Your forms aren’t getting you leads, your leads aren’t conversions; basically everything you’ve been told is a lie.

Every day I’m looking for ways to grow revenue and one way is by increasing the number of qualified opportunities hitting our Sales team. One of the topics I’ve been keeping an eye on is the website form and its relation to business growth, including the potentially negative effects those forms have on growth. Of course I began to dig around, sift through articles, soak up analysis, and now I’m all-in on this: forms suck. I may work for a vendor but I’m also a consumer both at home and in business. I hate filling out form after form when all I want to do is read a case study or watch a video, the whole time knowing I will be on the receiving end of some spam even though at least one us knows that I’m not going to be buying anything. Hilariously, this is often referred to as “nurturing.”

Nurturing. There’s an email marketing term that needs to die. Sending emails is not “caring for (your customer’s) growth and development”. If we look at conversion rates, it’s not caring for your business’s growth and development either. It’s rarely anything more than playing darts. But just like you can master darts, you can master nurturing, so we’ll come back to this in a bit.

Does anyone else recall when “conversion” meant a customer purchased something, and not one of the dozens of other definitions of the term that folks keep piling on to make themselves feel better? The earliest article on conversion rates I’ve found on the web goes back to 1993, in a piece on AdWeek about infomercials and direct mail. The earliest I’ve found elsewhere goes back to David Ogilvy in the 1950s. In both, “conversion” meant someone buying something. That’s it. Everything else was an action, a response, a lead, but never a conversion.

I’m guessing that wasn’t enough for some people. Maybe they couldn’t accept that all of their work wasn’t getting accolades, the responses didn’t matter to the higher-ups, or it could be they just didn’t feel validation. “But I’m converting them from one thing to another!” they cried. OK, fine, in the literal sense of the word “convert”, but what you’ve actually done is co-opt a well-known and accepted term for your own benefit. The primary factor behind conversion started shifting from “customer who makes a purchase” to “lead” and then sure enough, one-by-one every action you can imagine a visitor can take on a website became a conversion. Have you looked at what passes for a conversion today? I’ll be right back after I skim a dozen sales & marketing blogs…

  • Added something to the “shopping cart”
  • Requested a quote
  • Signed up for a free account
  • Filled out a survey
  • Subscribed to a newsletter
  • Downloaded something
  • Registered for an event
  • Shared your article on a social media site
  • Filled out a contest entry
  • Provided general feedback
  • Watched a video
  • Clicked through a search engine ad (…really? Yikes.)
  • Stayed on the page longer than X seconds (…wow, really scraping the bottom of the barrel there, Guru #73551. Find a new career.)

These were all found on pages no older than 1 year, and found in no more than 5 minutes of browsing. At the very least they could have said “lead conversion” instead of “conversion”! But hang on, let’s define lead and let’s go with Marketo’s definition as their marketshare denotes some level of agreement: a lead is a “qualified potential buyer who shows some level of interest in purchasing your product or solution.”

Go back to the shopping cart, the first bullet on the list. I know we’re talking about ecommerce, but let’s take it into the physical world. You’re the General Manager of a supermarket. Does someone walking into the store inherently indicate interest in purchasing any one product? Does entering the cereal aisle indicate they are a qualified buyer? Until now these are just actions. You have no idea if the person is anything other than a visitor so you complicate things. To get into the cereal aisle, or maybe just to pick up any individual box of cereal, the visitor has to provide a dozen bits of information. Does giving you that information just so they can read the box show interest, or do they just enjoy reading ingredients on the sides of boxes? In other words, are they a lead yet? What if our form asked if they like cereal, or when they’re intending on buying some? Do we still need more information thus making our form nothing more than a waste of time? We might uncover that they are a qualified buyer, but not at all interested in purchasing our product or solution. Or they show interest, but they aren’t a potential buyer they’re a competitor. Or they just like our cartoon character.

Do you know how low B2B conversion rates are? Really low. They’re so low that a lot of articles that start off with writing about actual conversions mysteriously only publish the “visitor filled out a form” or “visitor clicked a funny picture” metrics which again aren’t conversions. Those are just actions by visitors on a bad day, steps in the customer journey on a good one. Oh, and that filled-out-a-form rate? It’s somewhere between 2 and 3%.

