In-app Messaging: A Guide for SaaS Founders

Written by Moritz Dausinger, CEO of Refiner

You know – I bet sometimes you just want to tell users something quickly. 

It could be telling them about a new feature. Showing them how to do something in the app better. Offering a hack…. 

But the thing is – The information is so short that there really is no point emailing them about it. 

For one, there’s not enough information there for an email. There’s nothing else you could add to it to make it longer, either. Not to mention that your users would see the advice out of context anyway.

Well, you know what – That’s where in-app messaging comes in.

Funny thing, though, This is another contradiction of sorts, too, by the way. Most of the time, when we think of anything in-app, we think of surveys. But there’s another way to use those in-app popups, and you’re going to learn all about it below. 

Here’s what we’ll cover:

The basics of in-app messaging

Learn exactly what in-app messages are, how they work, how to trigger them, and what types of messages you could actually display to users. 

Why bother with in-app messaging?

Discover the most common use cases for in-app notifications and where they deliver the biggest value. 

How to create a powerful in-app message

Watch me set up an in-app message in my tool. Refiner.

Best practices for in-app messaging

Discover what to keep in mind when you’re launching an in-app messaging strategy within your product.

It’s a lot to cover, so let’s get right into it. 

What’s an in-app message, really?

The best way to describe an in-app message is as a small popup triggered within a web or mobile app that tells users something. 

(I realize that the word, something, doesn’t make anything clear, by the way. So, I’m explaining exactly what that “something” is a bit further down this guide.)

Here’s an example of a simple in-app notification promoting the company’s latest blog post. 

In-app message example.

Note that even though the message is tucked nicely into the corner, it’s also hard to ignore. 

That’s one of the biggest benefits of in-app messages. Users notice them, but the message itself does not disrupt their flow. 

These messages are also usually contextually relevant. Take the message in the example above. It points to an article explaining how to merge the tool’s data with another very commonly used data point within that use case. It’s highly important information for anyone wishing to get even more from the product. 

I know; I’ve been using that product for over a year, and I tell you – Logging in to the app to hear that it now integrates with another data point I use every day felt… exciting!

I guess that example illustrates the power of in-app messages the best. 

These messages might not be perfect for long sales info, pitches, lengthy messages, and other stuff you might also be communicating to users. 

But when it comes to telling your users some exciting news or pointing them to a new development in your product, they rock!

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at when to use in-app messages and what for. 

Why bother triggering in-app messages? 

OK, the example above might have signaled it a little, but let’s elaborate. 

Because there are at least several different use cases for in-app messages. 

Onboarding is the most common one, naturally. In-app messages can help you introduce new users to the UI, show them where the most important elements of the interface are, etc. They can even help them get to that “aha” moment and reach the activation point

In-app notification example for onboarding.
In-app onboarding messages, example courtesy of Userlist

Sending notifications is another common way mobile and web apps use in-app messages. This is, by far, one of the best methods to present contextually relevant information to users exactly as they engage with the product. 

You could use in-app notifications to send users reminders, too. These could be notifications about an upcoming event, a webinar, or even a simple reminder about scheduled maintenance.

What a better way to remind users about something like that than by displaying it within the app?

We have to mention in-app surveys, too, of course. Onboarding aside, surveys are probably the most common content of in-app messages. 

In-app survey example.

Another way to use in-app messages is to alert users about something important within the product. 

In-app notifications help provide contextual training, too. You can use them to display mini-tutorials or explain changes you’ve made to a particular feature. 

Finally, you can display promotions and offers with in-app notifications and allow users to upgrade or expand their current plan with add-ons. 

OK, but really, why should I bother with launching an in-app messaging strategy at all?

Well, there are several reasons why, too.

One is because in-app notifications help you to boost user engagement significantly. Relevant notifications, information, or advice are only bound to engage users and connect them with your brand more. 

With those messages, you can connect with users at the right time. Like I said at the beginning of this guide – Sometimes you just need to share some small info with them. But that info, being so tightly connected with the app, is best delivered in the context of your product. 

