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10 user and customer engagement strategies for leveling up in 2020

Engagement strategies are constantly evolving. Here are 10 tried-and-true ways to increase retention and delight users in 2020.
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Customer engagement is a goal that stretches across teams and metrics. It can be defined, at a high level, as the experiences and touch points that a customer has with your product, company, and brand. It is the relationship between your company and your customers, and is closely related to customer loyalty and retention.

In an interview with Hubspot, CRM expert Paul Greenberg explains:

Customer engagement is the ongoing interactions between company and customer, offered by the company, chosen by the customer.

Customer engagement—and the strategies companies use to achieve it—is evolving. In this article, we’ll go over the 10 most important customer engagement strategies for 2020, and how you can use them to delight your customers, improve UX, and reduce churn.

Customer engagement vs. user engagement

Customer engagement is sometimes referred to as user engagement, and their definitions are largely the same.

Companies using the term “customer engagement” typically embrace a high-touch relationship model. “User engagement,” on the other hand, is most often used by organizations leveraging a low-touch relationship model. Teams focused on customer engagement may invest more in in-person product training, for example, whereas teams focused on user engagement may invest more in their in-product user onboarding experience.

The difference between a high-touch and low-touch relationship model can be defined by the one-to-one vs. one-to-many approach of customer interaction. 

Customer engagement

  • Low-touch relationship model
  • Greater contract value per account
  • Product is more complex
  • Pay up-front to use the product

User engagement

  • High-touch relationship model
  • Lower contract value per account
  • Product is less complex
  • Free-to-paid usage of product

Users vs. customers

A user is a person who uses your product, often at no charge—for example, people using SaaS free trials, freemium services, and things like social media, email, and search tools. 

A customer, on the other hand, is a person (or a company) who pays to use your tool. They’re still a user (or group of users at a company), but they’ve become your customer because you've onboarded them successfully—they saw and understood the value of what your product can deliver. And now they want more.

During the onboarding process, user and customer needs can be quite different. That’s why we say that you shouldn’t onboard your users like customers.

But engagement extends beyond onboarding—it occurs throughout the user/customer lifetime. While the definitions above are great guidelines for understanding onboarding approaches, there is a lot of overlap between user and customer engagement strategies. It can be hard—and even counterproductive—to separate them, especially when talking about SaaS companies.

That’s because SaaS companies in particular are likely to take a more nuanced approach to engagement. Many SaaS businesses engage some customers with a high-touch relationship model, and others—most often those under a certain threshold of contract value—with a low-touch one.

In this article, we’ll cover engagement strategies for both approaches. 

Now, let’s dig into what we think are going to be the most important user and customer engagement strategies for 2020:

1. Empower CS to build great in-product experiences

You probably already know that in-app messaging is where it’s at when it comes to engaging customers in your product. 

But as a quick refresher: In-product or in-app messaging (through UI patterns like tooltips, modals, hotspots, slideouts, nps surveys, and checklists) is a highly effective way to onboard new users or to train them on a new feature. In-app messaging is so effective because it’s contextual—it’s a way to communicate with your users when and where it matters most. 

appcues webinar slideout announcement made with appcues

Appcues makes it easy (like, really easy) for companies to create in-app customer experiences and improve user engagement. Now, non-technical team members can build, iterate on, and modify in-app experiences. That means customer-facing teams can use their first-hand knowledge of customer needs to build better onboarding, offer self-service support, and collect customer feedback—without having to rely on dev cycles.

Learn how the Appcues CS team created 4 new customer touch points using Appcues.

2. Break down walls between product and marketing to deliver a truly omnichannel experience

Embrace the challenges and potential of an omnichannel experience. What is an omnichannel experience, exactly?

Hubspot explains:

[An] omni-channel experience is a multi-channel approach to marketing, selling, and serving customers in a way that creates an integrated and cohesive customer experience no matter how or where a customer reaches out.

Note that omnichannel ≠ multi-channel: You can engage your customers in every channel under the sun, but if these experiences aren’t cohesive and don’t work together seamlessly, they don’t add up to an omnichannel experience.

So how can you ensure that your customers get the same story across marketing and product channels? Break down the barriers between product and marketing. 

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in large organizations. A strong product marketing function can help facilitate better communication between the 2 teams, and create a more unified, cohesive vision for what the end-user experience should look like from start to finish.

3. Personalize the user experience

There are 2 main types of personalization: dynamic content—like adding a user’s first name to their dashboard—and event-driven automation—like choose-your-own-adventure self-segmentation.

