Copywriting Growth Marketing

We did these 7 things to a SaaS onboarding email sequence, and it tripled paid conversions

The right users may be signing up for your free trials…

They may be activating.

They may be experiencing AHA moments and getting value out of what your SaaS offers. They may be the perfect candidate for a paying customer.

But here’s the problem: too many of them are not buying. They’re not converting from free to paid. They should convert. But they’re just… not.

Could be your free trial is too long. Could be your pricing is wrong. Could be your whole business model is wrong. Or it could be something much simpler – it could be this:

You’re still sending onboarding emails when your trial user is ready for sales emails

There comes a time when your prospect is actually ready to buy.

The nurturing stops. And the closing begins.

This is where it comes down to what you say and how you say it.

It comes down to copy.

As we work to grow Airstory, we see – time and again – that the biz gets stronger when our copy acts like our online salesperson… and results get crappy when our copy doesn’t realize it’s supposed to be selling. Now I know I’m talking about “selling,” which is a trigger word for a lot of people. (“Don’t sell! Teach, and they’ll convert.“) But the fact is that, eventually, you really do have to try to close your prospect. Yes, you’ve gotta have the right strategy, product-market fit, nurturing content, etc. But once that’s settled, it’s all about copy that closes.

Once it’s time to sell, your copy can triple your business… or cut it in half… or destroy it. Copy is that important.

Not long ago, we worked with Wistia on increasing paid conversions for their trial emails. If you know Wistia, you know:

  • Wistia’s product is great. (We’ve been hosting our videos with Wistia for the past 4 years and have happily paid them some $5000 for their service.)
  • Wistia’s brand is strong. If you’ve been to Wistiafest, you know they’re champions of video marketing, and people who make videos know that, too.
  • Wistia’s price didn’t show any signs of being problematic. They were doing some price testing while we worked, separately from our work.
  • The majority of Wistia’s trial users were good-fit users. That is, there was no cause for concern that the prospect was wrong.

But something wasn’t working. In spite of all of that. In spite of Wistia being Wistia.

It was a copy problem. Wistia’s email copy wasn’t acting like an online salesperson. It wasn’t closing. 

So we fixed that. Here’s how.

A side-by-side comparison of how we optimized Wistia’s SaaS email copy to bring in a 350% lift in paid conversions

I’ve spoken about this study at conferences like Mozcon, and I’m gonna keep mentioning it ‘cos it’s such a good study in closer copy. But I’ve never gone through all 8 emails like I’m about to do here. I’ve never shown the before-and-after for each of them. I’ve never gone much deeper than using these emails to teach folks how to “get specific” and stuff like that.

Today, I’m gonna share the long and the short of this SaaS onboarding email study with you. Consider this a crash course in writing copy for SaaS emails, where the goal is to increase paid conversions.

My hope: you’ll take what you read here and rewrite your emails to close.

First, here’s some background on this project.

(You can come back to this part after, if you just wanna skip ahead and see the copy changes.)

  • Wistia sends 3 tracks of emails to trial users. Each track is triggered by an action. You move off of and onto a track based on the actions you take. The first track is the essential onboarding sequence, triggered when a user starts a trial; the second is triggered after an AHA moment has been achieved; and the third is intended entirely to convert the trial user from free to paid.
  • We worked on the third set because that’s the one that’s supposed to close. And I can’t help myself – I wanted to work on it because I like coffee, and coffee is for closers. I get a rush off seeing what makes people buy. I love when the success metric is paid conversions, average order value, average revenue per user – all things revenue-y. So I didn’t want to work on the non-closer emails. 🙂
  • This email track contained eight (8) emails. The trial users who got as far as this email track were likely to be good-fit prospects.
  • The frequency of emails: 1 per day. When a user converted to paid, they were removed from the track.
  • We conducted an assessment of the emails before starting the hands-on rewrites. You can find some of that here
  • We rewrote all eight emails; the core of the changes here were copy changes. The offer didn’t change. We didn’t create any new incentives to convert. We didn’t change the positioning. We didn’t manufacture urgency with countdown timers or create scarcity with a limited number of X. Everything about our rewrites was in keeping with what the controls were already doing. The only “conversion tricks” we used were copy optimizations.
  • We tested our copy against the control using HubSpot, where you can A/B test nurturing / drip campaigns (which is amazing). Wistia’s internal CRO conducted and monitored the test, showing the data to us and reporting the results with confidence.
  • The success metric: paid conversions for the entire sequence.

