The Number One Reason Your Lead Generation Forms Aren’t Working


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 analog example I’ve found comes from David Ogilvy in the 1950s. In both, conversion meant “someone buying something”. Everything else was an action, a response, or a lead, but never a conversion.

Perhaps responses didn’t matter to the executive team or actions just weren’t validating, so you hopped on the conversion bandwagon. “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 definition of conversion began to shift. First from “customer who makes a purchase” to “lead”. Next, one-by-one, every action you can imagine a visitor taking on a website became a conversion. Have you looked at what passes for a conversion today?

I Got 99 Conversions But… Wait, No, I Have None

  • 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 on a search engine ad (…really? Yikes.)
  • Stayed on the page more than X seconds (…really scraping the bottom of the barrel)

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! Hang on, let’s define lead. Marketo’s definition is meaningful, particularly given their market share: a lead is a “qualified potential buyer who shows some level of interest in purchasing your product or solution.”

If there are 17 vending machines side by side (read: you and your competitors all offering a white paper), I’m going to go with whatever’s easiest.

Go back to the shopping cart, the first entry on the bulleted list. I know we’re talking about the web, but let’s pull this back 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. You complicate things. To pick up any individual box of cereal the visitor now has to provide a dozen bits of information. Does giving you that information in exchange for reading the box show interest, or do they just enjoy reading ingredients on the sides of boxes? What if our form asked if they like cereal, or when they intend on buying cereal next? 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. They may show interest but as a competitor. They may only like our cartoon mascot.

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.

The number one reason your lead generation forms aren’t working is they give you no answer to the question of intent.

Not one of these claims is true:

  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. They’re qualified! Yes!”

Did they? Or did they just click any option in the list? Have you defined qualified? Is that a cross-functional definition or siloed in Marketing? Was the intent of filling in the form to provide you insight into their interest, or were they merely trying to get past your gate so they could access your content?

All your forms do is tell your visitors “No”.

If this is the hurdle they need to jump through to buy your product – or just to talk to you – you’re creating a bad first impression.

When all is said and done, the visitor data you’re collecting may or may not equate to leads. It definitely isn’t conversions.

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

  • No agreement across the business about what’s critical to growth, so something that isn’t customers purchasing what you’re selling overtakes selling as priority #1. It’s common in this situation to find executives and employees who lack the will to tackle the problem. Instead, they go around and around in circles, branching out to other metrics and pulling those back into their umbrella.
  • 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 these actions have knobs and dials that can be tweaked to increase customer purchase rates. That still depends on what you’re measuring, how you’re measuring it, and what outcomes you’re linking back to those tweaks. But again, they are only 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’t leads because you can’t separate the attribution of interest from a person just doing things on your website.

Opportunity: Nobody Enjoys Forms.

  1. Ask customers what’s wrong with your forms. Don’t argue, just implement fixes. Typically, your forms have far too many fields because you’re using them as an early qualification. Instead, you’ve just added a barrier to engagement. In addition, filling your forms out once doesn’t “stick”. In other words, the visitor needs to fill out another form the next time they return to your site. 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.

Just give me the content already.  Don’t trick me into clicking your link and waste my time by trying to get me to fill out an overly complicated form that I know will result in more marketing coming my way.

Opportunity: “Nurturing” Is A Lie. People Hate Spam.

  1. Stop. “But I’m generating mindshare!” No, 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. Think about the value to the visitor, not to yourself. Not, “Sean, thanks for blah blah blah I hope you liked it, 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 Have No Idea Why A Visitor Wants Your Content

  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. Identify real leads through smarter and more personal engagement and you’ll increase the value you’re delivering to Sales and to your customers.

One thought on “The Number One Reason Your Lead Generation Forms Aren’t Working

  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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