We've called personalized onboarding "the best growth hack in the game."

But, we encourage you to go beyond just the first name tag. The best apps use personalization to tailor user experiences to the specific needs of their users. 

Duolingo is frequently cited as an example of personalized onboarding for a reason—they do an excellent job of removing the friction of learning a new language by directing new users through personalized onboarding funnels that are tailored to different levels of experience, ultimately making the app a great fit for a wider range of users.

duolingo mobile app screen why are you learning a language

This is a mobile screenshot of duolingo's mobile app segmenting users by allowing them to choose a beginner 

Of course, personalization shouldn’t stop after onboarding. The choices users make at one stage should inform their experiences at the next. 

Personalized UX = more relevant, useful, and delightful UX.

4. Invest in better analytics

Affordable and out-of-the-box analytics tools—like Mixpanel, Amplitude, and Heap—have made it easy to measure product engagement by customer.

With analytics tools like these, you can get visibility into customer engagement through product usage. You can run reports and build dashboards on all kinds of metrics, like which features are being used by which personas, what cohorts are likely to churn and when, and how far a new user gets before dropping off.

This is a cohort analysis chart example that show mobile and desktop traffic cohorts over 6 weeks. The cohorts are colored in blue and yellow.

These metrics can give you valuable insight into where your product is succeeding—and where it might be falling short. This data can also help you identify where you need to experiment or run a customer development process so users can get the most value out of your app.  

Try taking it beyond quantitative analytics, too. Marry this data with qualitative analytics to create a flywheel of continuous product improvement. First, use quantitative information like the reports above to focus attention on the biggest problems (and opportunities). Then "zoom in" to the user’s level through qualitative research by using tools like Fullstory to round out your understanding—and solve the problem.

5. Move your customer surveys in-app

Customer surveys like CES, CSAT, and NPS can be great temperature gauges for understanding the happiness of your customers. And moving these questionnaires into your app allows you to target exactly the right person at the right moment in time.

patientsky healthcare nps customer satisfaction csat survey
PatientSky used Appcues to gather customer feedback

Try asking for feedback right after a user achieves a certain workflow, or target it to a specific persona. This sort of targeting and segmentation means you're not sending email blasts asking the same people the same question repeatedly. And because they’re more contextual, in-app customer surveys give you better insights into the when and why behind each response.

6. Involve your power users

You have a base of highly engaged users that want to align themselves with your company to become your product champions. These are some of the most mutually beneficial relationships a company can have. Nurture them and you’ll both gain.

Involving power users is especially helpful during product launches. Give your product champions a sneak peek at your new product and ask them to help you spread the word with tweets, quotes, or re-blogs when you go live.

You can also engage your power users by asking them to participate in user tests. Get them involved early and incorporate feedback that you hear repeatedly. This is often done via a beta group, but why not pull a few out of the pile and spend a half hour on the phone watching them click around?

7. All hands support

Many SaaS companies are implementing a novel approach to customer support: They’re taking turns to make sure all employees—from developers to product managers—have a hand in supporting customers.

All hands support drives growth in many SaaS companies by keeping their entire team in touch with the personalities, pains, and wishes of their customers and free trial users.

Zapier says:

Effective all hands support focuses on making life better for your customers. But it can also cause a shift in how you and your team think about and build your company.

Better customer experience and a team-wide transformation? Sign us up!

To be clear, this doesn’t mean companies toss out their customer success department. Some companies find it advantageous to have a full-time support team that owns the process and use the broader team to contribute on a regular schedule.

Here at Appcues, we’ve baked a full week of support into our new employee onboarding. We call it “support week” and regularly hear from new teammates that the experience fast-tracked an understanding and empathy for our customers that would have normally taken months to acquire.

8. Have a practiced customer development process

No matter what stage your company is in, you should have a well-practiced process for customer development. Because however large you get, there are always feature requests that need to be scoped and customer pain points that need to be addressed.

Steven Blank lays out the process in his book, The Four Steps to Epiphany. It can be loosely summarized in this illustration:

This is an image of a customer development process illustration. It shows customer discovery and customer validation, with an arrow pointing from one to the other, showing that they are linked.

Running a customer development process helps you hypothesize and test which products will further engage your customers, so you can spend your time on the ideas that are going to work.  

9. Focus on improving expansion revenue 

It’s a lot easier to get more money from happy, paying customers than it is to close a new accounts. And it’s more cost-effective—it’s roughly 2X cheaper to upsell to an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one. 