To help with comparisons, let’s look at all the Wistia emails (Variation A / Control) and then the Copy Hackers rewrites (Variation B). You can click each to see full-size, with detail.

Control, by Wistia:

Variation B, by Copy Hackers: 

So that’s the lay of the land. Now here are the 7 primary ways we edited and optimized this track / sequence, with before-and-afters to illustrate.

Before we dive in, two points.

The first: Wistia’s emails are very well written and smart. We were starting with a strong control. We were also really lucky to be working with entrepreneurs that test risky stuff instead of playing it safe. Swinging for the fence = always the better way to run a copy test.

The second: All the emails labeled Treatment B were part of the sequence that brought in 350% more paid conversions. So when you’re reading through and going “meh, that’s too long” or “there’s no way this would work for us, ” remember: all together, these emails more than tripled paid conversions. So is it worth a test for you? Methinks so.

K, let’s optimize some emails…

1. They’re not emails – they’re sales letters

When I invited Andrew at Wistia to see my proposed copy to test, his first reaction was this:

“It’s longer than we’re used to.”

But he knew we were testing. And he trusted me. So he rolled with it.

Every single email we wrote used more copy than the control. In 7 of the 8 emails, our versions were at least 3x as long as the control. And that’s not because we’ve got major issues with self-editing.

It’s because we weren’t thinking of an email as an email. We were thinking of an email as a sales letter for a single feature.

More about this in the next point. But for now, when you’re reviewing your copy, ask yourself:

How is the way I’m thinking about emails limiting what this email can do?

How is my fear of losing subscribers limiting this email’s ability to close?

If I didn’t have a nagging voice in my head telling me to play it safe,
how would I actually write this? 

And when you start writing longer emails, your worry should NOT be that your copy is “too long.” Your worry should be that your copy “doesn’t sell for shit.” Make it sell. Make it close. Use as many words as it takes to earn your cup of coffee.

2. It’s not a collection of random emails – it’s a funnel

A paid conversion happens once you’ve convincingly moved a prospect through the 5 primary stages of awareness, all the way to Most Aware.

Source: Search Engine Land

By the time a trial user started to receive the emails in the Wistia sequence we were optimizing, we had good reason to believe they had strong Product Awareness and were moving toward Most Aware. So the job of the emails was to nurture the prospect the rest of the way. It was to move the prospect from Product Aware to the far end of Most Aware, where closing happens. That was it.

But the control emails weren’t organized to push the prospect along the awareness spectrum.

Instead, they hovered in the Solution Aware > Product Aware space. This is what they were each about:

Email 1: Video analytics (Product Aware)

Email 2: Timeline actions (Product Aware)

Email 3: Wistia vs the competition (Solution or Product Aware)

Email 4: Turnstile case study (Solution or Product Aware)

Email 5: Video analytics case study (Solution or Product Aware)

Email 6: Turn off Wistia branding (Product Aware)

Email 7: Support is available (Product Aware)

Email 8: Player customization (Product Aware)

They needed to be organized to round out Product Awareness and move the prospect to Most Aware. Because we wanted to increase paid conversions. So we reordered them like so:

Email 1: Ego: the vanity play with data (Product Aware)

Email 2: Ease: tweaks (Product Aware)

Email 3: Direct tie to outcome: growth (Product Aware)

Email 4: Differentiator: CTAs (Product Aware)

Email 5: The Pitch (Most Aware)

Email 6: PAS (Most Aware)

Email 7: Incentive: upgrade to annual (Most Aware)

Email 8: New segment: courses

Note that, as we moved the prospect through Product Awareness, we focused not on the features but on the outcome / benefit for the prospect. It wasn’t until Email 4, where the prospect was Most Aware, that we framed our focus around features and incentives.

