How a Community Helps with Customer Onboarding

Customer onboarding is the lifeblood of any Software as a Service (SaaS) business.

Not only does high-quality onboarding matter to digital-savvy buyers, but it’s also directly linked to customer retention. That’s where a customer community can help.

A customer community is a critical element of onboarding. Full stop. It connects to every part of the customer journey, from sales to renewal and upsell. However, it’s not a catch-all solution. It applies in specific ways to different parts of the onboarding process.

If you’re thinking of leveraging community for your customer onboarding process—the key to success will be understanding how community aids in customer onboarding and designing your community to take full advantage of the benefits.

Here’s how this guide is broken down:

  • What a community looks like for businesses
  • 5 ways a community helps with user onboarding
  • Pitfalls to avoid when leveraging community for customer onboarding

What a community looks like for businesses

Customer communities need to deliver a few key elements to members. However, there is a lot of variation in how the community delivers those elements to meet customer needs.

According to psychologists D.W. McMillan and D.M. Chavis, communities must provide four things to be successful: membership, influence, fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. Arguably, the last piece is the most important, but your community should aim to provide all four.

With those four foundational elements in mind, customer communities will look different from organization to organization. In general, though, communities take one of three forms:

1. A learning community focused on education of some sort (product-specific or general business being the most common).

2. Support community focused on helping customers solve their problems through peer-to-peer discussions and an internal support team.

3. A social community focused on giving customers a way to meet and connect with one another (particularly covering mental health or general well-being of members).

4. A feedback and ideation community where members are actively encouraged to share their thoughts about the business and have a voice in its future growth.

The way a community is structured will depend on your organization’s goals and how you plan to build a sense of community within your customer base. There’s no objectively right or wrong way to structure a community. Instead, it’s more about the context of what your business offers and what customers have an appetite for.

5 ways a community helps with user onboarding

Community is a powerful value-add for customers because it gives them more than what they paid for and extends the value of their purchase. Here are the five ways this value-add happens:

1. General education builds loyalty

customer onboarding education
When new customer has a wealth of knowledge they can pull from, they are more likely to try to learn new things.

Professional development is a multi-billion dollar industry and is considered essential in nearly every career. By offering education, your community helps customers get ahead of the curve.

A community formed around education might have a focus on tutorials, FAQs, or other customer educational needs.

How education helps customer onboarding: When a new customer has a wealth of knowledge they can pull from, they are more likely to try to learn new things. This associates the benefits of learning with your brand, which builds loyalty at the start of the customer journey.

Read Now: Growth and Sustainability of Communities through Customer Education

This is especially helpful for SaaS companies where your revenue growth is tied to becoming further entrenched in a customer’s business. The more you educate them, the more they will see you as a solution provider worth engaging with.

2. Product-use education scales adoption

Every product has its more complicated points. This is where product-use education can help. Whether providing walkthroughs, pre-made templates, or a general knowledge base for new users, a community built around using the product can provide a significant value-add for customers.

How product-use education helps with onboarding: This is perhaps the purest form of community aiding in customer onboarding. When an entire community exists to support new users and help them get comfortable with the product, they are more likely to use the product, find value in it, and stay loyal customers. From there, any time you help a customer optimize product use is another valuable moment that increases the likelihood of adoption and renewal.

A great example of this is the way Tribe’s Onboarding Manager, Amanda Merrifield, promotes the onboarding events through the community.

Tribe Campfire Onboarding Webinars
Onboarding webinar by promoted and distributed through Tribe’s Customer Community

These sessions are also recorded and posted in the community so customers can watch based at their convenience.

recorded onboarding webinar shared in community
Recorded onboarding webinar shared in Tribe customer community

Product-use education is also a powerful tool for your customer success team if you have one. They can pull from these resources to help with any custom onboarding plus share the resources if customers want a DIY solution.

Tribe Platform’s knowledge base guides and tips & tricks articles are hosted in the community. These resources are promoted through various channels for onboarding. For instance, customer onboarding email sequences reference the resources published in the community.

Knowledge base hosted on the community
Knowledge base hosted on the community

3. Credibility based on community size and quality quells worry

During the customer onboarding process, people are nervous and excited. They want their investment to pay off. But starting a new product journey alone can feel, well, isolating. Imagine instead that you get to welcome your new customer(s) into a huge community of existing members. Suddenly, they aren’t alone. Many people before them have walked the same path and there’s an implication that many more will come in the future.

customer retention
Seeing how other people are already thriving with your product is a great customer retention tool.