I found at least one article that shows a glimpse on an actual conversion rate. If you read that 2-3% figure and thought it was bad then seeing the “customers making a purchase” actual conversion rate for at least one business at an average of 0.6% might send you off the cliff. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This might give us some idea of why the meaning of “conversion” has expanded to cover everything under the sun. If you pull everything marketers and salespeople are doing that aren’t conversions (customers) into the umbrella, many of those marketers and salespeople will feel validation and will probably buy more of your services. This is the same basic human psychology that fuels the self-help industry. Bob reads a couple of articles by “thought leaders” (…) and then starts talking about how amazing it is that he “converted” 50,000 website visitors this year – into what we don’t know – by making them fill out forms that act as gates to anything worth a damn on our website and now Bob is the divine Buddha riding a shimmering golden unicorn into Valhalla.

I mixed up mythologies a bit. You get the idea.

One problem we can see right off the bat, because our forms generally terrible, is we have no clue how many of those 50,000 “converted”-into-something are even actually leads.

  1. “Filling out the form means they want to buy!”
  2. “Filling out the form means they are able to buy!”
  3. “Filling out the form means they love our products!”
  4. “They filled out the form because they love filling out forms!”
  5. “They specifically chose ‘I want to buy in the next 3-6 months’ in the drop-down, Sean. Get off of it already!” Sorry, no can do I’m afraid. Did you also ask if they’re qualified? Did you define qualified? Did they fill out the form to show interest or to get past your stupid gate? All your form means is you’ve erected another barrier to actually engaging with the visitor and determining whether they are both qualified and interested. Meanwhile, maybe they’re just someone who likes to read whitepapers and lie on forms.

What is typically done is we take our lack of insight and pile on a huge stack of assumptions. In other words we make a guess. We can ask on our form why they downloaded, define “qualified buyer” and ask if they fit that qualification, and write our questions to try and infer interest. Unless there are options for each qualifying factor and you can attribute interest, they are not a lead. So we add Marketing Qualified Lead or MQL to try and clear things up, and… I’m not even going down this rathole. Trust me when I say that it’s a deep one.

Coming up for air, these form-fills may or may not be leads but they definitely aren’t conversions.

Normally, when I learn about these… stretches… of the term “conversion”, it’s happening for one of two reasons:

  • No agreement across the business about what’s critical to growth, so something that isn’t customer’s purchasing what you’re selling overtakes that as priority #1. This leads to terms being thrown around left and right in whatever context is being used by the speaker at the time. Making matters worse, it’s common in this situation to find executives and employees who lack the will to tackle this problem, and so they just go ’round and ’round in circles. This is where I’ve seen those conversion numbers having an emotional impact on people and, as mentioned, it led them to expand out across other metrics and pull those back into the umbrella. This is often closer to reality than not. People just doing what they’re told or “we’ve always done it this way” by someone equally mystified. Sometimes that person is trying. More often than not they are just as clueless.
  • The head of Marketing convinced the CEO to agree with broad and largely meaningless definitions of “lead” and “conversion” in order to guarantee their job and their bonuses. Regrettably, I have heard of this happening more than zero times and I’ll be clear: this should be happening exactly zero times.

What you need to do is grow the business. Your business grows by customers buying what you have to sell. Not by site visitors sharing an article or watching a video, or even downloading a product slick. Those are actions and, coupled with the earlier list, some of which may have knobs and dials that can be tweaked to increase customer purchases. That depends on how/what/when/why you’re measuring those actions, what outcomes you’re tying to the tweaking, and so on. But again, they are simply actions: they are not leads and they are not conversions.

Back to web forms. Forms generate contact information. That’s it. For a number of reasons, forms aren’t even guaranteed to get you useful contact information, in other words not “converting” to anything, meaning forms may not even be getting you leads. Remember that a lead is a “qualified potential buyer who shows some level of interest in purchasing your product or solution.” If you want leads, at a minimum, you need to verify the data by cross-referencing that contact information against several other factors, and I don’t mean that the same person who downloaded a whitepaper also watched 3 videos and even posted about you on Twitter. That’s still just a person “doing things”, not “showing interest in what you are selling”. You need to identify interest. Not by spammy “nurturing” crap, but by engaging with them. And forms are terrible for engagement which makes them all but useless. Your forms are doing nothing more than introducing yet another barrier between you and your potential customers purchasing from you.

“But you just said I need to ask them! How can I ask without a form?”

Let’s go all the way back to the beginning and identify some opportunities begging for solutions. I hate filling out form after form. I hate being put into “nurturing tracks” when I’m clearly not a lead. You hate having hundreds of thousands of “leads” that like me aren’tleads because you can’t separate the attribution of interest from a person just doing things on your website.

Opportunity: people hate filling out forms.