Emails 1 through 4 were for a Product Aware prospect.

Emails 5 through 7 were for a Most Aware prospect.

And email 8… well, that was our throw-in. 🙂 We felt confident that emails 5 through 7 would convert, and we hypothesized that, if it didn’t convert a user, it may be that that user had specific needs not yet addressed in the emails. For the test, that unknown non-converting user was a course creator using Wistia. And that’s why email 8 feels more like an offshoot of the sequence than a part of it. By design. Here it is, for your reference:

Takeaway: Optimizing your email sequence may be as simple as reordering your existing emails along the stages of awareness spectrum, finishing always with closer emails for a Most Aware prospect.

3. Your copy shouldn’t be as slick as a used car salesman’s hair

In my experience, marketers are happiest with a message when it sounds polished.

But here’s why that’s a problem. What happens when you run your hands over something that’s polished? They slip right off. They don’t stick. Because there’s nothing to stick to.

Same is true for polished copy. If your copy sounds like it’s been reworked until anyone anywhere could say it, that’s a bad thing.

Lemme repeat for the enterprise marketers out there: polished copy is a bad thing.

We want copy that sticks. And that’s almost always going to sound raw. Because it will be pulled from voice-of-customer data and left largely unedited, like in our headline for this email:

The control email features a polished headline. The headline for Treatment B:

  • Plays off a familiar structure (i.e., the black-and-white-and-read-all-over joke) to nudge the reader to engage and actually read
  • Uses language swiped from customer reviews of Wistia and the cofounder’s own words (as said in a podcast he was once on)
  • Sets up a level of intrigue that can rarely be achieved with stock, too-polished phrasing

Both emails are about comparing Wistia to the competition in order to convert the trialist. But only one of the emails makes you care about – and engage in the act of – comparing the two. Only one of them makes Wistia sound like the better option. Only one of them tries to sell the upgrade to paid.

4. At this stage, do NOT ask questions your prospect may not answer the way you want them to

If you ask a yes/no question hoping for a “yes” answer… what happens if your prospect answers “no” instead? You need to phrase all your questions in such a way that the prospect has to answer in agreement with you. And if you can’t do that, delete the question.

Why? Because you do NOT want your prospect to shake their head at you. That ‘no’ interrupts the seduction. It makes them think you don’t actually understand them after all.

In this control email, the opening line of the body copy finishes with this question:

Ready to dive into some data?

Few marketers and video-pros using Wistia and receiving these emails would answer “Yup, I cannot WAIT to dive into some data!” Instead, they’d answer with a shrug, a soft no or a hard no (i.e., close the email, never to return again).

So our version of this email asks questions with more controlled answers.

The first question is this: People are watching your video. Fantastic, right?

Unless the prospect is using Wistia for private videos no one is intended to watch (in which case this email wouldn’t trigger), the answer to that question is very likely going to be “yes.” Even an eyerolling yes. Even an omg-I-hate-myself-on-camera yes.

The next question our copy asks isn’t a yes/no. It’s a question that requires the reader to think about the answer, and it allows us to help her arrive at the right answer.

The question is this: How can you put your new video data to work for you?

We follow that question with an entire paragraph of questions that agitate or dig deep on the topic, with the idea being that the marketer is unlikely to have thought of all the ways video analytics can help them optimize their video content. We’re showing – not telling – that Wistia is stellar because it arms you with optimization-aiding analytics. We’re nudging the prospect to see Wistia as a powerful data solution.

We finish the email by answering the questions we’ve asked.

5. At this stage, do NOT waste time on stories people don’t care about

Case studies are great. As long as you tell the story right.

