July 10, 2002
Case Study

Sales Lead Generation Email Test -- Do Short Registration Forms Really Work Better Than Long Forms?

SUMMARY: Seems like business marketers and sales reps have wrangled over this debate for years now: How long should an online sales prospect registration form be? Of course sales reps want that form to be 97 questions long in order to pre-qualify the living daylights out of every prospect. On the other hand marketers want that form to be as short as possible so it does not scare away legitimate prospects. NetLine VP Marketing Raechelle Drivon tested both last month. Get all her notes on the results, plus fascinating data on how new prospects react differently to email newsletters than established readers.
Like most B2B marketers, Raechelle Drivon NetLine's Marketing VP constantly hustles trying to generate a steady flow of juicy sales leads for her reps.

This spring she lucked out.

Due to a barter deal with another vendor, she got the chance to have a marketing promotion sent (for free) to a targeted opt-in email list that was just perfect for her marketplace.

It was a one shot deal, so she really wanted to make the most of it and create an email campaign so compelling that as many names on the list as possible registered as sales leads for her team.

Normally, Drivon would have done a small test to see what offers and creative worked best, and then rolled out to the bigger list. However, in this case, the list contained fewer than 3,000 names, which is not enough names for multiple test cells.

She was stuck. She had to use every best practice she had ever heard of in email lead generation marketing, and hope for the best.

First Drivon decided on the most compelling offer she could think of: A free white paper on a topic that prospects and customers had told her was the number one thing they longed for more information on.

However when Drivon had downloaded white papers from other high tech firms in the past, she had been underwhelmed. She used five specific tactics to make sure hers was more effective.

1. Hiring an outside writer.

Drivon knew she wanted to use an outsider to write the paper. She did not want a marketing writer because a white paper should be educational, not salesy. She explains, “I’ve always taken a much more educational approach to sales and marketing, and it’s been effective for me. That’s my style.”

Drivon found her writer at a luncheon hosted by the Northern California Chapter of the Business Marketing Association. “It’s a great resource,” she volunteers.

2. Do not accept the first draft.

Drivon began by giving the writer a sample white paper she had downloaded from another vendor, being sure to explain what she liked about it and what she did not. She also gave him an explicit list of what she would like covered in her own paper.

“We probably went about five rounds on the white paper. The first one was major, and the following ones were nitpicking on language and wording,” she recalls. The entire process took about six weeks.

3. Remove marketing copy.

The first draft of the paper focused too much on NetLine. “We took it all out, with just a small section about NetLine at the end. We didn’t want the paper to be a pitch,” Drivon explains.

She figured, once prospects have handed over their contact information to get a white paper, that data can be used to pitch them separately. The white paper's role was to establish credibility and educate prospects, rather than selling them.

4. Keep it short.

Longer is not more impressive. In fact, if your white paper is longer than a dozen or so pages it just gets intimidating. Prospects may print it out, but then file it away instead of reading it and/or passing it on to interested colleagues.

Plus, Drivon wanted to maximize her investment in creating the white paper in three ways. She wanted to use it for this email campaign, offer it from the home page of her Web site, and also use it as a printed-out marketing piece for trade shows.

She settled on an 8-page white paper that could be printed on two 8 1 /2 x 17” sheets of paper and folded into a booklet.

5. Give it a compelling title.

Ever notice how many white papers have dull-as-dishwater titles? Rather than using impressive industry vocabulary to show how "smart" her company was, Drivon used the words she knew her prospects used when talking about the topic.

Next Drivon began to work on the email campaign creative. She had six questions to answer about the creative:

-> What should the message be?

“The only goal that you have is to get someone to click on a link and fill out a registration form. Absent that, you don’t gain anything. So getting 10 things about your company in a letter really doesn’t benefit you. The only thing you’re trying to do is get them to click on that link and fill out your form,” Drivon

Her message focused on the problem prospects were facing, and how the white paper could help them solve it. It was neither long nor short, but just over one screen in length. (Link to sample below.)

In the message, she included 2 links to the form. The first just read, “free white paper,” in the body of the message. The second link read, “Download your free copy today!” on a line by itself.

-> Who should the message be FROM?

The list Drivon was using was from a trade publication that recipients were sure to remember. She decided to go with the trusted brand, and send the message from the name of the magazine, rather than her name or her company name. (Note: in general this is a best practice we highly recommend.)

-> What should the subject line be?

Drivon wanted to make sure that the most compelling words in the subject line would be visible to all recipients, regardless of the sizes of their screens. This meant she ended up crafting her subject line with great care, sending samples to her own email in-box with various wording options until she was sure the key words were visible.

-> How long should a registration form be?

The email list was big enough to split it in half for one single test. Drivon decided to use it to solve the question that torments most marketers:

When you ask sales prospects to fill out a form to get a free white paper (or other benefit) how long can that form get before they give up and bail without answering?

Of course your sales reps want that form to be 97 questions long, in order to pre-qualify the living daylights out of every prospect. On the other hand marketers want that form to be as short as possible so it does not scare away legitimate prospects.

Drivon tested two different forms. The short version asked for contact information and one single non-required additional question. The longer version asked for contact information plus three not required questions. (Link to samples below.)

Both forms also included a pre-checked box that, if left untouched, allowed Drivon to send additional information, including the monthly email newsletter.

Drivon had email campaign sent out on Tuesday, June 11. “The Tuesday was critical,” she says. “Tuesdays at 10 A.M. (PST) is my absolute favorite time to drop. That makes it 1 P.M. (EST) when people are getting back from lunch. At 10 A.M. (PST), people are at their desks.”

The short form won hands down, garnering a 74.6% conversion rate (prospects who visited the landing page and completed the form), compared to only 50% from the longer form.

Drivon began seeing results within the first 15 minutes by using a near-realtime reporting program that tracks the clickthrough to conversion rate and the cost per lead based on the list. She made sure her sales reps were standing by to begin contacting those leads that very day.

More results:

1. The second link in the message, the more action-oriented link, performed 18% better than the first link, even though conventional knowledge says the first link generally outperforms the second.

2. Text-version reader and HTML-version reader links were tracked separately. However, since who reads the text versus the HTML version can not be tracked Drivon was not able to give a percent to the text email click through rate.

She hastens to add that some people definitely did click on the text-version link (versus the HTML) version which tells her in corporate America some people still can not get HTML.

3. HTML readers averaged a 36.9% open rate in HTML and a 7.7% clickthrough rate.

4. 60% of registration form users left the pre-checked box, to have their email address added to NetLine's list, checked. Drivon attributes this lower-than-normal percent to the fact “we were sending to a marketing audience, and they are more savvy to checking or unchecking a box.”

5. When Drivon sent her regular monthly email newsletter about a week after the email campaign ended, she says, “I tracked [the new names gathered from the campaign] as a separate panel to see how they responded compared to how my regular newsletter group did, and they responded huge.”

“The open rate for my regulars stayed about what it usually is: 35%. The open rate for the new audience who signed up just a week before was 53%! My clickthrough rate on my regular audience was about average: 6.39%; it usually measures between 6% and 8.5%. The clickthrough rate on the leads group was 17.5%!” Wow.

Sample creative of email campaign:

Sample of the short-version registration form:

Sample of the longer-version registration form:


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