How the credibility of a community’s size or quality helps with onboarding: Your community itself—the sheer size and quality of members—is another tool in your onboarding toolbox.

Seeing how other people are already thriving with your product (or facing the same challenges) is a great customer retention tool. This is especially true when there’s also a customer success team guiding the process if that applies to your product.

4. Connection to other people gives peace of mind

Beyond learning product functionality or being impressed with the size of a community, offering opportunities for customers to meet one another at different points in their lifecycles is a huge benefit. Not only does this tackle the fourth element of a community, but it’s also good business. Members can talk metrics, apply FAQs to unique contexts, and find common ground. You may even find members who foster business connections.

How connection helps with onboarding: Connection fulfills a deep human need. When you can provide the fertile ground for those connections through an online community or in-person events, your customer associates the good feelings they get with your brand.

5. Having a known support destination reduces customer anxiety

First-time users are often the neediest. Not because they are less intelligent than experienced users, but because they simply aren’t used to how your customer support function operates. When you have a customer community, all new users know precisely where to go for support.

You can offer webinars, 1:1 office hours, or other customer touchpoints through the community, giving all members the peace of mind that comes with knowing they can always get support if they need it.

How a known support destination helps with onboarding: When you can reduce a customer’s cognitive load—meaning how much they have to think before taking action—that builds comfort, peace of mind, and loyalty. Having a community as a dedicated support destination also takes some pressure off your customer success team, since pre-recorded resources or community-sourced answers mean your team won’t need to worry about handling every request one-on-one.

In the end, all these factors lead to not only a higher quality onboarding program but also more profitability per customer.

Bonus: Community becomes a sales enablement tool

Community is powerful in helping new customers get onboarded, increase retention, and reduce churn. However, this is all client onboarding. It only works after someone has signed a contract.

But there’s a bonus: a thriving customer community is a sales enablement tool because the sales team can talk up the benefits of your community and how it helps create a high-quality onboarding experience. This could become a way to reduce barriers to purchase or overcome purchase obstacles with new customers, turning a customer success win into a revenue win.

Pitfalls to avoid when leveraging community for customer onboarding

Not moderating or no community management: Even chock full of high-quality content, a community can’t be built and left to its own devices. Your team needs to actively manage the community—or at the very least keep an active eye on things.

Not using the right community platform: You need purpose-built software with integrations to your CRM when building a customer community. There’s a place for traditional helpdesk software as well, but that’s as a supporting player (no pun intended).

Not having a user journey or onboarding strategy for community members: Think of your community as a product unto itself. It needs an onboarding process and customer experience just like any other technology product would. Even simple features like a welcome email help build a connection with new users.

Not sending emails or other notifications to users (or sending too many): Members won’t always log in to your community to see what’s new. Sometimes you have to remind them. But at the same time, don’t inundate people with notifications that make them unsubscribe or stop logging in altogether.

Not being clear on what the community is and offers: Never over-market your community. If members aren’t networking with each other yet, for example, don’t advertise that. Instead, talk up all the pre-recorded content you’ve put there. You can work on growing engagement over time, but don’t promise something your community can’t deliver.

Not leveraging automation: Community management is a human sport, but you can still use automation tools—like onboarding workflows or engagement-based triggers—to help scale out a high-quality community experience.

Not building engagement milestones: Your whole customer base could end up in this community. While it’s important to not leave new users in the dark, you also need to create more advanced milestones to keep people coming back. Examples include: Submitting 10 comments is “Silver” level while 100 comments are “Gold”. These digital badges can appear on a user’s profile so other users know they are engaged and helpful.

Not asking for feedback: You won’t solve all customer pain points in your first community launch. And even with the best software, the user experience will need improvement over time. The more you ask for feedback, both in real-time with buttons in the community and through ongoing surveys, the more insight you’ll get about what members really want and need from your community.

Customer-centric community onboarding

Rule number one: your product or service must deliver on its promises. No amount of community, however fantastic, will make up for that shortfall. But beyond the basics, build your community centered around your customer. Help them become more successful and you will be more successful in return. For some that’s education. For others, connection. For others still, something else.

While frameworks can tell you how to get started, only your customers—unique, individual humans—can tell you what they need.

customer onboarding tribe

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a freelance writer and business coach for freelancers. He's helped over 100 organizations produce top-notch content and has helped dozens of freelancers build their businesses. Follow him on Twitter @StefanPalios

Join top businesses empowering their community with Tribe Platform.

Create your Tribe