A Guide to Getting Started With In-App Messaging

Written by: Julia Chen Julia Chen 

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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:

pinterest welcome message

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.

slack in-app-message prompt

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

slack upgrade in-app messageslack-in-app-message-about-message-count.pngSlack_search_limits_.png

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 progress bar

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

quora facebook integration message

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

quora-engagement-message.png

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.

15Five Upselling Prompt Tooltip

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:

airbnb embed

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.

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.

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