Form building is a central skill for membership managers. They are a tool at the core of everything we do. Applications, renewals, events, and more require us to know how to make forms that work.

It’s surprising then that so little guidance is available to help us solve problems that forms regularly present us with. Despite our experience managing them, we continue to struggle with users not completing our forms, or filling them with ‘dirty’ or unreliable data.

To help address this problem, Member365 wanted to contribute to the discussion concerning form building best practices by presenting what we consider to be 4 form-building commandments.

Here’s what we came up with:

1. Less is More

When building forms, it’s easy to go a little crazy and add field after field. There’s always the possibility that some data point will come in handy, making it easy to get caught up in a ‘might as well throw it in’ attitude.

The problem is that there is an inverse relationship between the quantity and quality of data when it comes to forms.

The more fields you require a person to fill in order to complete a form, the less likely they are to finish, or to provide accurate information.

The more fields you require a person to fill in order to complete a form, the less likely they are to finish, or to provide accurate information.

Its a pretty simple idea when you think from the perspective of one of your would-be form-filler. If you have to spend an age filling out a form to register for a newsletter, download content, register for an event, and so on – you’re going to either quit the process entirely, or rush to the end by quickly filling required fields with false information.

Long forms lead to lots of bounces, and lots of dirty data.

Short forms, on the other hand, enjoy high completions and output high-quality data for your organization.

This is great to know – but creates problems of it’s own. Membership managers need a lot of data, and short forms sometimes just won’t cut it.

So what do you do?

2. Separate the Data You Need From the Data You Want

We know that forms are your tool to extract valuable data from an audience, and that short forms are the best way to do so reliably.

Fields are a scarce resource now, so we want to get the most value out of the few we have available by devoting them to getting the information we need the most right now.

Right now is emphasized for good reason. If a particular field doesn’t make the cut for, say, your event registration form – it’s still very possible (and a very good idea) to make another form to get that data at a different time. We’ll talk more about this later in the article.

The best way to figure this out is by writing down all the information we could possibly want to gather from our audience, and separating it into a ‘need-to-have’, or ‘want-to-have’ category.

Take a look at your ‘need-to-have’ category, and further refine it by picking out ‘need-to-have-right-now’ items.

Take this list, and apply the following principles to build a form guaranteed to succeed:

3. Use All the Tools at Your Disposal

Every ‘need-to-have-right-now’ item you’ve defined in your selection process is going to define the mandatory fields in your form.

Mandatory fields are only one tool form-builders offer to maximize the impact of your forms. It is a powerful and risky one, which is why it’s important to focus it’s use only on the fields that you absolutely must have filled. Apply mandatory fields too liberally, and you’re guaranteed to boost your bounce rate and gather dirty data.

Every other item on your ‘need-to-have’ and ‘want-to-have’ lists, should not be mandatory fields.

For these, you’ve got a comprehensive toolbox of other options you should turn to. Consider best practices concerning:

Contextual Drop-Downs

Contextual drop down menu’s are a fantastic tool that every membership manager should be intimately familiar with.

The beauty of contextual drop-downs is that they hide any and every non-relevant field from view. Forms that are long or apparently complex can be intimidating, causing users to bounce before they’ve noticed the many fields they can bypass. By hiding these fields behind contextual drop-downs, you substantially reduce that initial intimidation, leading those who otherwise would have bounced to complete your form.

Short Answer Fields

Short answer questions are often avoided in favor of quicker true/false, or multiple choice fields.

Compared side-by-side, these form fields are obviously going to take less effort to complete than a short answer field.

But, used strategically, a single short-answer fields can gather not only more, but better data than several true/false or multiple choice fields.

The question you ask a user to respond to important to focus on to be certain the data you’ll get will be of value. Make sure it’s pointed, but not so focused that you deny yourself the opportunity to be surprised by the information users are willing to share.

4. Integrate with Email

Not every item you’ve written on your list of data points ought to be included in the form you’re making.

This form is only one of many ways that you can get this data. Adding too many fields, even non-required fields behind contextual drop-downs, will still undermine form completions and the quality of data produced by your form.

Integrate this form as part of a wider data-extracting strategy, using email, and you stand a far better shot of getting all the data you need.

For example, say you’re building a pre-registration form for an event in a year from now.

You need registrant payment information, but you don’t need it right now.

If your form were to require that information a year in advance of your event – before speakers are chosen, vendors are confirmed, or a venue is even selected – there’s little doubt that it would produce little to no value.

On the other hand ask a form-filler for their name, email, maybe phone number and business name – and you can confidently expect accurate data, and completed form fills.

Later in the year, use the data from that form to build and email list. Create a second form, this one specifically for payment info, and send it out to your pre-registrants. Both forms are small and easy to complete, so you can expect them to do a much better job at extracting the info you’re looking for!

The Form Builders Prayer

When building forms, there’s a quick and easy way to make sure you’re complying with the best practices we’ve outlined above. When adding fields, ask yourself, almost like a mantra:

Do I need this data?

If yes,

Do I need this data, right now?

If yes,

Do I need this data, right now, from this form?