That’s what in-app messages allow you to do. 

Similarly, there is no better way to guide a new user through the app than by showing them the ropes yourself. But you can’t be there for every new user, obviously. You can, however, use in-app messages to explain the value of the product and help them understand how to get the most out of it. 

Finally, in-app messages help you increase conversion rates. This happens in several ways. 

  • Your onboarding can help trial users realize the “aha!” moment, see the value of the product, and sign up for a paid plan.
  • Reminders can help notify users about the approaching license renewal and ensure they renew the subscription.
  • Upselling messages can help move some users to higher plans, and so on. 

A typical structure of an in-app message

Typically, you can see two distinct types of in-app messages out there.

One is an in-app notification with a link, like this: 

Feature announcement example.

This type of in-app notification is mostly used to convey a quick message and point users to another, usually external resource. 

The other type is almost identical, with one exception – It does not contain the link. 

This type of message is mostly used in onboarding, as a quick notification, or in any other situation where you don’t need to provide any further reference to the content of the message. 

A reminder about scheduled maintenance is a good example here. There is no need to point users to an external resource about it. Most likely, you have emailed a lengthy explanation of why you’ve scheduled maintenance when it’s going to happen, and how the uptime will be affected already. So, the sole purpose of the in-app message is to remind users about it within a predefined time before the event. 

Aside from that – the presence or absence of a link – both message types follow a similar structure:

They contain an attention-grabbing headline. It doesn’t have to be anything special, of course. An in-app notification is not a sales message or a landing page. You launch it for a different reason. Yet, you do need to ensure that users notice it, and hence the headline. 

They contain short and succinct body copy. This is the very information that you want to communicate to users. Note that most of the time, this information is really short. In the case of messages with links, the body copy offers just a gist of the whole message. The link, on the other hand, aims to entice someone to click and find out more. 

This brings us to the final element – The link. It’s not a requirement for certain messages. In some cases, however, you might want to include it so that your users could learn more. 

And that’s it. There really isn’t any point in adding any more information to the in-app message to make it work and engage users. 

But enough theory…

How to quickly create a powerful in-app notification 

The good news is that the process really is quite simple. 

For one, the structure of the message doesn’t require you to make any complex decisions about what to include or write complicated and lengthy copy. 

The situation is different with surveys, for example. In this case, you do need to consider several different factors that will affect anything from your response rate to the quality of insights you’ll collect. 

RECOMMENDED READING: How to capture user feedback within your app.

But with in-app notifications, you’re only sharing information, so the process is simpler. 

So, let me show you how it works. 

A quick note – I’m going to use my in-app survey and notifications product, Refiner, to illustrate the process. If you want to follow along, grab a free trial here and launch your first in-app message. 

Step 1. Start by creating a new project. 

In Refiner, as in most survey tools, surveys and notifications are treated as the same thing. That’s because, from the software point of view, they are. The only difference, as you’ll see shortly, is the message you include in them. 

So, to create a new in-app notification, head to the projects section called Surveys and click “New Survey” in the upper right corner. 

Setting up an in-app message.

Then, select “Create from Scratch” from the list of available templates. 

Creating an in-app notification.

Step 2. Select either web or mobile delivery channel, depending on where you want your in-app notification to appear. 

In Refiner, you can trigger the notification directly in your mobile or web app, and since the two are separate entities, you need to create a dedicated notification for each. 

In-app notification display method.

Step 3. Add content

Click on “+ Add the first element” to access a list of available modules in Refiner. Since we’re not triggering a survey, you just need to select the “Call to Action” element. 

Adding format to an in-app message in an in-app messaging tool.

The new CTA element will appear on the page, and you’ll be able to edit its content to suit your notification:

  • Add a compelling headline
  • Provide the body copy of the in-app message or notification
  • Add the URL for the link
  • Specify the copy of the link (call to action text)
Adding content to an in-app message.

Step 4. Customize the design

Most in-app notification software lets you customize the look and feel of the popup widget. In practice, this usually means ensuring that colors match your brand, and so on. 

