InFORMation. Who needs it?
By Peter de Pradines

Web pages, and for that matter, Web sites, are constructed by people - For other people. It's an odd Web page that is designed to be read and looked upon by another author alone.

The trouble is, if you don't take positive steps to find out, you don't know if your masterpiece is being looked at and read by others or not.

That's why there's such a huge market in counters, stats, logs and all the other great jumble of "stuff" that goes with it. These tools tell us who came along and looked at our pages. But, hmm... next problem: What did they think of what they saw and read? Another massive market: Guest books, forums, and the rest.
No, whichever way you look at it, we're all really very keen to get as good an indication as possible as to just who came to see our "show" and how much they liked it. Similar to school examination results that come out like a rash all over the western world annually, we may not always like what we find but we need to know anyway - good or bad.
For something that interests us all so much, it never ceases to amaze me that 90% of Web sites I come across on a day-to-day basis don't take advantage of one of the most common elements of HTML. Oh sure, you'll see plenty of counters and guest books and whatever. But what about the regular, basic, down to earth, here-I-am-for-free, response form?
Take a moment to note how many of the next ten sites you visit make use of a response form somewhere amongst their pages. A lot less than half I'll wager! So, maybe we should have a small dose of 'back to basics' and take another, more focused look, at forms.

Just as in any print-based announcement or marketing, the reply form is the moment of truth. Whether your goal is to receive an order, get permission to send more information, collect answers to a survey, or just about anything else, the easiest method is the reply form.

You can do several things to enhance its power.

Links to your form on every page

The first rule of reply forms is to keep them in front of the people you want to use them. In cyberspace, you do this by making your response form accessible on every page. Not only does this allow your visitor to respond on impulse, but also the reply form's presence is a constant reminder that you are requesting an action.
This is a distinct advantage over direct mail where a reply form can get lost in the shuffle of paper. It's more like a space ad, where the coupon is always visible, or a TV commercial where the 800 number remains on the screen.

Make your Reply form look like a Reply form

Some direct marketers re-state savings and benefits on the reply form. Others include a photograph of the product. Still others favor a clean, utilitarian form with no extraneous information. No matter which camp you're in, tip your hat to tradition and give your reply form a familiar look.
For example:

* Place an offer-reinforcing headline at the top of the screen
* Clearly state what you want the user to do.
* Use simple fields that are easy to understand and complete
* Make sure your contract language spells out your offer clearly
* Don't ask too much information from your respondent
* Don't force them to choose between too many options
* Change the Submit button title to something more meaningful

Give Alternatives for Placing the Order

Because some people can be uncomfortable with online ordering, your form should include all options available for ordering. Don't confuse this with offering too many product/offer choices; too many choices inhibit response!
Your online order form should include your own:

* E-mail address
* Fax number
* Telephonenumber
* Postal address

Remember to tell your visitor you are happy for them to contact you in any of these ways.

Handle Security and Satisfaction Fears

Offer a guarantee. Prominently place it adjacent to the ordering area. Encourage your visitor to print out the guarantee and the order form when they have completed it and before submission. Remember credibility - the more generous the guarantee, the better.
Your guarantee should include assurances about the security of credit card transactions and highlighting the use of a secure server, which is essential. Remember that not all browsers can handle secure server transactions so you may need to make allowances for that too if you think you may get substantial orders from that area of the public. Academics are renowned for sticking with antique browsers!

Say, "Thank You" and Give a Receipt

After your customer, (yes - they're customers now!) places an order, program your pages to produce a personalized thank you note on the screen. In addition to saying thank you this should also act as a receipt for the order they've just made. Give them customer service names, e?mail and phone numbers.
Tell them when to expect delivery. Include a confirmation number, a copy of your guarantee, plus any other relevant information to make them feel appreciated and well taken care of. You might usefully remind them to print this thank-you/receipt/guarantee/service-info page for safe keeping and future reference.
Follow up this on-screen service with a behind-the-scenes copy of the same thing by e-mail. It is perfectly legitimate to try to capture e-mail and postal addresses plus other customer contact information. However you should take particular care if your plan includes following up by e-mail.

You might suspect that if your visitor has responded, you have their implicit permission to e-mail commercial offers to them in the future. Although this may seem reasonable, you would be wise to exercise caution. The person may not remember responding to you before, and so whether you are "right" or not, your further offers may be seen as inappropriate and intrusive.

The best approach is always to ask permission to send follow-up details of upgrades or similar offers in the future. For example, have a field on your form: "To receive updates by e-mail, click here" or "may we contact you with future details?"

The most aggressive you can get is to have your form default to a "Yes" answer but even this can quite rightly be considered "pushy." You will have to decide how far you can go. Only you can adequately judge your market and your customers.

Eh, excuse me ? I don't sell to my visitors!

Don't you? Then you should! I don't mean that you should necessarily be taking money from them but you still need to "sell" your web pages, your free service, whatever you are providing.

At the very least your visitor is "spending" time at your web site and if you don't "sell" them something of interest or value in exchange for their time spent, then you'll not see them again.

How do you know you're providing value-for-money, whether they spend with hard cash or their continuing interest?

If you ask them - they will tell you. If you don't - they won't, or at least certainly not in so many numbers. You need their opinions, their response, their comments, and their feedback. Call it what you will ?you need them to let you know how well you're catering to their needs. Only they can tell you. And they will if you ask.

Sure, there's a vast number of fancy ways of doing this. Bleeding edge, state-of-the-art bells and whistles that mesmerize and seduce Webmasters far more than they do poor visitors who may be without modern browsers that can handle them.

These clever "goodies" will nearly all cost you money. You may be able to well afford it. Good for you! But none of them will do any more, any better, than the free, plain and simple, well-designed, here-I-am-for-nothing, HTML form!