And expansion revenue can help combat the inevitable effects of churn. In fact, expansion revenue can actually push your effective churn rate into the negatives.

That’s why expansion revenue is easily one of the most important levers for sustainable SaaS growth. For years now, ProfitWell has recommended that, for healthy SaaS business growth, at least 30% of your revenue should be expansion revenue. Make 2020 the year that you finally shift your goals from a model that narrowly focuses on net-new acquisition to a one that prioritizes expansion revenue.

Your bottom line will thank you:

[While] it takes most companies over a year to earn back the costs associated with acquiring new customers, it takes most companies around one quarter to earn back the costs associated with up-selling and expanding.

10. Ditch the funnel

This year, we saw companies in every vertical doubled down on their efforts to engage users through their product, first and foremost. That’s led to some big changes in the way we all think about our users and customers.

A product-led approach shifts the balance of power in favor of the user and upsets traditional ideas about what the customer lifecycle looks like. Leading with the product (versus sales or marketing outreach) means that the product experience begins earlier and plays a much larger role in the user journey as a whole. 

And this is changing the way we visualize the user journey itself, and the strategies teams use to affect it at every stage. Much more so than a traditional funnel model, a flywheel encourages companies to consider the user experience in its entirety—and understand its potential for compounding growth.

the appcues product led growth flywheel diagram shows the 4 stages of the user journey

The Product-Led Growth Flywheel is a framework for growing your business by investing in a product-led user experience. In the Product-Led Growth Flywheel, the goal is to focus company- and team-level strategy on optimizing the user experience to move users from one stage to the next—as more users become advocates, they drive more acquisition and growth increases exponentially.

In other words, it’s a way to grow your business faster by making your customers happier than ever.

Sounds a little too good to be true? Check out the interactive Product-Led Growth Flywheel here to learn more about it works.

Final thoughts

User/customer engagement is, at its core, about creating as many stellar channels and touchpoints as you can. The rewards for investing time and energy in improving engagement are real:  Highly-engaged customers are simply more likely to pay more, promote more, and be more loyal than less-engaged customers.

So, what strategies, channels, and touchpoints have worked for you? Tweet us @Appcues, and let us know!

[Editor's note: We've updated this list for 2020—hope you enjoyed it!]

Author's picture
Jackson Noel
Co-Founder and CEO at Appcues
Skip to section:

Skip to section:

Customer engagement is a goal that stretches across teams and metrics. It can be defined, at a high level, as the experiences and touch points that a customer has with your product, company, and brand. It is the relationship between your company and your customers, and is closely related to customer loyalty and retention.

In an interview with Hubspot, CRM expert Paul Greenberg explains:

Customer engagement is the ongoing interactions between company and customer, offered by the company, chosen by the customer.

Customer engagement—and the strategies companies use to achieve it—is evolving. In this article, we’ll go over the 10 most important customer engagement strategies for 2020, and how you can use them to delight your customers, improve UX, and reduce churn.

Customer engagement vs. user engagement

Customer engagement is sometimes referred to as user engagement, and their definitions are largely the same.

Companies using the term “customer engagement” typically embrace a high-touch relationship model. “User engagement,” on the other hand, is most often used by organizations leveraging a low-touch relationship model. Teams focused on customer engagement may invest more in in-person product training, for example, whereas teams focused on user engagement may invest more in their in-product user onboarding experience.

The difference between a high-touch and low-touch relationship model can be defined by the one-to-one vs. one-to-many approach of customer interaction. 

Customer engagement

  • Low-touch relationship model
  • Greater contract value per account
  • Product is more complex
  • Pay up-front to use the product

User engagement

  • High-touch relationship model
  • Lower contract value per account
  • Product is less complex
  • Free-to-paid usage of product

Users vs. customers

A user is a person who uses your product, often at no charge—for example, people using SaaS free trials, freemium services, and things like social media, email, and search tools. 

A customer, on the other hand, is a person (or a company) who pays to use your tool. They’re still a user (or group of users at a company), but they’ve become your customer because you've onboarded them successfully—they saw and understood the value of what your product can deliver. And now they want more.

During the onboarding process, user and customer needs can be quite different. That’s why we say that you shouldn’t onboard your users like customers.

But engagement extends beyond onboarding—it occurs throughout the user/customer lifetime. While the definitions above are great guidelines for understanding onboarding approaches, there is a lot of overlap between user and customer engagement strategies. It can be hard—and even counterproductive—to separate them, especially when talking about SaaS companies.