But in Refiner, you call also:

  • Add an image to make the popup more enticing. 
  • Specify where on the page the widget will appear. This, by the way, is more important than it might seem. Check out our research into the relationship between in-app widget placement and response rates to learn more. 
  • Add (or remove) various UX elements like the close button, and more. 
Notification settings.

Step 5. Select when and to whom your notification will appear

By far and away, this is the most important step in the process. 

You don’t want the notification to show at the wrong time. Not to mention that your in-app message might not be relevant to all users. 

You might be displaying an onboarding tip, after all. Expert users, probably, don’t need to be bothered with this information. 

Or you might be triggering a license renewal reminder. Again, that’s not a message that concerns all users. 

So, let me show you how you can ensure that only the right people see your in-app notification. 

You do this by selecting a target audience segment for your in-app message. In the example below, I decided to display it to new users only. 

Audience segmentation for in-app messages.

Note that I also have the option to trigger the notification by language, location, device type, etc. 

You control timing by selecting the right launch trigger. 

In my example, I’ve specified that the notification will appear 30 seconds after a new user logs into the app but, naturally, you have a whole range of other ways to trigger the message. 

In-app launch triggers.

And that’s it. That’s what the entire process of setting up and launching an in-app message looks like. 

Want to start displaying in-app messages to your users? Check out Refiner, a dedicated survey and messaging software for SaaS and digital products. 

Best practices for running in-app messaging campaigns

To finish this guide, let me share with you some advice on how to make your in-app messaging a success. 

Because let’s face it, it’s relatively easy to trigger an in-app notification. You’ve seen what the process looks like first-hand above. 

But it’s equally easy to trigger it at the wrong time, to wrong users, disrupt their flow, or provide a poor user experience. 

The best practices I’ve listed below will ensure that this never happens to you.

A quick note before we begin – I’ve structured those best practices as questions. I think this is the easiest way to communicate what the most common issues with in-app messages are, and how to avoid them. 

So, to begin at the beginning.

What’s the ideal frequency of in-app messages?

In most cases, the issue of frequency does not apply to in-app messages. You should only trigger a message when you have something important to communicate with users within the app. 

That said, you should also avoid triggering several in-app notifications at once, or even on the same day. Otherwise, you risk creating too much noise within the app, and ultimately, having users start dismissing those messages without reading them. 

Do you need to always segment your audience?

No, you don’t. Whether you send the message to an audience segment or all users depends on the message type and its content. 

For example, if you’re triggering an onboarding message, then, naturally, your target audience are new users. 

A quick tip on how to use a feature could appear only to users who haven’t used that feature in a while. In this case, you’d base the segment on user behavior data, for example. 

If you’re displaying a new feature notification, then the message would appear for all users. So would an event reminder or a maintenance alert, and so on. 

TIP: Always consider who’d benefit from the information the most, and see if you can segment your audience to display it to those people only. 

Does an in-app message need to contain any visuals? 

No, of course it doesn’t. That said, in some cases, visuals – and I put anything from videos, images, and emojis into that category – may help make the message more noticeable. 

Also, emojis might help you make the content sound more personal. Videos or images, on the other hand, may help communicate complex ideas and help users achieve their goals better. 

Does the in-app message need to include a link? 

No, not always. Once again, whether you include a link to an external resource or not will depend on the type and the contents of the message. 

For example, if you’re recommending additional resources or want to point users to new content you published, then, yes, you will need a link. 

But if you’re sending a reminder about a scheduled maintenance, then, most likely, you don’t have to provide any references and links. 

Does an in-app message need to include a close button? 

A strong yes. First of all, the close button empowers users to decide when they want to dismiss the message. In a way, the close button respects their autonomy and prevents a feeling of intrusion, as users can choose to continue using the app without the message hindering their experience.

But also, the close button provides a good user experience. Just think about how a user would feel if a message popped up on their screen and they couldn’t dismiss it? 

So, although most in-app messaging tools offer the option to disable the close button, I personally would do that only in most extreme cases. Otherwise, always include the close button and allow the user to decide when they want the message gone.

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