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A simple design fix for your website

A simple design fix for your website Brandt Dainow

Most sites do not sell merchandise online. For these sites, the most critical business component of the site is the contact form.

Many businesses use a sales model in which the website's role is to get the initial customer contact. Sales staff then follows up and closes the deal. This is a very successful, proven, business model, which is why most organizations do it. Not every company formalizes its sales process in these terms, but if you have a website and don't sell online, that is what you are doing.

In view of this, it constantly surprises me how little attention people pay to their contact forms. Poorly performing forms and poor management of the processes behind these forms are costing many people a great deal of business.

The form process
Before we talk about getting the best out of our contact forms, let's examine the "form process" and establish some terminology. People have to view the form before they can fill it in. Viewing a form is a "page impression." If getting new sales prospects is the reason we have a website, getting people to fill in the form is our goal. Because people have to view a form before they can fill it in, getting people to view our contact form becomes a goal, too.

In order to improve performance we have to first measure it. We therefore need a metric for viewing forms. The percentage of visits in which the contact form is viewed is the "prospect rate." This is a number you'll have to calculate manually. Prospect rate is not a recognized metric; it's one I made up, so you won't find it calculated in any web analytics software. It is calculated by dividing the number of contact form page impressions by the total number of visits (not visitors).

Not everyone who views a contact form fills it in. Here we measure the percentage of people who do not fill the form in. This is the "abandonment rate." This metric comes from IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) and is widely recognized, although no formal definitions exist for it. However, some metrics systems will report this number. Abandonment rate is also used for shopping carts, and can be used for any form page, such as online quote systems. The higher the abandonment rate the worse the performance. We want low abandonment rates.

After someone has completed the form, the information contained within is sent to the organization. This is handled by the web server. When the visitor clicks the submit button (or equivalent) the information in the form (not the form itself) is sent by his or her browser to the web server.

In most cases the web server then places that information into an email message and sends the email to someone in the organization. In other cases the information is placed in a CRM or similar sales management system. When the sales management system sits inside the company network (such as ACT) and not on the website, the information is usually sent via email to the company, where it is then imported into the CRM. The most popular tool for doing this with ACT is WebGrabber, which breaks an email into the appropriate fields inside ACT. However, in most cases contact form information ends up as emails inside Outlook.

It is well known that every additional question placed on a contact form discourages some people from completing the form. You need to be sure the market information you gather this way genuinely translates into improved marketing, which genuinely leads to additional sales, and that those additional sales are worth more than the lost business represented by a higher abandonment rate. If you think you can prove this is the case I'd love to hear from you, because I've never seen it.

Another common cause of high abandonment rates is trying to use the form to pre-qualify leads, for example, asking questions about how much someone wants to spend, or what the person's budget is. Each pre-qualification question loses potential customers who do qualify, but who don't want to tell you this until they trust you more. Personally, I would rather have a sales person waste a few minutes phoning someone who doesn't qualify than lose a sale.

The third common cause of high abandonment rates is required fields, which are questions people have to answer or the form won't be sent. I once had a real estate company that made "How do you rate our site?" a required question. I had to ask if the company was really going to refuse to sell a house to someone just because the person wouldn't reveal what he or she thought of the site. Removing that question from the form doubled online enquiries overnight. This translated into additional sales worth 50 times the total cost of building and running the website.

Stupid or complex questions can also increase abandonment. One recruitment agency I worked with had "please describe your dream job" as a question. That's a tough question to answer if you aren't a good writer. It's also hard to know what is expected as a response -- a few words or a short novel? It's simply easier for someone to go to another site that has an easier form. In addition, the answers the agency did get weren't really used by the placement staff. The staff was more concerned with candidates' qualifications and experience.

The most effective contact forms are the ones that only ask the things you genuinely need to know in order to make contact. In most cases this is nothing more than a name and a phone number or email address.

Once you've gotten the abandonment rate down as far as you can, look at the prospect rate (the percentage of visits during which people look at the contact form). The prospect rate tells you how many people are considering contacting the company. The higher it is, the more successful your site is as a sales tool. The first thing to look at is how easy it is to get to the form. Put links to the contact form in as many places as possible, or (even better), put the contact form in as many pages as possible. After that you can branch out into general assessments of the other sales aspects of the site.

Manage your forms
Finally, and most importantly, contact forms need management. In all the cases I've cited above, management had nothing to do with the contact form process. Forms were created, processes put in place, but no one came back to see what was happening. It was assumed it would all just run smoothly. Someone in a sales management position needs to be counting form submissions and the resultant enquiries. The person needs to know what the abandonment rate is, and whether that is good or bad. If a website is designed to generate enquiries, watching and managing the contact form process is the single most important thing to do on that site. It's what generates the income.

ThinkMetrics. Read full bio.

Brandt is an independent web analyst, researcher and academic.  As a web analyst, he specialises in building bespoke (or customised) web analytic reporting systems.  This can range from building a customised report format to creating an...

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