Two solutions:

  1. Stick with forms, think about why people hate them, and fix them – the forms not the people! OK stop thinking, all the work has been done, here’s your answer: your forms have way too many fields because you’re rightly trying to qualify, I get it, but it’s all just a barrier to engagement. And filling the form out once doesn’t “stick” – in other words the visitor is almost guaranteed to have to fill out another form for another thing they’re interested in. The fix? Only ask for an email. Use cookies, sessions, tracking, and other technology to take all the friction out. I give you an email once and I’m done. There are tools that can infer full name, company, title, even position on the org chart and a host of other data points from an email address and a cookie. “But what about throwaway email accounts?” HEY SHERLOCK, that person isn’t a lead anyway, move on!
  2. Completely ditch forms and switch to chat. Using a mix of bots and people you can ask questions to help guide the visitor to their most valuable outcome. Notice I said “their” not “your”. Recognize that the best outcome for them is not always the one that results in them buying what you’re selling. They are a guest. You have no clue why they are there, but you (or a bot) can ask questions in realtime to make this determination. The folks who want to consider your offerings, and especially those who want to buy, they’ll engage with the chat. The ones who don’t? Ask Sherlock up there.

Opportunity: “nurturing” is rarely doing anything of the sort; people hate unwanted email aka spam.

One solution in two steps:

  1. Stop. “I’m generating mindshare!” No you aren’t, you’re generating ambivalence at best and negativity toward your business at worst.
  2. Implement a connection personalization system and make sure it gives immediate value to the visitor. Connections, not just email, because you need to build around phone, email, and chat as those are all valid options for the recipient. Again, think value to the visitor, not to you. Not, “Sean, thanks for blah blah blah I hope you liked it, by the way there’s a webinar on topic-you-watched-a-video-on and please click here to register.” This is lipstick on a pig. If you bought into some system promising personalization through “artificially-intelligent machine learning bitcoins,” or whatever the latest hype is and it isn’t performing and now you’re stuck with it, I’m sorry but you need to shut it off. Your system needs to (1) derive facts about the person, their role, their business, and their challenges all from the wealth of data available online today and (2) provide the person with immediate value. No systems? Go back to step 1 and do nothing, because sending yet another spammy email only contributes to the noise. Yes systems? Fire away. Remember what you send or what your automation tool sends has got to provide options to connect right then and there and also give immediate value. Identify the specific content they took action on. Call out one specific point from that content that supports a challenge you know they’re facing and how it is helping their competitor, one of their customers, or at least another like-business solve that challenge. Then offer a brief conversation on that along with your direct phone number, link to chat, and link to book a meeting right on the calendar. And if this is an automated system, and I hope it is, the system should be plugging all of that in as if it’s coming from the relevant Sales rep themselves.
  3. I know I said there are two steps. I was wrong, there is a third: if you get past step 2 and still don’t get a connection, step 3 is GO BACK TO STEP 1. Don’t spam. Don’t try and connect again, not until they take some other action. “But I’ve got them in the funnel, it’s easier to get a hold of them now, I just know it!” No, they’re a visitor who did something and abandoned and meanwhile you have tens of thousands of other potential customers in your total addressable market to engage with. And if you don’t because the business you’re in is that niche, consider those conversion rates again and maybe shut the business down.

Opportunity: you don’t know intent of actions taken on your website.

One solution in two steps:

  1. Stop collecting everyone who takes an action on your website as a lead. They’re just visitors. Save the data hygiene problems in your CRM. Save overpaying for your email automation solution and all your other “per lead” solutions. Only leads are leads, everyone else is just a visitor, log the contact info and move on.
  2. Ask. The best time to ask is immediately. The best way is non-intrusively. This means a small, out-of-the-way chat capability, preferably one that can make inferences about the visitor based on the aforementioned session\cookie\tracking technologies and offer immediate value is probably your best bet. “Thanks for downloading that whitepaper about (problem). I can help answer your questions now on how (solution) addresses (problem) and save you the 10-minute read if you like. Let me know.” This could be done with chat-bots, people, or even better a mix of the two.

Lose the forms. Interact with your visitors. Ditch the CRM overload and increase focus and execution by identifying real leads and driving successful selling through smarter and more personal engagement. You can do this and actually nurture your customers and your business.

Additional reading on why website forms are killing your sales pipeline:

One thought on “Your forms aren’t getting you leads, your leads aren’t conversions; basically everything you’ve been told is a lie.

  1. Wow that was a Masterpiece. most of all it you made it seem like Common sense and common courtesy like it should be. We often get so entrenched in this world of online marketing because we have “gurus” yelling at us from every direction we forget how to be human in our marketing.
    Thx bro


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