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The download form: starting point of or an obstacle to a long lasting relationship?

The website form is the most common way to contact your website visitor.

Forms come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common ones are:

  • The contact form
  • The download form
  • The registration form

Compared to the contact form where a visitor actively seeks contact and to the registration form where the visitor actively indicates they want to have more interaction with the offering organization, the download form is more like an exchange office. If the website visitor wants to download a piece of content, he ‘pays’ for it by exchanging (personal) data.

Because the download form is a prerequisite to certain content, this can be an obstacle for many people. And obstacles lead to friction and frustration. In this blog I therefore want to focus on the download form. When do you use them, how do you use them optimally and how do you prevent the download form from creating too much resistance and even threatening your reputation?

Obstacles and frictions

Let’s face it: nobody likes forms. Except for the marketer who made them. Forms are an obstacle to something your visitor wants. That something can be a whitepaper, e-book, report, infographic, but also the result of a scan or test. If that obstacle also requires a lot of effort because you have to answer many or unwanted questions, then we’re talking about friction. Friction is opposed to your goals. The more friction, the less chance you have of achieving your goals. Amazon understands this principle like no other. With their 1-click ordering system, they have removed all friction from the ordering process. And we all know what that has led Amazon to…

The removal of friction is therefore of great importance. Also when downloading your valuable content.

Value exchange

What you offer must be of real value. If the information is so obviously commercial (the brochure!) or it is is already on the website, then the value is almost nil.

But valuable content is not easy to make. It takes time, money and effort to create it. Many organizations do not have the means to continuously create such valuable content. That is why it is important to deal strategically with your content creation. Do you opt for quantity and create many different pieces of content or do you opt for quality in the form of ‘core content’ that forms the heart of what your organization offers and what it stands for?

Disappointment: a reputation killer

Content that does not give added value, but has been ‘paid’ for, is a disappointment. And that disappointment can lead to different reactions:

  • This organization gives me nothing. I’ll look further.
  • This organization does not give a good idea of what they offer. Are they able to help me further?
  • This organization gives me the impression that they cannot deliver what they promise. Not a company I want to do business with.

Add to that an e-mail follow-up that is more commercial than helpful and there is a good chance that the recipient will start thinking negatively about the organization.

Instead of helping someone further, the action has led to negative feelings about the organization. And those negative feelings are damaging to the organization’s reputation.

Marketers love forms. But does that also apply to their target group?

The more we marketeers know about our website visitors, the better we can help them by providing more relevant information. At least, that is the starting point for many.

But how do website visitors experience filling in forms to obtain information? I did a small survey on LinkedIn where I asked the LinkedIn community the following:

Are you willing to fill out a form to get content?

The respondents consisted mainly of marketing and sales people and people from the IT, Privacy and Cybersecurity industry. In addition, a number of them have a CEO role.

The majority are willing to fill in a form. Although only a smaller number are willing to give only their email address, it is good to check whether you are willing to ask less to achieve more. Based on the percentages above, you would reach 66% with a number of targeted questions. But you will reach 82% if you would only ask for an email address. If your strategy is to get in touch with as many website visitors as possible, then it is better to only ask for the email address.

A download is not always the start of a conversation

We have already seen that not every piece of content justifies filling out a form. But if it does, it is still questionable whether this is the beginning of a conversation. Here are some signs that people want to be left alone for the time being:

  • A visitor fills in a form but doesn’t check the box to give permission for further emails. Note: from the GDPR’s point of view this is a common method to obtain permission. Keep in mind that getting an email address to send a download link is not a permission to send all other kinds of email messages. You need to get permission separately. A variation on this theme is to combine a piece of downloadable content with one or two additional e-mails that give extra information about the downloaded content. A kind of download combi-package, which by the way needs to be well communicated in advance to avoid unpleasant surprises. Nevertheless, it is useful to offer the possibility to opt-out of receiving these combi-package emails. Always provide your contacts with the means to skip these messages.
  • A visitor provides you with a non-business e-mail address such as gmail.com, outlook.com, hotmail.com, or any other internet service provider’s e-mail address. The use of temporary email addresses such as asdasd.nl is also an indication that your visitor is not open for a conversation at this moment.
    Should you exclude these email addresses? That’s tricky to answer. Do you want to exclude someone beforehand, because they want to keep a low profile? Personally I would not impose those restrictions at the beginning of the customer journey or at the top of the funnel where trust has to be earned first. Avoid as much friction as possible, remember?

