The difference between soft-activated and hard-activated users

The difference between soft-activated and hard-activated users - the mobile spoon

Let’s talk about user activation

  • How do you define your activated users?
  • When do they become “activated”?
  • Is it when they sign-up?
  • Is it when they perform an action a certain number of times?
  • Or maybe it's when they’re making their first payment or switching from a trial to a paid subscription?  

With some products, the activation moment is trivial and easy to track (i.e. when a user pays for a yearly subscription). In others, it might require a deeper understanding of the users' behavior and the stage in which they actually convert. 

For some products, there's a clear distinction between “soft activated” to “hard activated” users. 


Here’s an example based on my own personal experience with Bird

I gave it a try 2 years ago when I needed a quick way to get somewhere; I was in the middle of the street, installed the app, entered my credit card details, and started riding. It was a smooth activation: it took me 2 minutes to complete my onboarding stage and use the product.

Now, if you were Bird's product manager, how would you define a user like me? 

I would bet that most early-stage startups would count me as an activated user. After all, startups need to show traction, and I definitely used the main function of the product as a paying customer. 

I converted, therefore I’m an activated user, right?

But did I reach my aha moment? 

Well, not sure about that one… 😐

You see, it was my first ride ever using an electric scooter, the ride was exciting and fun, but the product experience as a whole was pretty “meh”: it took a while to find a working scooter, I had issues with the battery, there were some hiccups. 

I was not convinced yet about the product, but I was happy I gave it a try.

And that’s exactly how it felt: it was a first-time experiment, not a first-time use

A paying user is not necessarily an activated one.

A few days later... same place, same need, me again, looking for a Bird scooter. 

This time, however, I couldn’t find any, so I downloaded another app - Lime, and used it instead. 

Hmmm... 🤔

So now, I’m a signed-up user in 2 products: Bird and Lime. Both of them have my payment details, and I experienced the main features of both products. 

But am I a truly activated user? 


I’m still in exploration mode, I’m still testing those apps, comparing the experiences, trying to establish the trust I need to form a habit. 

Soft activation vs. hard activation

A few years ago, we participated in the Distro Dojo accelerator by 500 startups (which I highly recommend on). 

The mentors made a distinction between soft activation and hard activation

  • Soft-activated users are the ones that completed their initial onboarding phase and made their first significant action(s). They have been activated but they're still in an exploration mindset. 

  • Hard-activated users are the ones that passed a certain tipping point in terms of their product usage and the value they gained from it. They trust the product and are ready to adopt it. 

Soft-activated users are still in a continuous onboarding process. They are sitting on the fence, evaluating your product. As such - you still have work to do: you need to convince them your product is worthy, and any hiccup might cause them to drop off. 

Soft-activated users have not yet adopted the product, they are still testing it.

Hard-activated users, on the other hand, have experienced the value of your product enough times to complete their evaluation and be treated as loyal or frequent customers that need to be retained

Both groups have used the product and can be counted as "activated" but they are in a completely different mindset

Identifying the hard activation moment

It's very important to identify the hard activation moment of your users because that's the moment you'll want all of your users to experience. In a way, it's like an aggregation of enough aha moments that lead to the final conversion. It's different for each product, and therefore important to identify and track

The hard activation moment is like an aggregation of enough aha moments that lead to final conversion. 

Here's an example from my previous startup: a marketplace for lifestyle services at home. We basically created a graph that aggregated the total number of bookings made by each user:

The difference between soft-activated and hard-activated users - the mobile spoon

Make no mistake - this is not a retention graph and it doesn't show usage over time.

It shows the number of users (in percentages) that have completed a different number of bookings (home treatments) in an aggregated way. 

So as you can see: 

  • 100% of our activated users completed at least 1 booking. That's obvious, otherwise, we wouldn't count them as "activated" users. 
  • 69% completed 2 bookings or more.
  • 50% completed 3 bookings or more.
  • And so on... 

At some point, the curve flattens and the drop-offs slow down. 

In our case, it happened after users completed their 4th treatment as presented below: 

Identifying your users' hard activation moment - the mobile spoon
Identifying your users' hard activation moment

The completion of the 4th treatment represents a major change in the trend. 

That's the tipping point. 

That's the hard activation moment from which users became much more engaged with the product and fully adopted it. From this moment on - they were less likely to churn, as the data shows. 

BTW, we also found that certain segments (not all) increased their frequency of use once they completed their 4th treatment - another sign of adoption. 

The beauty of this graph is that it visualizes the hard activation moment based on data. Keep in mind that this kind of visualization works well for transaction-based products, and might require some modifications for other payment models. 

Why is this important? 

Two main reasons:

1.  It helps you make better product decisions

Understanding the differences between your soft and hard-activated users helps you better understand your users and optimize the onboarding experience beyond the traditional aha moment.

For us, once we realized that our magic number is 4, we were able to aim our efforts towards that number. 

  • We treated our soft activated users (1-3 times) as trial users. 
  • We changed our ongoing "10+1 free" coupon to one time "4+1 free" coupon.
  • We gave a higher priority to orders made by soft-activated users to make sure they get the best service quality.
  • We created some dedicated marketing campaigns for soft-activated users.

With that plan in place, we were able to improve their conversion rates in increase the number of our hard-activated users. 

2. It helps you understand and measure your product performance better

Measuring all of your paying users as "activated" ones (before they are truly "on board") will boost your conversion rates and lower your retention rates dramatically. It might even lead you to some wrong conclusions about your product/market fit. 

In reality, maybe most of those churned users were never really activated? If so, your real problem might be bringing the right users into the funnel. A small difference that can lead to better insights.

In a broader view, the soft/hard activated stages resemble the product-led flywheel model, which defines 4 user stages: evaluators, beginners, regulars, and champions. Evaluators & beginners are in a sense, soft-activated. Once they experience the hard activation moment - they fully adopt the product and become regulars and over time evolve into champions. 

Converting from soft-activated to hard-activated and power users - the mobile spoon

Back to my experience with the scooter apps

Curious to know which scooter app won eventually?


I gave both apps a few more chances but I didn’t enjoy the cumbersome experience of searching for available scooters so I ended up purchasing a personal scooter instead. 

My activation journey ended without a real adoption.

I wonder if they counted me as an activated user that churned, or maybe I was just a soft activated one that never converted to be a hard activated user. 

Related posts: 

Before you leave - make sure to subscribe to my occasional newsletter and become 23% more awesome than average.


Gil Bouhnick The Mobile Spoon
Unknown said…
Good read. I think there is another level of complexity that PMs need to take into account. Onboarding also helps in qualifying users. Not every soft-activated user is necessarily your target audience. Maybe you only used Bird this one time, because your scooter ran out of battery, and you need a one-off solution. In such a case taking you into any calculation might skew the PMs perspective of their market. My point is, there can be multiple reasons why the conversion from soft-to-hard activation isn't 100%. Some users might be "noise". If you have a highly tuned value proposition, and onboarding, you should have less noise. Sometimes we don't have that, or we're trying things around. In such cases data might help us distinguish between soft-activated users who can be qualified to hard-activation, and those who should be disqualified. One approach is to look for correlations between lead sources and other characteristics, and the hard-activated event (where the tipping point is).
Tnx for sharing
Gil Bouhnick The Mobile Spoon
Darragh said…
This is powerful and came right on time!
Keep up the good work - your posts are alwasy spot-on!