Online Forms and the Greedy Marketer

  |  March 28, 2011   |  Comments

Five techniques to help you optimize your transaction process and forms to minimize anxiety and reduce abandonment.

Marketers are a greedy breed. Eager to convert website visitors into customers, they often use pushy tactics online that would never be tolerated in a brick-and-mortar environment. Does your website require a registration before someone can make a purchase? Do you ask a lot of personal information that your sales team wants but isn't necessary for the transaction? All of these very common tactics are killing your conversion rate. If you're having trouble getting your visitors to complete a transaction online, read on.

There are three simple rules to getting a Web visitor to complete a transaction:

  • Get out of the visitors' way
  • Make it easy
  • Don't surprise them

In order to follow these rules, you've got to think in terms of the visitor mindset and optimize the entire transaction and form to make the experience as quick, smooth, and predictable as possible. Here are some techniques to help you optimize your transaction process and forms to minimize anxiety and reduce abandonment.

Don't Force Registration

If you want to really annoy your visitors, particularly those who are ready to act on your offer, one of the surest ways to do that is to force them to register before checking out.

In forced registration, visitors are required to give their e-mail address and create a password before buying something. Most merchant sites do this to help streamline the visitor experience on subsequent visits. With site registration, the visitor's checkout information, such as shipping address and payment method, is stored so that on their next visit, they can simply enter their e-mail address and password, and the stored data is auto-populated in the checkout forms for them.

Registration on your site may be an advantage to a small percentage of your visitors. But it is guaranteed to be an annoyance and hindrance to many more. If someone really wants the convenience of not having to frequently reenter their personal data, they can set up a central user authentication account (that works across multiple websites), or activate their Web browser's automatic form-fill capability. Many people may have no intention of transacting with you again and will not appreciate the extra work required to register. Others may object on privacy grounds to giving you their e-mail address since it is not an absolute requirement for completing an online transaction.

Registration should never be forced and should be deemphasized in most cases. Even seemingly minor transactional friction such as filling out the e-mail and password may significantly lower your conversion rates.

If your site currently requires new customer registration before a visitor can proceed to the transaction, remove it. If you want to offer users the option of registration, move the offer to the end of the checkout process. At that stage, visitors have significantly more invested in the transaction. They are less likely to abandon the process and more likely to supply the requested additional information, particularly if you let them know the benefits of registration.

Resist the Urge to Upsell at the Last Minute

Another common tactic during the transaction is to introduce last-minute upsells, cross-sells, or special offers. This is fine if it is handled before the checkout step (e.g., by displaying related accessories on a product detail page). However, during the checkout process, such tactics should be carefully reconsidered. Usually there is a tradeoff between higher value per transaction and lower overall conversion rates. The method by which a secondary offer is presented greatly affects its potential impact. Efforts should be made to minimize disruption and surprise.

Remove the Navigation

One of the keys to making the user experience easier is to remove choice and simplify the transaction process. An easy way to do this is to change the navigation information available on your form pages. The main menu that is used during the earlier stages of the decision process is no longer applicable during the action stage, and could serve as a distraction that causes visitors to leave your form and move backward on your conversion path.

Likewise, if your landing page is designed for a single conversion action, you should not use the navigation or page structure from your main corporate website. You should remove the navigation completely, or limit it to specific information related to your conversion action. This is particularly true if you are paying for the traffic stream directly (e.g., via PPC or banner ad purchases). In such cases, I often recommend removing the navigation altogether. Sometimes you may still want to have your logo link back to your main site. But you should realize that this is a potential traffic leak, and that some people will wander off to your main site to never return.

If you feel that your main site contains content that is necessary for the conversion action, you should copy it onto the landing page (or a supporting page on your standalone microsite). Do not link off to the main site for such supporting information, as you run the risk of your visitors getting lost, distracted, or both.

Ruthlessly Edit Your Forms

A long and imposing form will turn many people away. Forms should be ruthlessly edited to remove extraneous fields that aren't necessary for the transaction. The value of the incremental information gathered in a longer form will rarely outweigh the benefit of having many more people completing the process.

The most important part of form creation is minimizing the number and complexity of form input fields. Ask yourself: "is this information absolutely necessary to complete the current transaction?" Be sure you are only asking for information that you need right now. Resist the temptation to ask for information that may not be needed at all (e.g., "How did you hear about us?") or that can be collected later in the process (after you have established more trust with the visitor). If your form has fields labeled "Require," take a look at all the remaining fields and consider removing them.