And by “tell the story right,” I mean be a good storyteller:

  • Open with a hook
  • Lure the reader from one line to the next
  • Start in the middle of the action
  • Create compelling characters
  • Set the story around a central conflict

If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story.

If you don’t have a hook, who would read?

In these emails, you can see that the control was based around a case study for a business called Zeeblu. It’s a perfectly fine study. But because we didn’t find the story compelling, we dropped the study and put our hero (the prospect) at the center of the story:

Compare the two emails.

The control wants to tell a story.

Treatment B actually does tell a story. (Hell, it’s even got dialogue.) If our version had a working title, it would be “How you can use Wistia to get more leads.”

  • It opens with a hook
  • It lures the reader from one line to the next
  • There’s no preamble – it starts in the middle of the action
  • It features the most compelling character: you
  • It features a central conflict: how to get more leads without spending more money or creating more content

Wistia’s a brilliant solution, so little wonder they have a lot of case studies. A second case study-based email – this one for MailChimp – appears in the same sequence:

We decided to scrap the Mailchimp story entirely. That’s because we’d already talked about video analytics in this sequence. In its place, we wrote a short closer-focused last-chance ‘offer’ email, where we repositioned an existing offer to sound like a one-time promotion; we scheduled it toward the end of the sequence, when the non-converted trial user is likely to be Most Aware.

It can be hard to say no to using a case study – especially great ones from known names. But if it’s not a compelling story, you will bore your prospect. So don’t waste a sales email on a non-converting email.

Remember: Every email your subscribers open but don’t care about is an email that widens the gap between you and them.

6. Bring your message, value and product to life with specific copy – not vague messages

What does your brain see when you read this line:

Customize the color of your video player appearance.

And what does your brain see when you read this line:

The Wistia video player defaults to grey. Which is nice. But grey. Why stick with grey when you can go with hot pink… or dollar-bill green… or, well, Wistia Blue?

Each of those statements is conveying the same message. But your brain has an easier time grasping one over the other. Is the vague first one easier to grasp… or is the more specific one more likely to form an image or two in your brain?

Okay, let’s try another one.

K, tell me how your brain makes sense of this statement:

18% is a lot. 

Now how does your brain make sense of this:

Getting 18% more views is pretty major. Videos that used to get 100 views a day now get 118 views a day. In a month, that’s an extra 500+ views. 

One is a statement that leaves the reader to figure stuff out. (And maybe even argue that 18% is not a lot.) The other is so specific, it removes the burden of thinking, calculating, pausing, trying to make sense of the numbers. The prospect can just absorb the info. No work required.

The specific copy outperformed the vague copy.

That didn’t happen in just one email I wrote. That happened in all the emails I wrote.

Here’s another example:

As you can see in the two emails above, this control copy wasn’t as specific as it could be:

You can add annotations, create calls to action or collect emails through turnstile – all within the video player!

We unpacked the significance of each of the important points the control was glossing over. That turned into a bullet list filled with specifics about annotations, CTAs and turnstile.

This all goes back to Steve Krug’s old “Don’t Make Me Think” principle. Use specificity to bring concepts, product features, outcomes, benefits and more to life in the mind of your busy reader. When you tell yourself your reader is too busy to read a lot of copy, remember that specific copy is going to engage more than short, vague copy will.

Perhaps (or of course) Don Draper said it best:

“The greatest thing you have working for you is not the photo you take or the picture you paint. It’s the imagination of the consumer. They have no budget. They have no time limit. And if you can get in that space, your ad can run all day.”

7. Edit in the awesome

Your first draft will be crap.

It should be.

This is always true.

You should never expect the first draft of anything you write or someone else writes to be great.

The real magic happens once the first draft is knocked out. Without Wistia’s control emails to work with, we would’ve had to go through God knows how many iterations to get a strong first draft ready to optimize. Thankfully, Wistia’s got stellar marketers and copywriters on their team – so it was easy for us to ‘edit in the awesome.’

