Gradual engagement is a process, not just a sequential combination of screens.
The old model consists of two parts A and B that you need to master in order to reap the biggest reward and outcome. An important aspect is to create a smooth and consistent path from start to finish.
It generally starts with user acquisition through various marketing endeavors like landing pages and campaigns. The marketing department has to come up with consistent ways to entice the visitor to sign up while starting to educate her on how the service shall be used. The remaining part then is called “On-Boarding” in which you basically hold a users’ hand while showing and explaining her the service in further detail to get her up to speed (so that she does not churn). In the worst case the user starts to get the most utility at the far end of your on-boarding journey although she had to sign up and provide a bunch of data a long while ago.
Connecting A and B in predictable ways is very hard because of the pure nature of very flexible and easy to set up marketing experiments on one side (e.g. the aforementioned landing pages) but less flexible software structures on the other. On platforms like the web this may be fairly easy and controllable, however, adding to this equation more rigid mobile platforms like iOS, it can get complex very easily.
Entering gradual engagement. The core idea is to offer the right amount of utility at the earliest stage possible whereby you are requesting data from the user only at those points where it is crucially needed. This implies asking for general data like real names or profile picture as late as possible. And this is crucial: Why bother putting up bottlenecks and creating friction for visitors before they even understood the core benefit of your service and have invested a little bit of their valuable time. Interestingly, although the concept has been around for a little while few companies have fully gone down the path of integrating end-to-end gradual engagement schemes.
And this is crucial: Why bother putting up bottlenecks and creating friction for visitors before they even understood the core benefit of your service and have invested a little bit of their valuable time.
From a technical perspective it comes with a different user model as compared to the widely used “best practice” of “Create your account” at the very beginning. The gradual engagement theme aims at a different setup early on which shall not require a user for this type of datasets. Understandably, this can get very hard to build for some types of products as they may require a creation of some sort of user identifier to which a users’ actions (e.g. uploads, settings) will be associated. In fact, technical challenges shall not put you off early on, but rather have you focus on the core utility of your service without distractions around it.
From a product perspective though the benefit is twofold: Simplicity and hence less friction on the user side as you build a lightweight product and the ability - in Lean Startup fashion - to iterate and experiment rapidly. Gradual engagement schemes enable you to expose the core utility or main product feature immediately for which you are getting the most valuable, hands-on feedback. Although surely a big benefit it is not the end goal, it is just the starting point because you can easily iterate on singles steps itself with in the entire user journey.
Dropscan.de for example does ask you to create an account at the outset, however, they delay the request to add a credit card for as long as possible. In fact, you are free to receive postal mail as much as you like but then at the point where you actually want to know what is in a specific letter Dropscan asks you to choose a plan and to add a credit card. Here is smart thinking at work because you are populating your digital mailbox with letters which you cannot request once again (or only with a bunch of effort). So the only way out for you is indeed to add a credit card in order to find out their content.