A sign-up form is a gateway to deepening your relationship to new and existing customers. With a properly optimized sign-up form, you can get a daily stream of new business leads, build a loyal audience for your company’s email list, or convert skeptical online window shoppers into regular customers with a free product trial.
But while sign-up forms look pretty simple on the surface–a few input fields, some product benefits, and a glossy submit button–it’s not always easy to get users to spend even a few minutes of their time filling out your form. And more often than not, a ton of thought, usability research, and testing is needed to prevent your sign-up form from turning away potential customers at the door.
Here’s a look at the 3 most important elements of any sign-up form: the actual design, the user’s perspective, and conversion testing. I’ve also included examples of some very successful sign-up forms, common conversion killers, and other useful principles that will help you maximize your conversions.
Jakob Nielsen, a famous usability expert, has shown that users read web pages in a F-shaped pattern. They begin by scanning up and down the page, followed by a vertical stripe across the page. You can make sure that users can find the link to your sign-up page by working within this common scanning pattern. These patterns are best visualized with heat mapping applications such as CrazyEgg (SaaS) and ClickHeat (Open Source) . Google Analytics In-Page Analytics tools will also help you identify click behavior on your forms and landing pages.
Netflix, a company that lives or dies on its ability to convert homepage browsers into new sign-ups, takes advantage of the F shape when positioning their sign-up link.
Netflix knows that they have approximately 3 to 4 seconds to capture the attention of the average user. Their sign-up link is prominently placed above the fold, making it easy for a user to find it after they have done a quick scan down the page. You might also notice that Netflix smartly features its biggest selling features–a “1 month free trial” and “unlimited TV episodes”–both on the left side, capturing the user’s eye as it quickly scans down the page.
After you have managed to get a user to your sign-up page, simplicity is key. The general rule is that the faster you can move people through the door, the less chance users have to lose focus or become annoyed with filling out a form.
MailChimp, an email marketing software provider, offers a powerful example of a minimalistic, single-column design. Their sign-up process is painless, instant, and doesn’t try to capture any more info than it absolutely needs.
MailChimp’s sign-up form only has 3 input fields. They don’t even ask you to confirm your password. With a form this simple and aesthetically pleasing, there’s not much to prevent a user from signing up.
On the other hand, take a look at Constant Contact; another email marketing software company. They basically offer the same product as MailChimp, but look what you have to go through to get it.
Constant Contact’s form is visually tiring. Overall, there’s 19 input fields, the option to try 3 different products (although they suggest you should only try one at a time), 250 words of sales copy, 4 subheads, and a description of different features such as mobile integration, advanced features, and their cancellation policy.
Only a highly motivated user will take the time and mental effort to work through a web form as complex as Constant Contact’s. Long complicated forms decrease conversion rates and frustrate prospective customers. This leads to wasted advertising dollars and high abandonment (bounce) rates.
If your business is more complex, and you’re forced to use a lengthy sign-up form, consider breaking your sign-up form into multiple pages. Not only does this make it less daunting at first glance, it also allows you to capture the most important info first (such as first name an email address) to recapture abandoned customers. Additional tips include auto-completion, optimized menu structures.
For example, if your form has a city and country field you can detect the IP address of each visitor and derive the city and country to auto-complete the relevant fields. You may also want to list major countries such as the US, Canada and UK at the top of your country drop down menu, rather than burying them alphabetically.
But remember: the primary purpose of your sign-up form isn’t to gather consumer data. It’s to move people through the door to try your product / service.
One more thing about design. If you look at MailChimp’s sign-up form versus Constant Contact, you will notice that MailChimp places the labels (such as “email” “password”) directly above the input field. In contrast, Constant Contact put their labels beside the input fields.
A vertical alignment of labels and input fields has been proven to increase sign-up form completion as it reduces eye movement and processing. That’s because (as MailChimp’s form shows), the eye only has to travel one path: down the page. In contrast, Constant Contact’s form makes the user’s eye scan back and forth, reading the label on the left and then looking for the corresponding box. It’s just one more task you are asking users to do.
Also, make sure you have a big, aesthetically pleasing “sign-up” or “register now” button. This button should carry a stronger visual weight than your input fields (a bright or deep color) and should be vertically aligned with the input fields so as to guide users, reminding them that your product is just a few steps away.
The User’s Perspective–Why Should I Do This?
