Using Forms on Your Website

Finding out more about one’s customers has been around long before the Internet. Back in prehistoric times traders would often ask their customers, “Where did you hear about our pelts? What cave walls have you read in the last six months?” and “We often sell our smoke signal list to other traders that you might be interested in bartering with…if you want to opt-out, grunt twice.”

I swear. It’s documented.

Forms have improved a lot since those days of carrying around giant stone rolodexes. Forms are a common part of many Web sites, but often are used for little more than a glorified email that can be sent to a person behind the Web site.

What Forms Are Made Of:

Forms are visually created on a Web page in basic HTML using a series of text boxes and fields, radio buttons, check boxes, pull down menus and submit or reset buttons. Here’s a breakdown of how they might be used:

Text Boxes – Any short answer: name, address, email,etc.

Text Fields – Longer, open-ended comments, body of an email message.

Radio Buttons – Where only one answer is appropriate, like the buttons on a car radio

Check Boxes – Where one or more answers are appropriate; i.e. what search engines have you used in the past 6 months.

Pull Down Menus – A way of letting someone choose one option from a menu; often used navigate a Web site or select a profession in a questionnaire.

Submit and Reset Buttons – to complete the form or start anew.

The Back-End:

However, a form based solely on the elements above wouldn’t do much. A person could fill it out, but once they clicked “Submit” at the bottom, nothing would happen. That’s because a form itself does nothing; it would be like filling out a magazine subscription card and not mailing it in. The form you see on a Web page is just a structure where visitors can put in information.

It’s behind-the-scenes where the real action takes place. When the submit button is clicked on a working form the information is most often “passed” or sent to the server, the computer that sends the Web pages to your browser. (Occasionally forms are handled right on the page by the use of JavaScript, but that’s not nearly as common.) Back at the server the information is sent to a folder with CGI Scripts, (Common Gateway Interface.) Once the correct script is located the script takes the information and handles it the way it was programmed.

What You Can Do With Forms:

The CGI scripts can handle the information in a number of ways. It can create an email addressed from the submitter to you that will show up in your email box. It can also send a copy of that email to your Web master if that’s helpful. When you hit “reply” to that email it will automatically go back to them, (assuming they gave you a correct email address.)

Forms can also be helpful if you use a database to manage a mailing list. The information that is passed can be entered into a password protected document on the Internet. Every time someone submits a form their pertinent information gets added to this document. Every once in a while you can download that file to your hard drive and then you can import it into your database program. It will save you from retyping all those people who want more information on your wares.

Another form option would allow you to get personal information from a visitor who wants to read an article. Instead of posting the article on your site, a form is created that when completed emails the article to the visitor.

Forms can also be combined with a secure server to handle credit card orders.

Things to Keep In Mind When Designing a Form:

Through personal experience in working with clients, I’ve discovered that the best way to create a form is let the client create it on paper and then I turn it into a working online form. Only the client knows whether they need both daytime and nighttime phone numbers, whether the person’s position within a company is relevant, or if a person’s sex is germane to the conversation.

Before my clients write out the information they’re looking for I remind them to balance all the information they would like to gather with the amount of time someone is going to be willing to spend on completing a form. If someone wants to drop you a quick note that they just read your last book and they loved it, they don’t want to fill out a ten-page questionnaire on which books stores, kiosks and flea markets they’ve visited in the last six months. On the other hand, if they are looking for more information on a specialty medical device your company has just patented, you can feel free to ask a few more questions before answering.

You can also set some questions as mandatory. You may require people to enter a name and email address, but allow them to skip their fax number. If they don’t fill out the required fields, they get a warning message that their form was not processed and a request to go back to the original page.

Forms are a great way to gather information on the people interested in your products. It’s not invasive as they are volunteering this information to you. By collecting these names, addresses and emails you will also be able to let people know the release date of your next book, a recent update on your software, or a great vacation give away for people in their sixties.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media