With these lessons, it should be easy for you to edit the awesome into your email sequences, as well.

And if you feel like this post is just scratching the surface of what you can do with your email copy (because it is), click here to be notified when our copywriting program 10x Emails reopens

FINAL NOTE: There is no such thing as optimized copy.

The very term “optimized copy” suggests a finality – but optimization is an ongoing thing. It’s never done. Wistia is still optimizing these emails.

That said, when you A/B test your copy, you have the benefit of data to tell you if your optimization efforts paid off in that one moment in time. Did your new copy work? Should you push harder on a new focus in your messaging? That’s what testing can tell you – not necessarily which message is best but where you should keep applying energy…


PS: When I present this study, I often hear that we didn’t just change the copy – we changed the design. People say I should talk about the design changes, too. That’s cool… but our philosophy is that copy leads design. So when copy changes, design changes. We can’t separate the two. But what I can say, as a copywriter and the lead on this project – as the person who typed the copy into the HubSpot email templates – was that copy changed, and what you’ve seen above are the copy changes.

About the author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe - Copywriter and author of "Copyhackers"

  • Pretty basic things, but good to be reminded. Thanks!

  • That’s just amazing I wish i could achieve similar results 🙁

  • Very informative article you have written. I really appreciate it

  • Most corporations are afraid to go bold…but it’s clear that the whole strategy should revolve around knowing WHEN and HOW to do it.

    Amazing insights from these changes Joanna. Keep up the good work.

  • Konrad Sanders

    Cheers for going into such granular detail here, Joanne – you big knowledge-sharer, you. I’ll defo show this to my gang of wordslingers (and our audience) – as I’m sure these insights will help sharpen up their SaaS game.

    The “don’t polish” point is a real good’un. Copywriters do tend to fall into that trap of using semantic skillz to craft clever plays on words too often. And that might work well for a brand tagline or some super short form copy on a billboard ad, but not (as you have proven) for the end of a sales funnel/email sequence when conversion is the main mission. It’s kind of like the copywriting equivalent of a cheesy stock photo with flawlessly-grinning, chiseled models having a swell time, supposedly (but clearly not) using your product or service. It doesn’t seem authentic. Or unique. And fails to drum up real intrigue or tug on your prospects’ heartstrings like a “real life” photo (or sentence) would.

    Would you say there are any times when more polish IS needed in online copy? Or are you full-on anti-polish? And do you have any practical polish-removing tips for those stuck in a rut of cheese, shoe-shine and clichés?

    I like to scan my copy for phrases that seem overplayed. Then, before deciding to strip them out entirely, I try to switch a word or two for something novel, so that the phrase still carries the same meaning and familiarity, but now comes across as refreshingly original. E.g. “cherry-picked” might become “mushroom-picked” (and other amazing examples that I can’t think of right now!). If that doesn’t work, then remove the cliché and write exactly what you want to say. In the least amount of words.

    I’d also like to throw my two pence in re: things you can do to make your SaaS email sequence work harder for you.

    We always start with buyer personas and gathering buying insights from our clients’ customers. More specifically; the ‘5 Rings of Buyer Insight’, which Adele Revela so elegantly defines in her book ‘Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customer’s Expectations, Align Your marketing Strategies and Win More Business’.

    Once you’ve really climbed inside the minds of your buyers (by conducting buyer interviews), had a good rummage around, and thus understand things like a) the triggering factors that led them to search for/consider a solution like yours, b) the end results they hope to gain, c) the perceived barriers that commonly stand in the way, d) the 3-5 main factors they consider when comparing you to competitors and e) what their role is in the decision-making process (and what other decision-makers you might need to win over) you’re in a great position to convert. You can weave these insights into your closer emails to preempt objections, paint a picture that resonates, put emphasis on the USPs that matter to them, arm your buyer with ammunition to persuade the other key decision-makers, and really optimize conversions based on these customer-generated insights. Rather than writing your copy based purely on assumptions and marketing knowledge. Obviously, then, split-test your messaging to see what words work best in reality.

