for clunky interfaces and unclear product messaging.

A deliberate in-app messaging campaign is the easiest way to quell frustrations and harnesses the power of contextual, personalized messaging where and when it matters most.

What are in-app messages?

In-app messages are a direct line of communication between you and your customers. As their name implies, they appear within the product experience and can come in several patterns, including chat and notification beacons.

Like any other channel (email, push notifications, phone), in-app messages have to be relevant and meaningful or users will dismiss them as spam.

It’s easy to install messaging software and reach out to customers in isolated bursts. The harder part is incorporating the whole user journey and ensuring value delivery at the highest impact moments.

For beginners who are just getting started with in-app messaging, a simple but intentional campaign can provide just the right nudge across the major steps that a typical SaaS user goes through:

  • ‍New user onboarding
  • Free trial conversion
  • Long-term engagement
  • Retention and growth

Here’s how to plan and design messages that can move the needle at each step.

Welcome and activation messages for new user onboarding

User onboarding is a process that helps users achieve value with a product as quickly as possible. It looks different from product to product—some products, like Canva, use persona-based paths to steer users to the right features, while others, like Google’s suite of products, use guided product walkthroughs to show a bird’s eye view of best features.

Helping users achieve value requires a give-and-take. Users must perform one or more actions in your product before you can deliver value. The process of onboarding then has to 1) welcome users and make them feel confident that they made the right decision and 2) urge users to continue on and take meaningful actions.

Here’s how Pinterest expertly does both in one swoop:

The message quickly welcomes users and gives them a single, clear action to take. As users explore the product, Pinterest’s onboarding flow continues to encourage interaction with Pins, explain the product vernacular, and make exploration fun.

Free trial or freemium prompts for conversion

Many SaaS products have a free trial or a freemium product, and onboarding can happen long before someone pays for the product. From a user’s perspective, this is great because they can experience value before forking over their credit card number.

From a product side, relentless proof of value has to be demonstrated alongside continuous soft sells.

Slack’s in-app messages for their paid plans are seamless and, at 30% freemium to paid conversion rate, crazy effective. This is one of the first prompts that users see once their team hits the searchable 10k message limit for free plans.

Similar messages appear as users navigate through the product and take relevant actions, like browsing through channels and using search.

Slack does an excellent job of showing these upgrade prompts in the right places and at the right times. Each message has slightly different copy that fits the context and is not intrusive to users who would prefer to stay on the freemium plan.

By the time that teams decide to pay for Slack, they are convinced of the product’s value, which is much more effective for long-term retention than the reverse.

Lifecycle nudges for deeper engagement

It’s never too early to start sowing the seeds of long-term engagement. Once users complete core actions and understand the product’s value, help them stay successful with lifecycle nudges.

The all-important “aha! moment” is a worthy goal post for onboarding, but it can take a series of wins before your product becomes truly integral to your customers.

Quora’s in-app messages contain timely lifecycle nudges that organically take users from newbie to power users. As users engage more and more with the platform, Quora shows different embedded messages on different pages. Each message asks users to perform just one action, but cumulatively, it’s clear that Quora is bent on getting users addicted.

Early on, Quora displays a progress bar that’s never quite full. This message encourages deeper personalization and exploration:

Quora then encourages users to integrate the platform with other social media sites:

And soon afterwards, Quora gives users even more control and influence in how they want to shape the platform:

The campaign is brilliant. Not only is there a never-ending feed of content in Quora, but there’s also a never-ending feed of things to do to get more out of the product.

Incentives for power usage and growth

Users who get regular value out of your product can still benefit from in-app messages. With the ease of switching in SaaS, even the most active of users are just a few clicks away from churning. Constant value delivery is necessary to keeping customers happy.

There’s where growth techniques that involve referrals, virality, and upselling come into play.

15five uses hotspots throughout their product experience to subtly remind administrators that there’s more on a higher tier plan. These messages are super contextual—and since 15five aims to help managers connect better to their team, putting these value propositions alongside individuals sends a personal message.

What’s so great about these upsell prompts is that users see exactly where and how the higher tier plan makes a difference. It’s much more powerful than asking users to do side-by-side feature comparison shopping.

Airbnb also uses in-app messages and notifications to draw attention to its referral program. Referral programs give users monetary value, and if successful, an acquisition stream that has a higher chance of being successful with the product.

Here’s an example of an embedded message in the Airbnb dashboard:

Subtle UX patterns are best for encouraging upsells and referrals; they’re not core actions but they can certainly enhance the experience a customer has, especially if the incentive is enticing.

