Customer Experience

A Beginner's Guide to In-App Messaging

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Sales and marketing teams have long recognized the power of lifecycle messaging to get users through the door. Beautiful, personalized landing pages and emails are now the norm, rather than the exception.

That messaging has increasingly expanded into the product itself—and for good reason: As high-quality software experiences become more and more common, users have little tolerance for clunky interfaces and unclear product messaging (see: #badUX).

When done right, in-app messaging can quell user frustrations and harness the power of contextual, personalized messaging where and when it matters most.

What is in-app messaging?

In-app (or in-product) 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 should be relevant and meaningful. Otherwise, your users will dismiss them as spam.

It’s easy to install messaging software and reach out to customers in isolated bursts. Incorporating messaging throughout the entire user journey and ensuring value delivery at the highest-impact moments can feel like a bigger challenge.

If you're just getting started with in-app messaging, aim for a simple but intentional campaign that addresses the major steps that your users go through as they interact with your product. For a typical SaaS user, these are:

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

Here’s how to plan and design in-app messaging to move the needle at each step:

In-app messaging for new user onboarding

User onboarding is a process that helps users receive value from 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 G Suite, 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 within your product before you can deliver value. Your user onboarding should accomplish two things: First, it should welcome users and make them feel confident that they made the right decision by choosing your product; second, it should urge users to continue on to the next steps and take meaningful actions.

Here’s an example of how Basecamp accomplishes both through in-app messaging:

basecamp uses in-app messaging to welcome users and make user onboarding more enjoyable.

The user is greeted with a simple, informative welcome message and a brief product walkthrough. By keeping the walkthrough focused on a few critical tasks, Basecamp ensures that adoption is fast and easy instead of overwhelming. 

The conversational tone and cheerful logo make the experience—which could otherwise have been tedious—positive and memorable for the right reasons.

In-app messaging for free trial and freemium conversion

Many SaaS companies offer a free trial or freemium version of their product, meaning user onboarding can happen long before someone forks over their credit card information.

There are many benefits to a trial or freemium model—for users especially, as it allows them to experience value before making a financial commitment—but there are challenges inherent in the approach as well.

From a product side, for instance, it means that relentless proof of value has to be demonstrated right out of the gate and alongside continuous soft sells.

Slack uses in-app messaging to encourage users to upgrade to a paid plan. This messaging is seamless—and, at a 30% freemium to paid conversion rate, crazy effective. This is one of the first prompts that users see once their team hits the 10k searchable message limit for free plans:

in-app or in-product messaging can be used to help boost conversion rates. Slack uses in-app messaging to encourage users to upgrade from freemium to paid.

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

slack uses in-app messaging to get users to upgrade to its paid version. some features are restricted to freemium users

Timing is everything, and Slack does an excellent job of showing these upgrade prompts in the right places and at the right times. The result manages to be both persuasive to the users who are ready to upgrade, and unobtrusive to those who aren't.

In-app messaging for long-term engagement

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

The all-important aha moment is a worthy goal post for user onboarding, but it often takes a series of wins before customers consider your product truly indispensable.

Quora uses in-app messaging to organically guide newbies toward power user status. As user engagement ramps up, the messaging changes. Each message asks users to perform just one action, but cumulatively, it’s clear that Quora is bent on getting its users addicted.

Early on in the user journey, Quora displays a progress bar that’s never quite full, encouraging users toward deeper personalization and exploration:

in app messaging can boost long-term and lifecycle engagement. quora uses in app messages to guide users through their product

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

in app messages can help create power users by offering nudges throghout the user lifetime

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

quora uses a series of in app messages to keep users engaged. this in app message prompts users to customize thier experience

The campaign is brilliant. Not only is there a never-ending feed of content available on Quora, but the in-app messages create the sense that there is also never-ending value to be gleaned from the product itself.

In-app messaging for power usage and growth

Users who get regular value from your product can still benefit from thoughtful in-app messaging. 

With an ever-growing list of quality SaaS products on the market, even the most active user is just a few clicks away from churning. Constant value delivery is necessary to keep your customers happy.

Referral programs can be a great way to engage regular users, increase customer loyalty and grow your user base. Caviar cleverly integrated a referral prompt it into a slideshow on their homepage; the result is attention-grabbing without interfering with the user's browsing experience:

caviar uses a highly visual slide show to grab user attention and generate referrals

Caviar even went a step further, allowing users to minimize the slideshow in favor of a simple but effective banner:

caviar uses in-app messaging to encourage user referrals. the ux patterns are subtle but effective.

Upsells and referrals are often best served by subtle UX patterns; these are not core actions, and you'll achieve better results with unobtrusive but enticing messaging, rather than flashy modals that might interrupt a user's workflow.

In-app messaging resources for continued learning

Quality in-app messaging can improve user experiences at every stage of your the user journey. And because your product is constantly evolving, you're going to be building and iterating your messages throughout your product's lifetime.

We've created a list of resources to help you dive deeper and continue learning. Bookmark them, study them, and share them with your team!

Below, you'll find further reading on:

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

In-app messaging best practices from the pros

Successful in-app messaging is all about the execution. If you don't get the right message with the right purpose to the right person at the right time, in-app messaging stops being effective and can even hinder your goals. 

With all of those moving parts, how do you know what really works in practice? 

Take notes on how the companies in these articles nail the execution. They're in the trenches, testing and learning and iterating on what works best for their users. 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, including segmenting users, maintaining brand consistency, and using in-app messages to connect different channels.
  • The Dos and Don'ts of In-App Notifications: The 2 to 3 seconds in which a user redirects their attention to a notification can do more harm than good if the notification isn't well thought out. Here are 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 users to take action. This guide breaks down ten examples of in-app messages from real companies that inspire action.
  • 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. Check out how Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all use in-app messages to build these moments of discovery into their products.

How to use in-app messaging for growth experiments

Once you know what tactics work for other companies, you'll need to find out what works within the context of your own 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 and will ideally revisit your messaging as your product matures. 

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 should start running more experiments with in-app messages.
  • 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 others achieve the same success. 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: Good in-app messages increase activation and build happy, successful, and lucrative customer bases. Here's a three-step guide for optimizing your in-app messaging to drive conversions and boost revenue.

How to use in-app messaging for product updates

Announcing product updates can be tricky: On the one hand, you want to inform your users of the new features that your team has been working on; on the other, you don't wand to annoy them or give them extra work.

Check out these resources from SaaS experts on how to use in-app messaging for product updates that will excite your users just as much as they excite your team:

  • How to Nail In-App Messaging for Feature Releases: Customers do want to know the latest updates on your product—as long as they're relevant 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: Sending too many irrelevant or poorly timed messages around product updates is a quick way to alienate your customers and lose their trust. Hiten Shah, a SaaS founder and entrepreneur several times over, explains the dos and don'ts of product update announcements.

A little planning goes a long way

Getting started with in-app messaging—or overhauling your existing campaign—can be a daunting process. But a little coordination upfront can make a big difference in how users receive and respond to your messages.

Well-timed and well-crafted messages can act as boosters when user engagement lulls, or even transform the entire user journey. Start by identifying a few high-impact areas for improvement, and experiment along the way.

Katryna is the content marketing manager at Appcues. She's a Boston startup veteran with a passion for good storytelling and engaging content. Her non-Appcues time is spent traveling to strange new places, befriending street cats, and baking elaborate pies.