Done correctly, in-app messaging relieves user frustrations and delivers contextual, personalized messaging where and when it matters most.
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.
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 the name implies, users see them while engaging with your web or mobile app.
In-app messages are integrated into the entire app experience, so users don’t have to opt in to view them. Because they’re hard to ignore, in-app messages are a valuable addition to your user engagement strategy.
There are several different ways to display in-app messages to users. Here are a few examples to get the wheels turning...
Product tours educate new users about the functionality of your app while highlighting useful features.
Banners, tooltips, and modals can notify users of product updates, provide upsell prompts, encourage referrals, and more.
Chats give users the opportunity to get real-time assistance and quick access to information.
Product notes are often used to announce new feature releases, bug fixes, and product improvements. They could arrive as simple pop-up modals in web apps or full-screen experiences in mobile apps.
Splash screens or pagesare displayed for just a few seconds before users get to the home screen of a product. They’re often used to keep users up to date or promote something new and shiny.
No matter which type of in-app message you choose to reach your audience, there are tried-and-true practices you can use to make each message effective.
5 best practices for in-app messaging
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 is more challenging but worthwhile.
Like any other messaging channel (email, push notifications, voice, SMS messages), in-app messages should be relevant and meaningful. Otherwise, your users will dismiss them as spam. Follow these tips to design thoughtful in-app messaging that moves the needle at each step.
Use concise language
The whole point of in-app messaging is getting the user’s attention (without being annoying). The best way to do that is to keep things simple. When crafting in-app messages, write copy that gets to your main point quickly. Boil down your overall message into simple points and tell users only what they absolutely need to know to engage with your product at that moment. The less text users have to sift through, the more they’re able to focus on the purpose of your message.
Personalize your messages
It wouldn’t make much sense to take a power user through an onboarding walkthrough or display an upsell prompt to a premium subscriber. In both of those scenarios, the messages aren’t relevant to the audience.
If you’re looking for a way to deliver personalized messages to your users, you’ve got to get into some segmentation. Group your customers into segments, and send each group the messages most relevant to them.
Time each message appropriately
Communicating important information to users at the wrong time is almost as bad as never reaching out to them at all. Make sure that your in-app messages appear at a time that flows well with the user’s experience.
For example, you could introduce a new feature that you want users to explore on your app’s home screen, as soon as the user logs in to your app. Presenting the information before or after users dive deep into your product won’t interrupt them, whereas disrupting them mid-flow might cause frustration.
It’s okay to send messages in the middle of a user’s experience, but only to offer assistance. For instance, you could display a subtle tooltip when users explore your latest feature to give them some pointers on how to best utilize it. That kind of in-app message serves to alleviate any potential frustration with your product.
Create a clear call-to-action
After educating your users about your product in your message, end with a call-to-action (CTA) that lets them know what their next step should be. Clear CTAs not only tell users what actions you want them to take, but they also give users an opportunity to later re-engage with the feature or product tour you announced in your message.
In the following example, the CTA tells users that they can learn more about the latest feature in the Settings tab. Anyone who wishes to further explore that feature later will know exactly where to find it.
Get feedback from your users
In-app messages aren’t just a way for you to share updates. You can use them to get some intel from your customers, too. For example, if you want to see how users feel about your product’s mobile experience, you could display a quick survey within a modal as users leave your app, asking them to rate their experience.
Because in-app messages are difficult to ignore, you’re likely to get a better response rate to a survey presented in your app than one that’s delivered to customers via another channel (looking at you, email).
4 in-app messaging use cases
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.
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 Workspace, use guided product walkthroughs to show a bird’s-eye view of the best features.
Your user onboarding should accomplish two things:
It should welcome users and make them feel confident that they made the right decision by choosing your product.
It should urge users to continue on to the next steps and take meaningful actions.
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.
This is one of the first prompts that users see once their team hits the 10k searchable 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:
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. The all-important aha moment is a worthy goal post for user onboarding, but it often takes a series of subsequent wins before customers consider your product truly indispensable.
Once users complete core actions and understand your product’s value, you can help them stay successful (and loyal!) with lifecycle nudges.
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. Most users will likely want to fill in the rest of the progress bar and discover some top-notch answers from the community. So Quora uses a message to let users know that updating their interests will give them access to more personalized content:
Quora then prompts users to integrate the platform with other social media sites:
And soon afterward, Quora gives users even more control and influence over how they shape the platform to their needs by inviting them to take questions from their followers:
This messaging campaign is brilliant. The in-app messages create the sense that there is never-ending value to be gleaned from the product.
In-app messaging for power usage and growth
Regular users of 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 app 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 into a slideshow on its homepage. The result is attention-grabbing without interfering with the user's browsing experience:
Caviar even went a step further, allowing users to minimize the slideshow in favor of a simple but effective banner:
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 messaging can improve the user’s app experience at every stage of 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!
In-app messaging tips from the pros
Take notes on how the companies in these articles nail their in-app messaging. 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:
The dos and don'ts of in-app notifications: The two to three 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. This article covers three examples of in-app messaging mistakes, along with tips on how to avoid them.
6 highly effective ways to drive feature adoption using tooltips: When done correctly, in-app messages can delight users by showing them when and how to use certain features. Check out how companies like GitHub, LinkedIn, and HubSpot use in-app messages to build these moments of discovery and, subsequently, adoption 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 based on user feedback. This is an ongoing and iterative process—you can optimize your in-app messages at any point in your company's journey and should ideally revisit your messaging as your product matures.
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 marketers to implement in-app messages and run tests to see what worked. Now, creating in-app messages is easier to set up than a blog post or email, and you can easily use analytics tools to measure results. This guide outlines how and why PMMs should start running more experiments with in-app messages.
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 marketing strategy 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 want 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:
Hiten Shah on how to announce product updates: 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 company 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 there’s a lull in user engagement or even transform the entire user journey. Start by identifying a few high-impact areas for improvement and experiment along the way.