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Understanding The Power of Story To Build a Product That Sticks

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In 2010 I was visiting a friend at Twitter and got introduced to Josh Elman who had recently been hired to help improve Twitter’s onboarding experience.

What I learned that day forever changed my thoughts on how I look at building product.

Even though I had studied marketing and all aspects of viral growth, I had never heard anyone explain it to me in this context.

Here’s what happened…

At first I assumed his goal was growth.

I thought he must be designing some new viral flows to get users to connect social networks or upload their address book to provide opportunities to message new users to grow…

…but he said he wasn’t.

Really? Then what was the plan?

Josh started explaining his thinking around the importance of messaging, sign up actions and the sequences he was going to use to tell Twitter’s product story.

He showed me how something as small as asking a user to connect a social network or address book, told a story of Twitter being “just another social network… and they already had Facebook – so they didn’t need a new one – nor was that really what Twitter was about.”

What he explained was that Twitter had an activation problem.

Some users thought it was about sharing their breakfast, where others thought it only provided value if you posted a status update.

That was a huge issue for Twitter’s mainstream adoption.

If you think back to your first experiences with Twitter – not when you signed up, but when you actually started using it – it’s very likely that someone sat you down and explained why it was so cool.

Without that, it was very unlikely someone new would actually stick around.

That had to change.

What Josh explained was that Twitter’s core value was its ability to provide users a way to curate and consume interesting content (status updates) from both celebrities, news outlets and friends.

Posting a tweet was actually a secondary thing.

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Something as simple as changing the copy on the home page (Promise), the sequence Twitter brought new users through to setup their account (Onboarding), and getting them to follow high quality Twitter users for their content (Core Value) would increase activation and in return improve their growth.

Of course, right?

My mind was blown.

To better understand that point, let’s talk about what happens in the mind of a user when they sign up for a new product.

Related: Building a Startup Growth Engine & Using Growth Stacking To Improve Your Product Marketing

What actually happens when a user signs up?

After a new visitor goes to your site, signs up and uses your product for the first time, they create a mental movie for the value it can bring to their – or a friend’s life.

I call this whole process “creating the Product Story.”

Being extremely deliberate in extracting this from your product – and refining your product’s story – is a major piece to product growth.

If you want, you can easily walk through Twitter’s onboarding to see it for yourself.

3 Pieces Of The Story

When I think of a product and the story it tells,  I like to break it down into a few major components:

Product Promise: This is every place you mention the product and how you explain it. It’s the product’s Promise. This includes advertising, podcast interviews, blog posts and most importantly, the copy on your home page. It’s what sets up the expectation for the user and what they think will happen (hat tipped to Sean Ellis for teaching me this).

User Onboarding: This includes the setup steps required to sign up, the tutorial you might show a user to get oriented and the mechanisms you use to get them to come back and activated (ex: notifications, emails, etc.).

Core Value: This is that ONE THING – the thing you do differently, better or uniquely. It’s the value you can consistently deliver to users that solves their problem better than anyone else in the market.

Product Promise: A Statement That Defines The Primary Benefit & Customer Segment

I owe a lot of my thinking around this to Sean Ellis (he consulted for Dropbox to help them grow + creator of the words growth hacker).

He’s my Yoda when it comes to truly understanding the value in creating a strong Product Promise (or Hook) that’s inline with a solid “Must-Have Experience”.

Every time I’ve started a company (after getting some initial traction), I have always given Sean a call to walk through my thinking for the next steps of discovering the promise and core value for my users.


I know there’s nothing sexy about split testing copy.

It’s not a cool new feature or a revamped onboarding experience.

It’s words.

Simple – but POWERFUL  – words.

I’ve seen situations where ONE WORD tripled activation rates.

In future posts I’ll talk about my approach and the tools I used to run our experiments around unlocking the Promise, but for now you can read these resources to get started:

Unlocking Growth / Promise Statements by Sean Ellis

Unlocking the Secrets of Growth / Messaging Psychology (Video: 20m:14s) by James Currier

User Onboarding: Creating That Movie That Plays When An Issue Arises

Last night I was hanging out with my Dad and he looked at me and asked, “I need to transfer a large video file… how do I do that?”

I immediately thought of YouSendIt, but then I thought … Dropbox does this as well, PLUS it provides a whole bunch of other value that my Dad should be using…

… so best he signup for Dropbox cause it’s free and it will provide more long term value.

Boom. Dropbox created that movie in my mind.

They got there by…

1) Setting a strong promise (Dropbox keeps your files safe, synced, and easy to share)
2) Getting me to experience their core value (syncing a file and viewing it on a different device)
3) Slowly adding more value (Dropbox for business) to solve related problems

I now have a completed movie for how they create value in the world and what situations I should consider them for.

That’s what you want to create using your product’s Onboarding.

3 Approaches To User Onboarding

The “Walk-through” Approach: The walk-through approach walks your users through the app similar to how Google does it. It’s also called the “joyriding approach, as discussed in this article (Source).

The “Do Something” Approach: By asking users to make their first move on the application, an application can get users engaged right off the bat. This is common in applications that depend on curation by the user to get the app working like Twitter. (Source)

The “Simplified” Approach: In the simplified approach, once the user creates an account – instead of overwhelming him with options – tell them how to do the most basic tasks and allow him to go from there.


Grow like Facebook: onboarding and activation by Aaron Ginn

Core Product Value: How You Get a User To Stick

Core product value is that one thing that if a user gets to experience it, it will cause them to become activated.

Some people define it as a leading indicator of engaged users.

For example, Facebook knows that if they can get you to follow 7 friends within 10 days of signup, then you’re very likely to stay engaged.

Zynga found that if they could get a user to come back after 1 day of signing up they would become engaged and paying.

Dropbox gets a user to put at least one file in a Dropbox folder on one device that gets them hooked.

For Clarity it was experiencing a call.

For Instagram, I’m going to assume it’s getting a user to post a photo with a filter to their social network of choice.

What’s cool is that you don’t need to guess what it is.

All you need to do is learn from your most successful users – the ones that are active.

Uncovering Your Customer’s Path To Success

What I would suggest is for you to pull the activity stream (sometimes call the clickstream, or click path) for your most engaged users, then look for commonalities amongst them, in regards to their common activities after they sign up.

Referrer Source: Where did they come from? What was the Product Promise on the home page when they signed up?

Feature Usage: How did they explore your product? What actions did they take in the first few uses of the product? What features have they used?

Ask Them: Survey them using a simple question “What’s the primary value you received from this product?”

Once you have all the data collected, look for the overlap of each users experience thus far. See if you can find that one thing – or a few steps – that if you could get EVERY user to experience it, it would activate them.

This process is tedious but it can help remove a lot of clutter and confusion for your customers.

Many startups overbuild. They may have had a core offering, but after they didn’t find initial traction, they built a whole bunch of features hoping one would stick and help them differentiate and grow.

What happens instead is it confuses the product experience.

Your job is to declutter and present the user with just the information they need to move on to the next step and hopefully experience the core product value.


How We Put Facebook On The Path to 1 Billion Users (Video 39m 14s) by Chamath Palihapitiya

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