As content creators and marketers, we spend a lot of time creating content designed to connect with our desired audience and turn our prospects into customers, students, and clients. But just because you put the content out there doesn’t mean people will know what to do with it. In order to make gated content accessible, forms more inclusive, and create a better user experience, it’s imperative that the forms coinciding that content are the strongest they can be. Here are five things you need to know about building highly effective forms.

1. Start with an offer

“More information” is not an offer, it’s a threat.

Professional marketers generally define spam as unsolicited email, but today’s consumers (our students) assign the spam moniker to any email they do not perceive contains content of value. There’s certainly another lesson here about the importance of quality content and good list management, but let’s stay focused on forms. Our point is students are increasingly wary of signing up for more “spam.”

This may explain why universities have reported a decline over the years in the number of leads generated through the college website; especially when so few are offering anything more than the privilege of being added to a generic mailing list. What are you promising your students in return for surrendering their personal contact information?

2. Perception is everything

The first thing your site users do when they see a new form is estimate how much time is required to complete it. We call this perception. The more complex a form looks, the more likely users will abandon the process.

The more effort users have to make to complete a form, the less usable the form is. Bad usability could be the result of data that is difficult to input, an inability to understand the meaning of some questions, or confusion about error messages.

Every field you ask users to fill out requires some effort. The more effort is needed to fill out a form, the less likely users will complete the form. That’s why the foundational rule of form design is short is better — get rid of all inessential fields.

Be reductionary. Always question how the information you request from your students will be used. Keep in mind that removing non-essential questions reduces user effort and increases completion rates. Also, do not fall into the mental trap of viewing the exercise of removing fields as a loss of data, but rather see it for what it is. This creates more opportunity to engage your leads over time through targeted calls to action with the purpose of capturing additional information.

For those who struggle with eliminating fields, try prioritizing fields into a multi-page form that submits data to your CRM with every click. Only your most critical fields make the cut for the first page, moving all other fields to the pages that follow. This ensures you capture the lead with the first click, but provides an optional path for users to submit additional information if they feel so inclined.

Ideally, the number of optional fields in your form should be zero. You should be designing forms that collect only the information you really need, not just what you want. Still, should the argument for adding optional questions to your form win out, avoid the common mistake of distinguishing between required and optional fields by adding a red asterisk next to those that are required. Instead, assuming the required fields outnumber the optional, try appending “(optional)” to the label for those fields not required.

Above all else, the fields on your form should follow a logical structure. Create a conversational flow with your questions. Fields should be ordered based on how one might introduce themselves. Grouping related fields together can also assist in perception and add important context. And if no meaningful sequence seems possible, place your fields in alphabetical order.

3. Adopt a mobile-first strategy

The data continues to show that for most sites, the majority of traffic comes from mobile devices. Mobile-friendly is no longer enough; in fact, let’s flip that on its head. We must design forms from a mobile-first perspective that are in turn desktop browser-friendly.

It’s time to abandon your multiple column forms. This format has grown in popularity as a perceived cheat that provides the illusion of a shorter form without having to sacrifice fields in the process. The truth is, you’re fooling no one with your multiple columns, and single column forms are simply faster to complete. One column is excellent for mobile because the screens are longer vertically and vertical scrolling is a natural motion for mobile users.

Use top aligned labels. Putting labels above the fields in a form improves the way users scan the form. This is especially suitable for phones with smaller screens. This allows form fields to extend the full width of the screen, making them large enough to display the user’s entire input.

Also, when possible, avoid dropdown lists. Placing options in selector dropdown requires two clicks and hides the options. Drop-downs are especially bad for mobile because collapsed elements make the process of data input harder on smaller screens. Using radio buttons instead lowers the interaction cost.

In summation, keep your form simple. Pay attention to user effort; typing is error prone and time consuming. Consider most mobile users are utilizing thumbs to interact with your site. Build sufficient space between your fields to optimize ease of selection and navigation.

4. Design for all

1 in 12 men are color blind. 1 in 30 people have low vision. 1 in 188 are blind. If you’re overlooking the accessibility challenges when designing your forms, you’re inherently creating barriers to completion for a legitimate segment of the population and limiting your pool of prospects.

What does this mean? To begin with, confirm your field labels are descriptive, instructions are clear, validation and error messages are prescriptive, and your form is navigable by keyboard alone.

Do not use color as the only visual means of conveying information. Ensure sufficient contrast exists between text and background. A quick google search for “contrast checker” will turn up a number of free tools to help you test.

Also, do not fall for this design faux pas rising in popularity: replacing labels with in-field placeholders. This attempt at sleekness not only impedes the ability of your site visitors using screen readers from completing your form, but actually complicates matters for everyone. The minute a person inputs data in a field, the placeholder disappears and you’ve lost the only visible indicator of your field’s purpose. Labels remain useful during and after completion of a field; don’t replace them.

5. Qualify through pre-fill

So, your shorter, smarter forms start generating more leads. Now what? Continue to repurpose and reuse your forms to transform your marketing beyond a one-way communication plan into a two-way engagement strategy.

As suggested earlier, starting with only a limited amount of data on a lead is not a handicap, but an opportunity to include regular calls to action in email, SMS, and student portals for leads to return to your forms to tell you more about them. This will provide greater clarity around a lead’s real interest in your institution. Each click-thru and form submission should be reflected in your qualification scoring and drive funnel conversion efforts. And now through the modern power of form and CRM integrations, the links you provide known leads to your forms can and should pre-fill content. Not only do pre-filled forms perform better with significantly higher rates of completion, but you’re providing a self-service method to cleaning bad or outdated data.