Many organizations link their online forms to a backend customer relationship management (CRM) database, and justify the inclusion of additional fields as a means of populating a complete record for remarketing. While this sort of automation is an important timesaver, resist the urge to match your online form fields to your CRM database fields. Such nice-to have fields can be seen as overly intrusive, increasing your form abandonment rate. If your goal is to increase form completions, don't be too nosy. You'll have opportunities later, after you've developed a relationship with your visitor, to fill in gaps in your database.

Once you have removed all extraneous fields and are certain that you are asking for the bare minimum of information from your visitors, you can further streamline your forms with these techniques:

  • Clarify the purpose of the form with a headline or description. Be sure it describes the benefit that the visitor will receive by completing the form.
  • Shorten form labels as much as possible.
  • Organize form fields into logical groups, and label each group with a category subhead.
  • Eliminate any strong horizontal separators in longer forms.

Don't Surprise the Visitor

If you've got a visitor who is ready and willing to complete your form, the last thing you want to do is introduce any last minute surprises that might erode trust or cause the visitor to rethink her interest in completing the transaction. Some examples of unwelcome surprises include:

  • Not warning people about the supporting information that they will need to have on hand in order to complete the transaction
  • Not specifying all acceptable payment methods upfront
  • Introducing pop-ups
  • Making peripheral or unrelated special offers
  • Including price increases, or extra terms and conditions
  • Making changes in inventory availability or delivery dates during checkout
  • Asking for unnecessary information
  • Asking for information in a nonstandard or illogical order
  • Using nonstandard or unclear text captions on your buttons

Many people already have an idea of how certain kinds of transactions should unfold. For example, when I buy from an online catalog, I generally expect to put items in my shopping cart, review my selections, enter billing and shipping information, and then see a confirmation page for my order.

Other transactions, however, are more customized and visitors may not have a well-formed expectation about what actions they will need to take, in what order they will be asked to take those actions, or what supporting information they will need (e.g., insurance card or membership number) to complete the transaction. In order to ease anxiety and manage the expectations of your visitors, your website should always show the visitor's progress during the transaction. If there are three steps in the registration process, let the visitor know how many steps remain. Better yet, use descriptive labels on a timeline at the top of the page, showing the visitor what action she is currently taking, and what actions are coming up.

Most transactions have a final point-of-no-return. Usually this involves clicking a button after filling out form information. It is critical to provide last-minute reassurances on the page where this point occurs. Final reassurances include:

  • A summary of the information that has been provided (items ordered, personal information, billing method, and price)
  • Details of the fulfillment process (e.g., service levels, delivery dates, contact methods, and time frames)
  • Terms and conditions (the fine print)
  • Spelling out exactly what will happen when the action is taken
  • Validation and risk reducers (e.g., exchange and return policies or guarantee)

Final Thoughts

Convincing a visitor to take a desired conversion action is a major feat, but only half the battle. It only counts if they actually complete the process. The techniques outlined above will help improve your odds of visitors completing the transaction. But keep in mind that even when your transaction process is optimized, you will still have some people who bail out. Some visitors may decide that they want to continue their search for alternatives. Others may need the approval of another person (such as a coworker or spouse) or may not have the proper payment method or necessary supporting information to complete the transaction. Still others may simply want to sleep on the decision before completing the transaction. But for all the rest, following the tips above will make sure they stay focused and committed to their decision, all the way through to your confirmation page.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim Ash

Tim Ash is CEO of SiteTuners.com, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, full-service guaranteed-improvement tests, and software tools to improve conversion rates. SiteTuners' AttentionWizard.com visual attention prediction tool can be used on a landing page screenshot or mock-up to quickly identify major conversion issues. He has worked with Google, Facebook, American Express, CBS, Sony Music, Universal Studios, Verizon Wireless, Texas Instruments, and Coach.

Tim is a highly-regarded presenter at SES, eMetrics, PPC Summit, Affiliate Summit, PubCon, Affiliate Conference, and LeadsCon. He is the chairperson of ConversionConference.com, the first conference focused on improving online conversions. A columnist for several publications including ClickZ, he's host of the weekly Landing Page Optimization show and podcast on WebmasterRadio.fm. His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

He received his B.S. and M.S. during his Ph.D. studies at UC San Diego. Tim is the author of the bestselling book, "Landing Page Optimization."

Connect with Tim on Google+.

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