Website visitors know from previous experiences that giving out their email address is often the start of a barrage of commercial messages pushing them to agree with a sales appointment or buy a product or service. Trust has eroded and it is up to you to (re)build that trust from the very beginning.

Give good thought about how you are going to build that trust to build a long-lasting relationship with your visitors. And that is not by raking up as much information as possible via long questionnaires.

Who asks too much…

…chases people away. Each additional field in a form creates more reluctance to fill in the form. In our own experience, we noticed a 10-15% increase if we skipped a question.  Timothy Hughes (social selling expert en auteur van o.a. Smarketing) remarked that in a non-representative test that he had carried out, for every extra question asked 50% quit the form!

Odd Morten Sørensen (Growth Hacker) had also a good point: don’t regard a download as a read. Many do the download but don’t come around to read it. At least not straight away. So asking for feedback how the ‘reader’ experienced your content might be a wast of time and an add-on to the annoyance list.

Is your gated content a pig in the poke?

I already indicated that gated content is a value exchange. But did you estimate the value exchange correctly? If you don’t, you may be asking the wrong questions or repeating already answered questions. You can solve the latter nicely with forms that support progressive profiling. This automatically adapts your form with a new question, preventing your visitor to answer questions he has already answered.

Justin Thomas (Cybersecurity and IT expert), Kevin van Beers (Hubspot consultant), Maria Wijnmaalen (Sociaal broker),  Maarten Blok (B2B Inbound Marketeer), and Gabriel Friedlander (CEO Wizer Security Awareness Training) all of them remarked in my LinkedIn poll that it is crucial to create good content that gives the reader real value. If you don’t comply, then disappointment and disinterest is the result, they warned.

But how does your website visitor know if your content is valuable? Give them enough ‘teaser’ material on your landing pages, giving your website visitor the confidence that the content offered is really relevant and valuable to him or her. That’s why blogs are an effective place to get that value exchange.

You can also showcase your content on a web page, and when your visitor finds your content interesting enough, they can download the pdf version by giving their email address. This is a good way to qualify your leads: if someone is willing to give you their email address then you know they are really interested what you have to say and offer. An organization that applies this principle is Drift, a well-known chatbot supplier. However, they use chatbots instead of forms to retrieve data from interested parties.

Gated vs ungated

Clearly, you don’t have to use a form for every piece of content. So the question arises: when should you use a form and when not?

When not to use a form

  1. No good idea who your target group is (no buyer persona)
    You can’t offer relevant content if you don’t know what your target audience thinks is relevant. If you don’t know that, you can’t ask the right questions. If you can’t ask the right questions, why are you asking them?
    In this case, it’s better to give away your content in order to gain insight into what interests and motivates your target group. That insight is already a form of value exchange.
  2. No content that supports your gated content
    You’ve worked hard on a piece of content, let’s say a 20-page e-book. A lot of time, money, effort and knowledge went into this e-book. People would be crazy not to download it. The few questions you ask is just peanuts compared to the value the e-book gives your reader.
    However, your website visitor has no idea that your content is so great. No idea that you have a lot of knowledge on the subjects they are interested in. No idea of the real value of what you have to offer. Your visitor probably sees some text, a picture and a form with more or less questions, decides in a fraction of time whether or not it is interesting and most likely wanders off to somewehere else.
    But you can’t blame him. On the other hand, if your website and social media channels are full of freely available knowledge articles, you give your (first time) visitors a good impression of your expertise. Chances are that they will perceive your gated content as valuable too.
    In short, if you offer a lot of previews, then it makes sense to gate your content. Otherwise, it won’t.
  3. Content at the beginning of the customer journey
    People who are at the beginning of their customer journey and often at the top of your marketing funnel may not yet know your organization and products/services. You shouldn’t want to frustrate the process of orientation and getting to know your business with forms and asking for personal information. Moreover, in this initial phase there is not much commitment yet, so they are much more inclined to ignore a form than people who are further in the funnel.
    It is better to include useful links to additional information in your content, so that your reader can take extra steps in his customer journey with as little friction as possible. Now that this person has experienced what you can offer him, he or she is more likely to do that exchange of information in order to make the next step in his or her customer journey. In short, you have now earned more trust and filling in a form has become less of an obstacle.
  4. You don’t have a lead nurturing process in place
    If you don’t have some form of marketing automation ready to take care of the follow-up, why gate your content? Ask questions in exchange for your content if you have set up the following:

    1. Email flows: Keep the relationship with your leads alive by sending them the right content at the right time.
    2. Measuring and tracking: There is always room for improvement. So you are constantly optimizing.
    3. Triggered messages: You send targeted messages based on specific activities or profile characteristics.

