Free Me From Your Website Forms

Each time you click that Submit button, submit is exactly what you do. Your personal information is sucked into some computer where you become a “prospect.” You hope the collecting organization won’t spam you or worse, sell your information to other companies. But companies don’t ask for data they don’t intend to use.

There is a chance your data will be used for nothing more than statistics: How many people 35 or older download this -- that sort of thing. There is also a chance that your data will rot in some CRM, dormant forever. But the better chance is that your data will be used to “funnel” you through a sales pipeline, “nurturing” you until you pony up some cash or opt yourself out.

The Illusion of Control

“Easy opt-out” messages are used to convince us that the pain will be bearable and that we are in charge of how long it will last. And though some opt-out processes truly are painless, others can feel more like disguised opt-ins that collect even more data.

Then we have the “you are receiving this email because you asked for it” messages. But you know what, savvy marketer? I didn’t ask for it. You either don’t know how to run your marketing automation system or you’ve illegally opted me in. Either way, you’re an idiot.

It’s gotten so bad that there are now laws on the books of many countries that aim to protect consumers from the list-drunk marketing industry. Some regulations require double opt-in confirmation before anyone can be added to a list. Others merely require that email recipients be able to easily opt-out of all communications. One law that recently made some noise in Australia warns businesses that they may not collect any personal information that is not absolutely necessary for the immediate transaction.

The problem with these regulations is that they are weak, at best. When unsolicited email arrives, are you really going to file a law suit? Companies know they have some time before things become really serious, so few scramble to get with the new program. This is compounded by marketing automation and emailing services that simply aren’t prepared to deal with regulations that vary according to region. After all, when an email address ends with, who’s to say which laws apply?

Vote with Your Back Button

This battle will not be won in the courts -- this battle will be won by consumers who refuse to click that Submit button when the information transaction seems unreasonable. Keep in mind that while that white paper is something you’ll read only once, your email address is something that offers a lifetime of marketing value to its collector. Further, a valid email address is worth much more than the fluff many companies try to pass off as “educational content.”

When it doesn’t feel right to click Submit, click your Back button instead. On the other end of that form is a marketroid counting the times people do that. When it gets bad enough, change will come.

Personally, I think Australia has the right idea: Form publishers should ask only for what is needed to fulfill the user’s request, not what they need to meet their data collection goals.

Consider the following each time you encounter a web form:

  • You should not be asked for any information that is not necessary to fulfill your request. This means that if you’re asking to schedule a guided tour of software, it’s reasonable that you be asked for your name, email address and perhaps a phone number. But if all you want to do is download a white paper, you should be able to do so without sharing so much as your favorite color. After all, download links don’t care who clicks them.
  • You should not be placed on email distribution list for which you did not personally opt-in. If this ever happens to you, here’s a trick for correcting the situation: Humiliate the company via Twitter: “I keep getting unsolicited emails from @BadMarketingCo. Anyone else having this trouble?” Send those a few times each day for a while and watch the mountain move.
  • You should be able to opt-out of any email list with minimal fuss. This means that you shouldn’t be asked for new information just to opt out. This also means that all requests should be instantaneous. “Please allow up to 10 days” messages are absurd. Companies use marketing automation software to manage opt-outs, and every such program I’ve ever seen handles an opt-out within seconds. The “10 day” advisory more likely means they have to make sure they haven’t repurposed your email across the entire organization and, perhaps, throughout the partner network too. Here’s a remedy for this situation: “I’m on Day 1 of 10 days required to opt out of @BadMarketingCo email. I can’t wait for it to end!” Make social media your weapon when you’ve been wronged.
  • Most form fields should be optional. Aside from those fields that are absolutely required to fulfill your request, form fields should be optional. If you choose to provide the data, that’s your call. If the form publisher wants to know your company name and you don’t provide it, then the company certainly has the option of ignoring your request. This is a form submission, not a contract.

When you come across a company whose policies are still contrary to the protection of your personal information, take to Twitter and ask them why.

If you're a form publisher or marketer yourself, and you're wondering what on earth you'll do if you lose your ability to ask for personal information on your website, fear not. You don't have to give up your web-generated lead stream, you just have to reinvent how it works. Some ideas for that can be be found in Shutter the Sales Funnel, a companion piece to the article you're reading now.

Spoiler: You're going to have to step up your game.

Title image by Gregory James Van Raalte (Shutterstock)