What’s in it for me?
That’s what a user asks when they scan your sign-up form. Even if you are only asking for a minor commitment such as an email address, users need an incentive for their effort.
According to Jackob Nielsen’s classic usability book Prioritizing Web Usability only 23% of visitors scroll on their first visit to a website. That means that 77% of visitors will not scroll–they will only view the content above the fold. A time-tested method of attracting their wandering attention is to use a benefit-orientated headline, enticing users with a reward for completing your form.
WordPress.com, one of the most popular blogging platforms in the world, does a good job of featuring a compelling headline above the fold.
The promise of “a blog within seconds” has converted over 25 million people into regular WordPress users. Another great example is BaseCamp by 37 Signals; a web-based project management tool. 37 Signals is religious about refining and testing their sign-up forms and landing pages. As a result, 37 Signals has some of the highest converting landing pages online.
After you have enticed a user with a benefit-orientated headline, consider offering some social proof to further nudge them through the process.
Social proof is a concept coined by Robert B. Cialdini, a world expert in the psychology of persuasion. His research reveals that when faced with a new decision, people look around to see what other people are doing. By telling how popular your product is, you put new customers at ease and let others do the selling for you.
Copyblogger.com, a leading Internet marketing education site, prominently features their large subscriber number as social proof. In the past year, this strategy has helped to double their subscription base.
Also, consider offering an incentive for signing-up. Incentives like relevant e-books, a special online email course, discounts or free starter services are a great way to boost your conversion rates.
Claude Hopkins, an early direct response genius, gave this advice about crafting offers: “Make your offer so great that only a lunatic would refuse to buy.”
Netflix, for example, entices new sign-ups with “unlimited TV episodes and movies instantly over the Internet.” If that wasn’t enough, they offer anyone a free 1 month trial and access to this vast entertainment library within minutes. With an offer like that, it’s no wonder 20 million people in the US and Canada have gone from trial members to regular subscribers.
Test, Track, and Measure
Most online marketers know that they have to test. A harder question, though, is what to test?
Marketing Sherpa, a leading Internet marketing research firm, has conducted extensive research to show that the best place to start testing is with form layout rather than fiddling around with copy, colors, and logos.
Once you’ve decided on a basic layout, you can use Google Analytics to track where visitors are “dropping off” in the sign-up process. We also recommend Google Website Optimizer to perform A/B split testing with different landing page and web form layouts. For a complete review of Google Optimizer please visit our tools section.
When tracking abandonments, pay attention to key decision points and requests for significant information along the sign-up process. Remember that a sign-up form is the beginning of a relationship. As such, a consumer might be comfortable giving you her email address, but not be willing to fill out a page of personal details, phone number, and credit card info. Tracking abandonments lets you figure out what info a user is comfortable giving you, and what information they need more assurance about.
For example, a high abandonment rate on the payment page might indicate that the customer didn’t trust using their credit card on your site. Try adding a security badge and make sure that your design looks professional to re-affirm consumer confidence. You can also track the percentage of visitors that drop out at a specific field (such as the zip code or home phone number)–so that you can eliminate or reposition the fields that are costing you new sign-ups.
A final note about testing. A common mistake is to skip testing and just copy the design of sign-up forms of big sites like Facebook and Amazon.com. The theory is that a site like Amazon.com conducts extensive testing and so if you just copy the design of their forms, you too will have a healthy conversion rate.
Unfortunately, while conversion optimization has a few core principles, the success of certain forms depends on their context. Amazon.com has enormous trust and brand recognition. Users will hand them credit card info with little thought. But if your brand is less well-known, testing is the only way to determine what really works and what doesn’t with your sign-up form.
This principle goes beyond just trust about payment info. For example, a dating site sign-up form needs to ask more info than just an email address. Users will be expecting you to ask about their age, sex, location, and maybe interests. In particular industries, asking for more information from the user might work to increase sign-up conversion.
Again, the key is to ask just the right amount of information needed to start a new conversation with a user. If you ask for too much, you risk boring or even insulting the user by wasting their time. If you ask for too little information, you might seem more interested in capturing their email address or credit card info that genuinely being interested in solving their problems.
But the only real way to figure out what turns a visitor into a paying customer is to test, track, and measure.
If you need help designing and optimizing your sign-up form the One Net Marketing Conversion Optimization team is here to help.