    Anyways…dang! This is a long-ass comment. Sorry for eating up half this page. Thanks for being awesome. Big love from London x

  • Jacques Dufour

    Hi Joanna, I was curious so I signed up to Wistia on January 22. So far I received 8 emails from Team Wistia. They are very, very short. Even shorter than the controls you worked with I would say. I’d like to know what you think. Are they testing again? Thanks.

    • Jacques Dufour

      umm. is there a chance we get a response?

  • Emily Jarvis

    Love this article and it’s a great read, but I can’t seem to click on any of the emails. I’m on chrome and turned off my Ad blocking software just in case. Anything change?

  • Wonderful article Joanna, I really loved it 🙂
    Definitely will use your tips to optimize our sales emails. I don’t feel that these would be considered as onboarding emails though.

    There’s one thing I’m missing, which is really important in case of emails: Subject lines.
    Would you mind sharing also the before and after subject lines with us? And maybe some data about email open and click-through rates?
    This would be golden as well for many, I’m sure.

    One other note: I tried to click on the first image which includes all the 8 before and after emails, but I couldn’t enlarge it. (I’m using Chrome on Mac).

  • Olu

    Super awesome insights. Thanks Joanna

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Glad to hear it, Olu!

  • Dayum. “What happens when you run your hands over something that’s polished? They slip right off. They don’t stick. Because there’s nothing to stick to.” ** bookmarks for every future client interaction ever. **

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Excellent! Polish is such an enemy.

  • this is a great article…

  • “Edit in the awesome” – great post!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Yup – no need to worry about awesomeness until editing mode!

  • So glad to finally read this until the end. i even took some notes! Will be creating drip emails for 2 segmented audiences for our company. Will apply the things that I have learned from here. 🙂 Excited!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Woo hoo! So glad to hear it.

  • FredBullock

    Good suggestions and good results. A helpful reminder that intuition (shorter emails are more effective than long ones) can be wrong.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      A/B testing tends to embarrass intuition. 🙂

  • Worth read….thanks for sharing…

  • Couldn’t have come at a better time. We’re having a trial -> paid problem. You’ve kicked my butt into gear

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Sweet! Kicking butts is my fave.

  • Bettina Oksen Bendorf

    Thanks for sharing. I will try to implement this for our email sequence.
    Did you send them out in the order you lined up under Variation B, by Copy Hackers:
    1) Good news XXX; 2) We saw 18% more people click, etc?
    Just wondering as you start with no. 5 “it’s good to be powered by Wistia” in your explanation below.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Yup, we sent them in the 1 through 8 order in the view where you can see all the emails we wrote. The explanation is out of order for a bunch of reasons – but largely because it’s really, really hard to explain, in a linear way, the process behind the decisions we made and the copy we wrote.

  • Andy Buckley

    Really enjoyed this Joanna. Editing in the awesome is obviously easier when you’ve got a great control to work from. Great read.

    One small point that is kinda unrelated: is it possible to make your images clickable into lightboxes or the original file? They are sometimes a bit tough to see/read at their current size on the page; some previous articles have had images that are almost unreadable too.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Cool, Andy. And, yeah, we’ll take a look at the images.

  • Pete Renzulli

    I joined 10X emails and 10 X landing pages this year. Can’t tell you how much I have learned from you (Joanna). This article puts the exclamation point on my assessment. I have completely changed the way I write to create sales. Probably the biggest thing (as mentioned here) is NOT sending the same boring-ass emails everyone else does..

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Amazing, Pete! It feels like we all *know* as marketers that we have no choice but to be different. But when it comes down to it, it’s very hard to actually execute on “being different.” Because that’s scary. And there are so many directions you can go. But if you’ve got good practices shaping your different approach, it seems to be worth the risk. If nothing else, you’ll be remembered. In best cases – like the study in this post – you’ll grow your business.

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