How to use gated content properly

Let’s return to the e-book we gave as an example earlier in the blog. You have a nice e-book full of interesting information that is really valuable for your target group. We already discussed that if you don’t give enough information, your website visitors won’t have a good idea of the value of your e-book. And if your e-book is aimed at people at the beginning of their customer journey, they are even more inclined to ignore your e-book because they are less willing to fill in forms. Especially if too many questions are asked.

So it is important to give as much information up front as possible. Here are some suggestions:

  • Interview experts/thought leaders on the subject of your e-book. Turn it into blogs, videos or podcasts. In each one you refer to the e-book.
  • Make a short video or audio clip summarizing your e-book. Place it on the landing page. Of course you also refer to the e-book here and recommend to download it.
  • Include your e-book in your email nurture campaigns and newsletter. Give different topics from your e-book their own stage to shine. This way you can also find out who is interested in which topic.

These activities are just like pacesetters (‘rabbits’) for a marathon runner: they support your e-book and make sure your e-book – that you’ve put so much time, energy and money into – gets the attention it deserves. They will give a positive impression about your organization and your expertise, help generate new leads and hopefully also close deals.

Alternatives to the form

In order to get additional information or to start a relationship you do not always need a form. There are alternatives:

  • Invite to connect
    What if you don’t make your content ‘gated’ and don’t have a form filled out to obtain content? What if you leave the action to get in touch to the website visitor? Steve Watt, VP Marketing bij Grapevine6, remarked in my LinkedIn poll that it is strange that 99% of companies do not dare to let the visitor decide when to make contact. His suggestion: invite the downloader that he can get more similar content if he leaves his email address behind. If someone prefers to have a conversation, offer him that possibility. We at Marketing Guys offer people the opportunity to schedule their own online appointment via Calendly.

The big advantage is that your content gets a much larger reach. Anyone interested can download your content without any obstacles. The other advantage is that you invite people afterwards to sign up for more similar content. If they accept the invitation, you know that they are interested in your content, in what you have to tell them. They are much more likely to be more engaged than those who had to give their contact details in order to download the content. It becomes a qualifying process that filters out the really interesting email addresses worthwhile sending your email messages to.

  • Your content as a relationship builder
    Several people who filled out my LinkedIn poll also indicated that they didn’t give out their email address and other data because they didn’t have an idea how valuable the content was in advance. Not a strange reaction if you think how few landing pages where you are requested to exchange your data for content offer insight in what you can expect. How many have reviews from other readers, like in Amazon or Bol.com? Not many. So the website visitor is expected to ‘pay’ without knowing what to get in return.

But if there is no ‘payment’ in advance, so you ungate your content, this becomes less important. However, it is still important to deliver real value, because if people are disappointed with what you offer, you won’t achieve your goal, which is to establish a long-lasting relationship with that person. Assuming that you do offer ‘great content’, I would suggest that you include call-to-actions in your content, such as signing up for your mailing/newsletter and scheduling an (online) appointment.

The big advantage here is that your CTA’s are included in a piece of content that people have offline on their PC, tablet or mobile and not just on a thank-you page where they probably only stay for a few seconds. By adding (UTM) tags to the links in your pdf you can trace where your conversions are coming from. That way you’ll see if your (free) downloadable content has contributed to establishing those long-lasting relationships and hopefully also deals.

  • Chatbots
    Instead of forms you can also use chatbots. Especially if your target group is more focused on messaging, chatbots can be a better method to establish relationships with your target group than the ‘old-fashioned’ forms. In a conversation, a bot can ask the same questions as multiple forms. Smart logic allows a bot to ask those questions that are more applicable to the visitor at that time, increasing the chance that they will be answered.

As you can see: there is a lot involved with a download form. Hopefully I got you thinking how you should present your content to your audience. Find the right balance between what you want as an organization and what your audience wants and needs. Strike the right balance and you can start building those long-lasting relationships!

If you need help with this, feel free to contact us. That’s what we’re here for.

Even better: schedule now your online appointment!