Don’t Let Your Brand Show Bad Form By Using Bad Forms

Don’t Let Your Brand Show Bad Form By Using Bad Forms
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The single most important thing any business can do is engage potential customers who are ready to spend money.

One of the most common ways I see businesses fail in this respect is with their contact forms. Forms are typically thought of as a page on a website, but electronic forms can exists in a variety of locations including social channels or as widgets on third-party sites outside of your control.

It is crucial that businesses keep an inventory of all forms that are available to their customers, make sure they are working properly and have a plan of action when submissions are received.

But that’s just the beginning.

Last month I was searching for local juice bar. I was interested in buying a home juicer, but wanted to taste a few juices before making the investment. I found the website of the closest location and searched their site for their contact form. They didn’t have one. Instead they displayed their email address at the bottom of the home page and only the home page. Interestingly, the email address was embedded in the background graphic and was not clickable.

Since I could not click on the email nor could I use the mouse to select copy and paste it, my measure of last resort was to manually type the email address in my email application.

Days went by and I never received a response.

So I called the juice bar and asked the manager (who was also the owner) all of my questions. I mentioned that I had submitted an email and he said that he didn’t think anyone checked the company email. To make the scenario more absurd, when I told him that there was no easy way to contact his company on his website he replied, “I don’t know what our web guy is doing.”

Put aside that this person had seemingly relinquished the marketing of his business to “the web guy,” it probably stands to reason that the number of leads his website is generating is somewhere between null and zero.

Here are a few thoughts to help you not be “the juice guy.”

Part One: Create A Good Experience For Your Customers

Prepopulate Values

If you have a contact form that asks the visitor a question about actions they have already taken, then make every effort to prepopulate as many fields as possible. For example, if you have an e-commerce site and the visitor expresses some interest in a product, when they get to the form, the name of the product should already be prepopulated in the respective field. This eliminates the need for someone to type in the name of the product, saving them time, and presenting the information to you typo-free.

Don’t Post A Raw Email Address

Having your email address exposed isn’t terrible, but there are downsides. By exposing an email address you risk having that address harvested by electronic means to populate spam lists. This can be mitigated by having good spam prevention in place, but more important is that by using an email address, you lose any control of the conversation. Freeform emails tend to be disorganized and rambling. That’s not a good way to start a conversation.

Publish Instructions

Sometimes what is clear to you may not be so to others. Assume nothing and put short direct instructions on your forms. This will help your customer complete the form in a way that is meaningful to you. The key word being “short.” You don’t want the customer spending more time learning how to use your form than actually filling it out.

Create A Story

Once you know what questions you want to ask on your form, make the questions flow by grouping similar fields. The size and shape of each field can also help your form flow. For example, if you require your customer to indicate what state they are in, a two character field length will suffice.

Consider The Data Types You Want

If you need specific information such as a date, consider using a widget or code that will force the customer to select a date from a visual calendar instead of manually entering a date. If you have constraints, present those constraints to the customer. For example if you only service customers in three states, make those three states the only ones that are selectable. This will send clear visual cues to your customer regarding how you want the form filled out.

Validate Data

Customers often make mistakes on forms, but with validations the customer can be alerted to those mistakes before submitting the form. There are two classes of validations; client-side and server-side.

Client-side validations take place on the customer’s computer. This is effective for giving the customer immediate feedback. The downside is that client-side validations can be easily – and sometimes accidentally – circumvented.

Server-side validations make sure the validations took place at the server level where it cannot be tampered with and sends any problems back to the customer’s browser. The ideal scenario is to have client-side and server-side validations at the same time.

Validations are also essential for forms that are automatically submitted to third-party electronic systems such as sales automation systems. Bad data may cause those systems to reject the data or worse, cause you to lose a sale.

Use Multi Page Forms

If your form has more than a handful of questions consider making the form multiple pages. This allows you to not only better control the flow of the questions, but allows a customer to complete all of the information in “bite sized” chunks. A multipage form can also be valuable in situations where you want to ask different questions depending on answers the customer has already submitted.

Send The Customer A Copy

Nothing can be more frustrating to a customer than not knowing if the form they just completed was delivered. Sending them a copy will not only give them immediate feedback, but will also give them peace of mind.

Part Two: Create A Good Experience For Your Business

Use A Captcha To Prevent Spam Submissions

I have a love-hate relationship with captchas. On the one hand, a captcha adds unneeded complexity to a form. On the other hand it’s an advantage to not have to go through a mountain of fraudulent submissions. To me there isn’t a straightforward answer to the captcha question, but understanding its impact can be important. I like to run forms with and without a captcha to test if the performance of the form is substantially different. If I find that a captcha is causing a reduction in submissions, then I propose to my customer that they accept the possibility of spam.

Send Submissions To Multiple Addresses

Typically forms are configured to go to a single email address. But having submissions sent to a group list creates a better sense of “being in the loop” for team members and opens the possibility of more ideas on how to improve communications.

A group list is also easier to manage if the list of recipients ever needs to change. Changing the group list negates the need to reprogram the form itself.

Store Submissions

The old saying goes, “you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.” Every form eventually needs a facelift. What better way to identify areas of improvement than to review prior submissions. Were your instructions clear? Were the answers provided clear? Did a high volume of visitors fail to complete your forms in a manner that you found suitable? How about this one; if you look at the website analytics for the page the forms are on, does the number of visits reasonably match the number of submissions? All of these questions and more are harder to answer if you don’t have the source material.

Maintain A Clear Chain Of Command

Regardless how many people see inbound submissions, there must be a clear understanding as to who is responsible for reacting to those submissions. You want to make sure that no one fails to respond to a form because they think someone else did. You also don’t want multiple people responding to the same submission.

Test Periodically

It goes without saying that every form should be tested as soon as it is deployed. But just because it worked at launch doesn’t mean it will work forever. Forms should be periodically tested to ensure that whatever underlying technology is in place still works. Unrelated events such as updates, patches and security fixes to the operating system the web server has the potential to cause your form to break.

Understand Your Technology And The Structure

Most forms require a web server and a mail server for delivery. Sometimes those two things exist on one physical device; sometimes they don’t. Having someone in your organization who understands the difference and how these technologies fit together will result in faster response time in the event of a problem.

Understand License Requirements

If you use a CMS such as WordPress or Drupal, your form may be generated by a plug-in. Sometimes plug-ins require a fee to use or upgrade or both. For example, my company owns a license to a form system that allows us to create and deploy forms from a centralized panel. Occasionally the vendor releases fixes, improvements or updates. Because we own the license any updates made to the overall system are inherited by all of the sites we host. However, if a client moves their site off of our hosting environment, their forms will still work, but they will not receive future updates unless they purchase their own license.

Good forms are a balancing act between art and science. As long as you make your forms easy for your customers to use and easy for your organization to react to then you increase the probability of a trouble-free work flow.

Do you have underperforming forms on any of your sites? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll be happy to make suggestions on how to improve them.

Ralph M. Rivera
Hi, I'm Ralph! I'm a web developer at Rahvalor Interactive, a creative marketing services company that I founded in 1999 with my wife and business partner Carol Lynn. In January 2012 we created Web.Search.Social as a branded service offering that brings enterprise-level services to small businesses in an affordable way. I'm also founder and CTO of Podcaster's Toolbox, a SaaS platform designed to help podcasters plan, produce and promote their shows. I teach web development at Manhattan College in New York City. Carol Lynn and I are home based near the Jersey shore but we're currently location independent and traveling the country for a year, working and podcasting. I'm also trying to build a flux capacitor, but that's not going as well as the other stuff I do.
Ralph M. Rivera
Ralph M. Rivera