Website Forms – Why You Need Them

Do you need a form on your website? Well, I would say the answer is almost always “Yes”. At least some type of form is appropriate for most sites simply because there are so many uses and gathering and analyzing potential customer data is so important to just about any business. Let’s go through some examples of common uses of forms. Later, I’ll discuss some useful tips I’ve learned from creating forms over the years. This discussion will focus on using forms with a content management system, or CMS, like WordPress or Joomla. This is accomplished by using a forms plugin.

Common Uses of Website Forms

contact form
Basic Contact Form

Contact form – used for contacting a company/organization for more information or to ask questions. This is probably the most common type of form. These can be extremely simple with just a few fields like name, email and message. They could be much more involved as well. You can really collect as much information as you want/need on your contact form.

Email Newsletter subscription form – this is a great way to build an email list of potential leads/customers. Subscribers are opting in (i.e. interested) so you know you’ll have a list of quality leads. To be successful, this will require you to write a periodic newsletter (e.g. weekly, monthly, etc.) with compelling, quality content.

  • Tip 1: prepare some in advance so you’re not always scrambling at the last minute to come up with something.
  • Tip 2: encourage subscriptions by offering something in return such as a discount or a chance to win a prize, etc.

Quote Request – this is common for businesses that perform any services. It can serve multiple purposes. First, it indicates you have a very interested lead asking for your services. Second, you have the opportunity to gather all the information you need from him/her to further analyze this prospect. You can even analyze collective answers from several quote requests to get an idea of what your customers want/need so you improve your services (like a survey). And most important to the customer, it’s also for determining the cost of a service you can provide for him/her.

Survey / Voting form – this can be a valuable tool to understand your customers’ needs so you can improve products and services. It can also encourage interaction with your website.

  • Tip 1: surveys don’t have to be boring. Make it fun, incorporate humor
  • Tip 2: similar to the newsletter tip above, encourage participation by offering a bonus for completing the survey

Employee/Volunteer Application – whether you are a business or non-profit, you’ll need additional staff at some point. So why not put an application form on your site and make it easy for prospects to apply.

  • Tip: often times, forms software allows for file uploads so you could request that a resume and/or cover letter be uploaded with the application form

Order form – if you have a small number of individual products, services, tickets, etc. that you want to sell to the public, make it easy to order them right from your website. If you have a large catalog of items you plan to sell, then a single order form is not necessarily the way to do it. In that case, a full-blown ecommerce solution would be more appropriate.

  • Tip: often times, forms software allows for integration with online payment services such as PayPal so you can process online payments easily

Registration form – similar to an order form, this can be used to register for events like a seminar, convention or class for example. The order form tip above regarding online payment could be adapted for registration fees as well.

Lessons Learned – Forms Best Practices

Keep it simple – make it easy to use and not appear too long on a page (Tip: break up longer forms into separate pages). Use pre-populated dropdown lists, checkboxes and radio buttons when possible rather than forcing someone to unnecessarily input values. This will result in more participation and less errors in data collected. If your form appears too long or complicated, people may simply skip it.

Always validate input – this insures you will receive the best quality and error-free data possible. Also, validate all fields and return all error messages rather than returning only one error message at a time. This will allow for quicker error correction and a better user experience.

Display good validation error messages – if validation fails for a particular field, don’t just display “Invalid input”. That’s not very helpful for the end-user who may not have a clue as to why it’s invalid – explain what’s invalid about it. For a phone number field for example, display a meaningful validation message like “phone number must be 10 digits in the format ###-###-####”. Or simply display this as a field caption or tooltip if possible. Any type of helpful information that will speed up and simplify the input process is a welcome addition to your form.

Use “on the fly” (AJAX) validation (when possible) – this allows input to be validated immediately and does not require form submission first – a time consuming process.

Use conditional fields (when possible) – if your form software supports conditional fields, hide unnecessary form fields until specific values are input. This helps make a form look less cluttered and less complex to the user and will result in more submissions.

Respect privacy – when collecting sensitive or personal information like address, phone number or other personally identifiable data, you should have a privacy policy available on your site. In some cases an SSL certificate to enable the secure https:// protocol is required depending on the sensitive nature of the collected data such as financial data, social security number, etc. When dealing with this type of data, it’s critical that you follow proper protocol.

CAPTCHA example

Anti-spam techniques (when possible) – while this can sometimes be an extra burden on the user, it’s often necessary to include spam prevention in your forms because unfortunately it’s all too common now for automated spambots to scan various websites for forms and automatically fill them in and submit them for their own nefarious purposes. If you don’t include spam prevention, you may find that you receive many, many illegitimate form submissions in your email inbox which becomes annoying and time-consuming for the website owner. One popular technique is to use CAPTCHA where you have to input the letters or numbers in a distorted image that spambots should not be able to read.

My Favorite Forms Software/Plugins

Disclosure: I receive compensation when you click on the following product links. I have used both and stand by these high-quality plugins.

For Joomla, I like RSForm! Pro. This extension offers lots of flexibility, power and customization options. It’s also reasonably priced for a 1-year subscription.

For WordPress, I like Gravity Forms. This plugin is one of, if not the most popular WordPress forms plugin and for good reason. It’s very easy to use and quite powerful as well. It costs $39 for a 1-year subscription (as of this writing).

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