That’s because SaaS companies in particular are likely to take a more nuanced approach to engagement. Many SaaS businesses engage some customers with a high-touch relationship model, and others—most often those under a certain threshold of contract value—with a low-touch one.

In this article, we’ll cover engagement strategies for both approaches. 

Now, let’s dig into what we think are going to be the most important user and customer engagement strategies for 2020:

1. Empower CS to build great in-product experiences

You probably already know that in-app messaging is where it’s at when it comes to engaging customers in your product. 

But as a quick refresher: In-product or in-app messaging (through UI patterns like tooltips, modals, hotspots, slideouts, nps surveys, and checklists) is a highly effective way to onboard new users or to train them on a new feature. In-app messaging is so effective because it’s contextual—it’s a way to communicate with your users when and where it matters most. 

appcues webinar slideout announcement made with appcues

Appcues makes it easy (like, really easy) for companies to create in-app customer experiences and improve user engagement. Now, non-technical team members can build, iterate on, and modify in-app experiences. That means customer-facing teams can use their first-hand knowledge of customer needs to build better onboarding, offer self-service support, and collect customer feedback—without having to rely on dev cycles.

Learn how the Appcues CS team created 4 new customer touch points using Appcues.

2. Break down walls between product and marketing to deliver a truly omnichannel experience

Embrace the challenges and potential of an omnichannel experience. What is an omnichannel experience, exactly?

Hubspot explains:

[An] omni-channel experience is a multi-channel approach to marketing, selling, and serving customers in a way that creates an integrated and cohesive customer experience no matter how or where a customer reaches out.

Note that omnichannel ≠ multi-channel: You can engage your customers in every channel under the sun, but if these experiences aren’t cohesive and don’t work together seamlessly, they don’t add up to an omnichannel experience.

So how can you ensure that your customers get the same story across marketing and product channels? Break down the barriers between product and marketing. 

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in large organizations. A strong product marketing function can help facilitate better communication between the 2 teams, and create a more unified, cohesive vision for what the end-user experience should look like from start to finish.

3. Personalize the user experience

There are 2 main types of personalization: dynamic content—like adding a user’s first name to their dashboard—and event-driven automation—like choose-your-own-adventure self-segmentation.

We've called personalized onboarding "the best growth hack in the game."

But, we encourage you to go beyond just the first name tag. The best apps use personalization to tailor user experiences to the specific needs of their users. 

Duolingo is frequently cited as an example of personalized onboarding for a reason—they do an excellent job of removing the friction of learning a new language by directing new users through personalized onboarding funnels that are tailored to different levels of experience, ultimately making the app a great fit for a wider range of users.

duolingo mobile app screen why are you learning a language

This is a mobile screenshot of duolingo's mobile app segmenting users by allowing them to choose a beginner 

Of course, personalization shouldn’t stop after onboarding. The choices users make at one stage should inform their experiences at the next. 

Personalized UX = more relevant, useful, and delightful UX.

4. Invest in better analytics

Affordable and out-of-the-box analytics tools—like Mixpanel, Amplitude, and Heap—have made it easy to measure product engagement by customer.

With analytics tools like these, you can get visibility into customer engagement through product usage. You can run reports and build dashboards on all kinds of metrics, like which features are being used by which personas, what cohorts are likely to churn and when, and how far a new user gets before dropping off.

This is a cohort analysis chart example that show mobile and desktop traffic cohorts over 6 weeks. The cohorts are colored in blue and yellow.

These metrics can give you valuable insight into where your product is succeeding—and where it might be falling short. This data can also help you identify where you need to experiment or run a customer development process so users can get the most value out of your app.  

Try taking it beyond quantitative analytics, too. Marry this data with qualitative analytics to create a flywheel of continuous product improvement. First, use quantitative information like the reports above to focus attention on the biggest problems (and opportunities). Then "zoom in" to the user’s level through qualitative research by using tools like Fullstory to round out your understanding—and solve the problem.

5. Move your customer surveys in-app

Customer surveys like CES, CSAT, and NPS can be great temperature gauges for understanding the happiness of your customers. And moving these questionnaires into your app allows you to target exactly the right person at the right moment in time.

patientsky healthcare nps customer satisfaction csat survey
PatientSky used Appcues to gather customer feedback

Try asking for feedback right after a user achieves a certain workflow, or target it to a specific persona. This sort of targeting and segmentation means you're not sending email blasts asking the same people the same question repeatedly. And because they’re more contextual, in-app customer surveys give you better insights into the when and why behind each response.

