Do You Trust Your Customers to Do the Right Thing? – Try Enabling Freedom on Your Form Fields

Some companies are afraid of their customers. They’re afraid they won’t complete form fields that are optional, and they’re worried that by letting people type what they want, they will lose the reporting capabilities enabled by dropdown lists.

It’s important to remember that not all of the data gathered on your forms is equal. Some fields are absolutely required, while others are a bonus used to qualify leads or learn from your customers.

Like a child wanting to get down from the dinner table. There’s no leaving until you finish every mouthful – or in this case every form field.

There are 2 primary decisions to make when asking for extra information, and we’re going to explore the answers today.

  • Should I force them to answer the question?
  • Should I provide canned answers or an empty text field for free-form entry?

To Require or Not to Require (Form Fields)? That is the Lead Gen Question

There are good arguments on both sides. Your choice will come down to your conversion goals.

RequiredvsNot Required
Guarantees a full set of data. Less barrier to entry + quicker to complete = less bounces due to dealing with a form.
  You know the customer is interested enough to do something they didn’t need to do.
  Required data can be bogus – chosen in as quick a manner as possible to get through the process.

And the Lack of an Asterisk Shall Set You Free!

It’s really that easy, and is as liberating as leaving a dysfunctional relationship. The dreaded asterisk has little effect on most people, but there are some that can get perturbed by the assumtion that you should give up personal data. If you are going to try the sans asterisk method, do with a bit of style. Make EVERY field (optional) and brazenly state it at the top of the form. Better yet put a (not required) label beside each field.

I can guarantee you will get more sign-ups

They won’t all be as strongly qualified, but if you have a strong sales/marketing team you might be able to gain some benefit from the leads – or find a connection to someone else through them.

What a great way to learn about your customers!!!

When nothing is required you’ll probably get a mix of people filling in everything because they feel slightly obliged, and then the people that try to get away with what *they* see as the minimum. At the end of the day it’s a magic thing to test if you have the balls to play with your sign-up form. The best way to begin a test of this kind would be a promotion based landing page with a lead gen form that carries no major risk. (By that, I mean don’t go trying this on your corporate website’s sign-up form just yet).

A Real-World Example: Radiohead

A great game-changing example was when Radiohead decided to give their last album away for free online. Fans were left to deal with their conscience by responding to the statement “Pay as much as you feel it’s worth”. You can pay as much as you think it’s worth if you’re so inclined, or get it for free if you have no conscience – genius.

Make it Free and They Will Write

Following perfectly from my last point about free. How about making the form entry completely free-form? That’s right, you heard me. At this point we’ve got no asterisks and no multiple choice. Just blank fields and freedom of expression.

Dropdown Listvs.Free-form Textbox
Guaranteed response. No guarantee (in fact absolutely no evidence) that the response from a drop down is truthful. They may simply choose the first value or the one closest to their mouse when the dropdown opens up.
Simple reporting capabilities. With predefined fields, all values can be easily charted for fixed variable reports. Removes “closest-guess” data – you can learn the real thoughts of the customer as they’re not constrained to choosing a winner from prefabricated answers. You might get a funny answer, or an essay on a subject – either way it will be a real expression of intent/feeling.
Useful when there are only a fixed number of possible answers to the question (e.g. which course would you like to take?) You can find more subtle and useful information about your customers. Such as “which” friend referred you, as opposed to the simple fact that “a friend” referred you.
  Enhanced sense that the customer is being listened to as they are communicating personally vs a pre-defined response.

A Funny Example

When we were leading up to the Unbounce private beta, we used a simple lead gen form for people to sign up for a notification. One of the questions we asked was the standard “How did you hear about us?”

We made it an optional field so that we didn’t pigeon hole people with strict answers. Out of hundreds of sign-ups we got a 99% completion rate for this form field and lots of great insight. We also got a really funny response from a customer on the other side of the world:

Q: How did you hear about Unbounce?

A: Toilet door. “For a good time visit”. Weird.

— Alex from Australia (reprinted with permission)

If we were to embark on a viral campaign for Unbounce, I’m not sure this would be the direction we’d take. However, you should always believe positive messaging about Unbounce cos we are straight up fair dinkum!

I’ve since contacted Alex and sadly there was no toilet door in Australia covered with Unbounce graffiti love. But what if it had been true? Without enabling our customers to tell their story the way they want to, we’d have been blind to the guerrilla marketing movement down under – and more than anything, we wouldn’t have been laughing so much we needed a trip to the bathroom…


Conclusions are born out of lessons, and the only lesson to be learned here is to try new things. If you have the ability to A/B test a page that has a form on it (such as a lead gen form) – then try these 3 variants:

Variant A

Make all fields required. Make sure some of them are dropdown lists.

Variant B

Make all fields optional and state this fact clearly.

Variant C

Make all fields optional, and replace all dropdown lists with free-form text fields.

If you drive enough traffic through a test like that you are going to learn a lot about your customers and their behaviour.

Come back and share your test results please!

I would love to know how your tests panned out along with a description of your customer demographic.

Happy conversions.

Oli Gardner

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About Oli Gardner
Unbounce co-founder Oli Gardner has seen more landing pages than anyone on the planet. He’s obsessed with identifying and reversing bad marketing practices, and his disdain for marketers who send campaign traffic to their homepage is legendary, resulting in landing page rants that can peel paint off an unpainted wall. A prolific international keynote speaker, Oli is on a mission to rid the world of marketing mediocrity by using data-informed copywriting, design, interaction, and psychology to create a more delightful experience for marketers and customers alike. He was recently named the "The 2018 Marketer to Watch," in the under 46 category, by his mother.
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