Continue building your in-app messaging knowledge

All of your users—from new converters to power users—can have better experiences with quality in app messages. And to keep getting better at helping these users, you're going to be building and iterating your in app messages throughout your product's lifetime. To aid in your continued learning, we created a list of the top resources on in app messaging. We've pulled together the best advice and strategies based on experiences with products of all shapes and sizes—from hot consumer apps like Facebook and Spotify, to full-fledged enterprise products like Dropbox and HubSpot. Below, you'll find further reading on:

  • In app messaging best practices from the pros
  • How to use in app messaging to run growth experiments
  • How to use in app messaging for product updates

Bookmark these resources, study them, and share them with your team to start creating better product experiences for your users.

In-app messaging best practices from the pros

Successful in app messaging is all about execution. If you don't get the right message with the right purpose to the right person at the right time, it doesn't matter what your intention was. But with all of those moving parts, how do you know what really works in practice? Take notes on how these companies nail the execution. They're in the trenches testing and learning what works best for the people who are actually using their apps. And even though every product is different, these best practices hit on principles that can be applied to almost any SaaS company.

  • 9 In-App Messaging Best Practices: This guide pulls examples of outstanding in app messages from several different SaaS companies and breaks down the high-level ideas behind why they're so effective. This list of best practices covers a wide range of material from segmenting users, maintaining brand consistency, and using in app messages to connect different channels.
  • The Dos and Don'ts of In-App Notifications: As this article points out, the 2-3 seconds in which a user redirects their attention to a notification can do more harm than good if the notification isn't well-planned. Here, check out 3 examples of in app messaging mistakes, along with tips on how to avoid them.
  • The 10 Best In-App Messaging Examples That Engage Users and Drive Actions: A good in app message should inspire a user to take action. This is critical to your business because higher activation and engagement means more loyal customers. This guide breaks down ten examples of in app messages that inspire action from real companies.
  • How Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn Use Tooltips for Feature Discovery: When done correctly, in app messages can delight users by showing them when and how to use certain features. If you create these delightful moments of discovery, you'll help users learn how to use your tool and make them happier users. Check out how Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all use in app messages to build these moments into their products.

How to use in-app messaging to run growth experiments

Once you know the tactics that work really well for other companies' in app messages, you have to apply them to your unique product. That means running tests to see what really resonates with your users so that you can optimize your copy, design, and timing. This is an ongoing and iterative process—you can optimize your in app messages at any point in your company's journey. Whether you're just getting started creating your first in app messages or you're on your 50th iteration, you can always find ways to move the needle a little bit more. Check out these experiments and case studies for ideas on how to take action.

  • Why Product Marketing Managers Can Run More Growth Experiments with In-App Messaging: It used to be difficult for product marketing managers to implement in app messages and measure the results. Now, it's easier to set up than a blog post or email, and you can easily use analytics tools to measure the results. This guide outlines how and why PMMs can start running more experiments with in app messages—now more than ever.
  • We Implemented This One In-App Message and Increased Sales Demos by 50%: At Appcues, we dogfood our own product a lot, and we love helping you guys have the same success that we do. For instance, with just one in app message, we were able to increase our monthly volume of sales demos by 50%. Here's a look at what we did, and how you can do the same.
  • How to Earn More In-App Revenue, Right Now: Great in app messages help increase activation and build happy and successful customer bases. This also translates to more paying customers. Here's a three-step guide for optimizing your in-app messages to drive conversions and boost revenue.

How to use in-app messaging for product updates

In app messages can be really useful for delivering tooltips during user onboarding. But they're also critical later on in a user's lifetime—they can be really effective for announcing product updates and feature releases. But you have to tread carefully here. Product updates are tricky because you want to inform your users of the new things that your team has been working on without annoying them or giving them extra work. Check out these resources from SaaS experts on how to use in-app messaging for product updates that excite your users just as much as they excite your team.

  • How to Nail In-App Messaging for Feature Releases: Apps that communicate via in app messages have a 2-3.5x higher retention rate. Customers do want to know the latest updates on your product—as long as they're relevant to the specific users and help them accomplish specific goals. Here, check out our process for building a repeatable messaging strategy around in app feature releases.
  • How to Announce Product Updates: Guest Post by Hiten Shah: As a SaaS founder and entrepreneur several times over, Hiten Shah has developed a strong stance on caring about your customers. Sending too many irrelevant or poorly timed messages around product updates is a quick way to alienate those customers and lose their trust. Here, Hiten uses his longstanding SaaS experience to explain the dos and don'ts of product update announcements.

A little planning goes a long way

Starting a new in-app messaging campaign is a daunting process, but the upfront coordination can make a big difference in how users receive your messages. Unlike extraneous channels of communication, users can’t really dismiss in-app messages without dismissing part of the product experience.

Well-timed and well-crafted messages can act as small boosters when user engagement lulls. Start with a few easy-to-identify but high-impact areas for improvement, and experiment along the way.

Julia likes researching and learning about all things software. She likes talking user psychology and UX Design.