6. Involve your power users

You have a base of highly engaged users that want to align themselves with your company to become your product champions. These are some of the most mutually beneficial relationships a company can have. Nurture them and you’ll both gain.

Involving power users is especially helpful during product launches. Give your product champions a sneak peek at your new product and ask them to help you spread the word with tweets, quotes, or re-blogs when you go live.

You can also engage your power users by asking them to participate in user tests. Get them involved early and incorporate feedback that you hear repeatedly. This is often done via a beta group, but why not pull a few out of the pile and spend a half hour on the phone watching them click around?

7. All hands support

Many SaaS companies are implementing a novel approach to customer support: They’re taking turns to make sure all employees—from developers to product managers—have a hand in supporting customers.

All hands support drives growth in many SaaS companies by keeping their entire team in touch with the personalities, pains, and wishes of their customers and free trial users.

Zapier says:

Effective all hands support focuses on making life better for your customers. But it can also cause a shift in how you and your team think about and build your company.

Better customer experience and a team-wide transformation? Sign us up!

To be clear, this doesn’t mean companies toss out their customer success department. Some companies find it advantageous to have a full-time support team that owns the process and use the broader team to contribute on a regular schedule.

Here at Appcues, we’ve baked a full week of support into our new employee onboarding. We call it “support week” and regularly hear from new teammates that the experience fast-tracked an understanding and empathy for our customers that would have normally taken months to acquire.

8. Have a practiced customer development process

No matter what stage your company is in, you should have a well-practiced process for customer development. Because however large you get, there are always feature requests that need to be scoped and customer pain points that need to be addressed.

Steven Blank lays out the process in his book, The Four Steps to Epiphany. It can be loosely summarized in this illustration:

This is an image of a customer development process illustration. It shows customer discovery and customer validation, with an arrow pointing from one to the other, showing that they are linked.

Running a customer development process helps you hypothesize and test which products will further engage your customers, so you can spend your time on the ideas that are going to work.  

9. Focus on improving expansion revenue 

It’s a lot easier to get more money from happy, paying customers than it is to close a new accounts. And it’s more cost-effective—it’s roughly 2X cheaper to upsell to an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one. 

And expansion revenue can help combat the inevitable effects of churn. In fact, expansion revenue can actually push your effective churn rate into the negatives.

That’s why expansion revenue is easily one of the most important levers for sustainable SaaS growth. For years now, ProfitWell has recommended that, for healthy SaaS business growth, at least 30% of your revenue should be expansion revenue. Make 2020 the year that you finally shift your goals from a model that narrowly focuses on net-new acquisition to a one that prioritizes expansion revenue.

Your bottom line will thank you:

[While] it takes most companies over a year to earn back the costs associated with acquiring new customers, it takes most companies around one quarter to earn back the costs associated with up-selling and expanding.

10. Ditch the funnel

This year, we saw companies in every vertical doubled down on their efforts to engage users through their product, first and foremost. That’s led to some big changes in the way we all think about our users and customers.

A product-led approach shifts the balance of power in favor of the user and upsets traditional ideas about what the customer lifecycle looks like. Leading with the product (versus sales or marketing outreach) means that the product experience begins earlier and plays a much larger role in the user journey as a whole. 

And this is changing the way we visualize the user journey itself, and the strategies teams use to affect it at every stage. Much more so than a traditional funnel model, a flywheel encourages companies to consider the user experience in its entirety—and understand its potential for compounding growth.

the appcues product led growth flywheel diagram shows the 4 stages of the user journey

The Product-Led Growth Flywheel is a framework for growing your business by investing in a product-led user experience. In the Product-Led Growth Flywheel, the goal is to focus company- and team-level strategy on optimizing the user experience to move users from one stage to the next—as more users become advocates, they drive more acquisition and growth increases exponentially.

In other words, it’s a way to grow your business faster by making your customers happier than ever.

Sounds a little too good to be true? Check out the interactive Product-Led Growth Flywheel here to learn more about it works.

Final thoughts

User/customer engagement is, at its core, about creating as many stellar channels and touchpoints as you can. The rewards for investing time and energy in improving engagement are real:  Highly-engaged customers are simply more likely to pay more, promote more, and be more loyal than less-engaged customers.

So, what strategies, channels, and touchpoints have worked for you? Tweet us @Appcues, and let us know!

[Editor's note: We've updated this list for 2020—hope you enjoyed it!]

Author's picture
Jackson Noel
Co-Founder and CEO at Appcues
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