How to build more effective web forms

How to Not Suck at Collecting Customer Contact Data

Written By:
Ben Deda

It always seems to come down to getting down another person’s contact info.

That was the goal of many of our social lives (and still is for some), that is the goal when you launch your Minimum Viable Product, and that is even the goal when you launch v8.0. You want someone to see enough value in you that they exchange contact info.

So why do so many companies suck at collecting customer contact data?

You see both ends of the spectrum. On one hand you have the company (usually consumer-focused) who is scared to ask for an email address – even when they have a freemium model. On the other hand you have the B2B company that wants to know your blood type before they’ll let you download that white paper.

You don’t need to be those people.

Here are five easy steps to get valuable customer contact data without pissing off the customer – in other words, how not to suck.

1. Always get an email address.

It constantly amazes me how many companies give stuff away without getting an email address. You give up your right to direct communication with your customer/user when you don’t get an email address.

“But my conversion rate will go down because people will be afraid I’ll spam them and then won’t sign up for my free product!”

Well first, don’t spam (which I define as shitty content, no context, and bad timing). Secondly, what do you think is going to happen to your conversion rate if you can never talk to your customers? Are you going to be able to point out valuable unused features, solicit feedback, or let an inactive user know about your next feature release that solves her biggest complaint?

Sure you can try and use in-app messaging, but how is that less annoying than an email? When I’m working in an app, I want to work – not be interrupted. And how is in-app messaging going to work with users who aren’t active? You can only send them a message when they’re actively using the app – which is going to lead to skewed interactions.

So get the customer’s email at the first chance you get. We’ve always found account creation is the perfect spot (and sure you can use oAuth but that presents many of the same issues as in-app messaging). Then treat that email with all the respect your users (and hopefully soon customers) deserve. It will work out better for both of you.

2. Just ask for what you absolutely need.

Making too much mandatory leads to crap data.

I just signed up myself and a number of our team to attend a local event we are sponsoring. The form required me provide first name, last name, company, title, address, email address, twitter handle, phone number, and the life of my first born.

(I’m kidding about the first born, but I’m afraid they may ask for that to get in the door.)

Whenever you are collecting data as part of a sign up process, ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” Every extra thing someone has to fill in is going to make it less likely that they are going to complete the process. And it definitely increases the chance of crap data being entered just to get through it quicker.

Why would you need my phone number to attend an event? Are you going to cold call me afterwards? Really? Is that a good fit for a demographic that goes to hackathons?

This is why I entered straight 5’s into each phone number field. (You would think as a sales and marketing guy who has to deal with that crap while prospecting that I would have some compassion, but screw that.)

Only ask for what you need:

  • Email: See point 1 (above).
  • First and Last Name: Name tags, ability to be polite, personalization. If you don’t plan on any of this, don’t ask for it.
  • Other Crap: Only if you really need it right away and won’t have a chance to ask again.

That’s it. Always favor precision over recall. This will help you get enough to get the job done while making it easy for your customers to sign up. You can always come back for more later (see point 4, below).

3. If you make it mandatory and free-form, give an N/A option.

You decided you needed more than email, first name, and last name. That’s cool. I’m sure you had a reason. So you make a free-form field in your form and make it mandatory, but you don’t give a standard “N/A” option.


You are now going to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to filter out all of the different ways that people indicate they don’t have anything for that field. I just had to do this for a conference that required twitter handles (for a good reason). I’ve never seen so many different variations on “none” in my life…with a few joke answers thrown in the mix as well.

When you put a hurdle up that people must cross before moving on, people are going to figure out a way to cross it. Providing them a pre-defined option is going to make your life a lot simpler down the road when it comes to data quality.

4. Come back for more later.

So you’ve followed steps 1 through 3 above. Your conversion rates have gone up, and you’ve been able to initiate some great communication with your users. Now you’re really wishing you knew more about them so you could do some better segmentation and targeted service.

So ask them.

Really, that’s it. You’ve established a basic relationship and shown some value. People are going to be much more receptive to providing you with more information at this stage. It’s obviously going to be more effective if you give them a why (we want to provide a better tailored product, we want to be able to make recommendations of other products you may like, etc…).

Do it with a form in a direct email or set something up to trigger the form next time they are on your site or in your app. Some of the marketing automation systems like Hubspot offer great features around this.

The cute one you’ve been eyeing at the bar for the past 30 minutes may give you a phone number if your pitch is good enough (maybe even a real phone number), but they’re not going to give you their home address right off the bat. It’s the same principal.

Have a little patience and catch them next time. It will work out for you. Trust me.

5. Pull together data from multiple systems to fill in the blanks.

There’s nothing worse than having to enter contact info multiple times for the same company. It’s also frustrating when you as a company can’t find a vital piece of contact data, and it turns out that it was in another system the entire time. Make sure you are doing everything you can to pull contact data together into a consolidated view.

A great example is your payment portal provider. A lot of times customers will be required to enter billing addresses as part of the payment authorization process. You have access to that data and can add that to your customer records. It might be manual at first, but that’s what they make APIs for, right?

This consolidated contact view is what FullContact is working to build, and we are excited to have out soon in our Address Book beta.

You can add third-party data to this equation as well. This might include additional demographic data or public social data that you can use to build context, segment, and provide a better experience for your customers. I might know some people you can talk to if you are interested.

So there you go. Five simple steps to not suck at collecting customer contact data. Follow them when you can (and when it makes sense to) and you will find yourself with a happier customer database, happier marketing and sales people, and happier customers.

Turn partial contact data into full contact data.

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