Updated September 20, 2018
After 20+ years of creating scores of them, hundreds of hours spent researching how to optimize them, and countless complaints from salespeople about them, I’ve come to a revelation about website forms:
They’re complete and utter garbage.
I’m a vendor and a buyer, so I get it. You want my information. Here’s the problem: I hate filling out form after form after form when all I want to do is read a case study or watch a video. Instead, I wind up on the receiving end of your mountain of email spam even though at least one of us knows the chances of me buying anything in response are about as close to zero as it gets.
Brief aside: for those unaware, said email spam is often referred to as “nurturing”. If you’re sitting there asking yourself how spamming tens-of-thousands of email Inboxes is the same as “caring for (your customer’s) growth and development”, you aren’t alone. If you were to look at conversion rates, in effect that’s when someone turns from a “window shopper” to a buyer, you’d see that this is the equivalent of playing darts. And everyone doing B2B Marketing knows it.
Anyway, back to conversion rates.
Does anyone else recall when “conversion” was defined as a customer purchasing something? The earliest article on conversion rates on the web goes back to a 1993, piece on AdWeek about infomercials and direct mail. The earliest at all appears to come from David Ogilvy in the 1950s. In both pieces, “conversion” meant someone buying something. That’s it. Everything else was an action, a response, a lead, but never a conversion. Today, it seems like there are dozens of other definitions of the term that folks keep tossing onto the field to either make themselves sound smarter or feel better.
Maybe they couldn’t accept their work wasn’t getting accolades or they were crushed to find out that leads aren’t all that important to the C-suite (generally speaking, only revenue growth matters). “But I’m bringing in business!” they cried. All they’d done was co-opt a well-known term and warp it for their own benefit. The definition of “conversion” started shifting from “customer who makes a purchase” to “anyone with a pulse” and, sure enough, one-by-one every action you can imagine a visitor taking became a conversion. As an example, have you looked at what passes for a conversion on a website today? A review of more than a dozen high-profile Marketing industry blogs reveals the following:
I Got 99 Conversions But An Actual, Paying Customer Ain’t One…
- Adding something to the “shopping cart”
- Requesting a quote
- Signing up for a free account
- Filling out a survey
- Subscribing to a newsletter
- Downloading something (anything)
- Registering for an event
- Sharing your blog post on a social media site
- Filling out a contest entry
- Providing general feedback
- Watching a video
- Clicking through to your page from a search engine
- Staying on your page for longer than X seconds (…wow, really scraping the bottom of the barrel there, Guru #73551)
These were all found on pages published from mid-2017 to early-2018 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. We’re talking about e-commerce, but let’s take this into the physical world for a moment.
You’re the General Manager of a supermarket. Does someone walking into the store indicate interest in purchasing any one, specific product? Does entering the cereal aisle make them a qualified buyer? Did mailing your weekly circular out to them and then see them showing up in the store mean anything at all? (Speaking of which, do those add up to a mountain of recycling or what?!)
These are all merely actions. You have no idea if the person is anything other than a visitor. You need attribution. To close that gap, 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. Do they give you the information because they want the cereal, or did they just want to see the Nutritional Information? Maybe they just like the cartoon character on the box? Starting to see why this might not all work out the way you’d hoped?
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.
Let’s take a step back.
Do you know how low B2B conversion rates are? Really low. Abysmally low. So low that a lot of articles that declare they’ll be writing about actual conversions mysteriously only publish the “visitor filled out a form” or “visitor clicked a funny picture” data which, again, isn’t showing conversions. On a good day, those are steps in the customer journey. On a bad day, those are just actions by visitors.
That form-fill rate? The one getting you nothing? It’s somewhere between 2 and 3%.
If you read that 2-3% figure and thought it was bad then seeing the rate at which customers make purchases, otherwise known as actual conversion rates, down 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 doesn’t fit the original definition of conversion into the umbrella, many of those marketers and salespeople will feel validated by your work. They may even buy your services. This is the same basic human psychology that fuels the self-help industry. Bob reads a few articles praising “lead conversion” as the new metric to live and die by, nearly all of them written by companies selling tools or training related to lead tracking or lead conversion, and – wouldn’t you know – soon he starts talking about how amazing it is that he “converted” 50,000 website visitors this year – into what, we still don’t know. But he sure did make them fill out a lot of useless forms that act as gates to anything worth a damn on our website. And, ever since his CEO bought into this “conversion” idea, Bob is now the divine Buddha riding a shimmering golden unicorn into Valhalla! Go, Bob!
I mixed up mythologies a bit. You get the idea.
The number one reason your forms don’t work is that they give you no idea about the visitor’s intent.
Not one of these claims is true:
- “Filling out the form means they want to buy!”
- “Filling out the form means they are able to buy!”
- “Filling out the form means they love our products!”
- “They filled out the form because they love filling out forms!”
- “They specifically chose ‘I want to buy in the next 3-6 months’ in the drop-down. They’re qualified! Woooo!”
Have you defined qualified? Is that a cross-functional definition or siloed in Marketing?
Was their intent in 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 the content they were after?
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.
All your form is doing is acting as another barrier to engaging with the visitor and determining whether they are both qualified and interested. Meanwhile, your lead list is growing by the hundreds or thousands, threatening to suck countless hours, days, or weeks away from your company’s productivity.
What’s often behind all of this is a lack of insight and a huge stack of assumptions. One or more of your colleagues are making guesswork out of what should be an actual strategy with requirements, metrics, tactics to execute against, and so on.
When I learn of these stretches of the term “conversion”, it’s typically 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 that as priority #1. Terms are thrown around left and right in whatever context is being used by the speaker at the time. It’s common in this situation to discover that it’s not the employees but the executives who lack the will to tackle this problem, leaving their teams to go ’round and ’round in circles – people just do what they’re told or give the “we’ve always done it this way” line.
- 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. This means you need to rapidly identify qualified buyers and move them into, and ultimately out, of your selling process.
We can ask on our form why a person downloaded a whitepaper, we can define “qualified buyer” and ask questions to determine if they fit that qualification. We also need ways to identify interest (assuming we’ve finally defined “interest”!) Unless there are options for each qualifying factor, and you can attribute actions to interest/desire, all those form submissions may or may not actually add up to much of anything.
If you do enhance your forms, they’re still not guaranteed to get you any useful information by themselves. A lead is a “qualified potential buyer who shows some level of interest in purchasing your product or solution.” If all you get is a person’s contact information, you’ll need to cross-reference that against potentially several other factors to determine qualification and interest levels. I don’t mean identifying whether the same person also watched 3 videos and posted about your products on Twitter. Those are still merely actions. They show no buying interest. No intent.
You need to identify and understand, truly understand, what makes up interest in a purchase of your products and services. The only way to do that is by engaging with people, and forms aren’t tools for engagement, they’re tools for data collection.
Your forms do nothing more than put up yet another barrier between you and your customers.
“But you just said I need to ask them! How can I ask without a form?”
Go back to the beginning. Let’s identify some opportunities begging for solutions. I said I hate filling out form after form after form. I hate being put into “nurturing tracks” when I’m clearly not a lead. If modern Sales & Marketing are “all about the Buyer and their journey”, then using these tactics just shows you’re living in the past. The reality is that you hate having thousands of cold leads anyway. They’re just taking up space in your systems because you can’t simply and quickly identify the people who have a legitimate interest in purchasing your products & services.
Opportunity #1 – Forms. Fix Them Or Ditch Them.
You have two options here.
Option #2: Ditch your forms and switch to chat. Using a mix of chatbots and real people, ask questions to help guide the visitor to their most valuable outcome. Notice I said, “their” not “your”. 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 on your site, but you (or a bot) can ask questions in real-time 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 #2 – Stop With The Nurturing Already.
Stop. Just stop. “But I’m generating mindshare!” No, you aren’t, you’re generating ambivalence at best and negativity toward your brand at worst. Nobody likes spam. Even the people creating spam don’t like spam.
Instead, implement a connection personalization strategy. Make sure it gives immediate value to the customer. Avoid using only email. You need to build around phone, email, web ads, and chat as each makes up the technologically-enhanced world we live in. Again, think the value to the customer, 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.
Your systems need 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 that person with immediate value. Provide an opportunity to the customer to connect with a real person immediately. Identify the specific content they took action on. Call out a 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. Offer a brief conversation on their issue and give them your (i.e. the Sales Rep’s) direct phone number, link to chat, and a link to book a meeting right on the calendar.
If this is an automated system, and it should be, the system should be plugging all of that in as if it’s coming from the relevant Sales rep themselves.
Opportunity #3 – Identify and Understand Intent!
Stop believing everyone who takes an action on your website is a lead. They’re just visitors. Save your CRM tool from the data hygiene problems, save overpaying for your email automation solution and all your other “per lead” solutions, and say it with me, “they’re just a visitor”. Only leads are leads, everyone else is just a visitor.
Ask the visitor why they’re there. What are they looking for? How can you provide them with immediate value? The best time to ask is not “as soon as the page loads.” Nobody needs to see 20 things on the screen as soon as they browse to a new website. Give it time. It could be 10 or even 20 seconds. You may not even pop a chat box up until they’ve scrolled down once and then back up again. If they bounced, it wasn’t because they didn’t find what they were looking for, it’s because they were going to bounce anyway. Anyone with real interest and intent will spend more than a few seconds on your page. Introduce a small, out-of-the-way chat capability, preferably one that can make inferences about the visitor and offer immediate value. Something that says, “I’m here to help you find whatever it is you’re looking for, no catch, no BS.” This could be done with chatbots, people, or a mix of the two.
Lose the forms. Interact with your website visitors. Ditch the CRM overload and increase sales focus and execution by identifying real leads and driving successful selling through smarter and more personal engagement. You can do this. There is no better time to start than now.
As always – good luck!
Additional reading on why website forms are killing your sales pipeline: