14 Steps to Building Sign-up Forms That Convert

14 Steps to Building Sign-up Forms That Convert

Growing your mailing list and generating leads should be one of your focus points of your marketing efforts. If Groupon didn’t have over 115 million or Appsumo 500 000 email subscribers, they wouldn’t have a business.

Too many businesses don’t give it enough attention, and just throw something together (then complain that online lead generation doesn’t work). This post is about building email and sign-up forms that convert. 

1. Less is more (Few fields = more conversions)

Every field you ask them to fill increases friction. The best thing you can do to improve conversions is to get rid of as many fields as possible. In most cases you don’t need to ask for anything but the email address.

In one study an 11-field version of a contact form was replaced with a 4-field version, resulting in a 160% increase in the number of forms submitted and a 120% increase in conversion while the quality of submissions stayed the same.

In another test 5-field form outperformed 9-field form by 34%. Again, they didn’t complain about the data quality as people lie in long forms anyway.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind after seeing this type of form:

If you’re like me, you physically feel the brain damage happening. Suffix? Really!?

It seems to be a lead generation form for a web design company. What they should ask instead is name, email / phone and maybe the website URL. Now the salesperson at the company can get in touch with the prospect and figure out all the other questions over the phone or followup emails. The goal is to get the lead!

Start with getting rid of all the optional fields

An eye tracking study showed that people might not look at the “required fields” note on forms, and therefore think that they’d have to fill every single field.

Think about it this way: every additional fields makes you lose a number of prospects. Is the additional information you gain from the field WORTH losing those people? Do you lose anything if you don’t get all the data right away?

The numbers of fields you can have in a form is also dependent upon the perceived reputation of the company. Well-known and trusted brands can get away with more, but even they can’t go overboard. I’ve heard the New York Times subscription form used to be 18 pages long(!) when they first launch their online presence. Times have changed (pun not intended).

Do you really need it?

Do you really need people’s phone, fax or address? If you aren’t gonna ship them anything, people won’t be interested in sharing it. Only ask what’s relevant. Expedia removed the “Company” field from their booking form and saw an increase of $12 million a year in profit.

What will you do with their name? If it’s to mention their name in mass e-mail (“Hello [name]”!), the forget about it. True personalization happens through personalized content. Everybody knows that the name field is filled in by an email software robot, nobody thinks it’s a personal email to them. It used to work really well a few years ago, but now the effectiveness is in fast decline.

The best signup form is short

Barack Obama:


2. Sell the email signup

Getting people to give you their email (sign up to your list) is a transaction. You want them to give you their email address (and maybe other data), they want something in return. Generally speaking you should ask for as little as possible on the signup form, and give the user as much as possible in return.

People who are motivated are extremely likely to fill out a form that is reasonable in length. Instead of asking can people fill out our sign-up form, ask if people are motivated enough to care? Creating the motivation is up to you, learn to create great microcopy.

There’s also a service you can integrate to your sign-up forms to provide rewards for signing up (e.g. “Fill Out This Signup Form For A Free $5 Gift Card”). They claim this increases sign-up conversions, but I haven’t tested them myself.

In short, don’t just ask for the sign-up, sell it.

The worst kind of form for enticing newsletter sign-ups.

  • No reason given to join
  • Ridiculous amount of fields

I bet they get no sign ups whatsoever.

Also bad:

While it’s short, it doesn’t provide any reasons for signing up.

The good kind

  • Short
  • There’s a clear value proposition
  • Privacy policy mentioned

The One Question:

This one converts at 35% which is pretty high. The reason it works so well is that most traffic to the page comes via Google search, and the search terms match the offer of the form. When your offer matches user motivation, you get high conversions.

NB! Test your lead magnet

It is very important to test your lead magnet (what you offer in return for their email). The offer itself usually makes the biggest difference in your conversion rate. Everything else is just supporting it.

3. Show social proof

Nobody wants to be the only idiot filling your stupid sign-up form. Show them tons of people have done it.



Mixergy adds testimonials and mentions companies people know:

Social proof is very effective.

4. Tell them what happens next

People like to be in control. Submitting the form without knowing what exactly is going to happen creates uncertainty. Uncertainty causes friction.

The worst thing your submit button can say is ‘submit’. The best way is to make the submit button say what’s going to happen.




5. Form design matters

People trust beautiful design more than the alternative.

This guy doubled his opt-ins with better graphics, showing the virtual cover of his e-book. I realize it’s still a poor design, but progress is visible:

Appsumo grew fast to 500 000 email subscribers:

6. Single column, please

This eye tracking study showed that single column forms work better. Traindom’s sign-up form:

7. Try a Mad Libs style form

Mad Libs is a phrasal template word game where one player prompts another for a list of words to substitute for blanks in a story, usually with funny results.

Vast.com did A/B testing comparing a traditional form design with a narrative “Mad Libs” format. The Mad Libs style forms increased conversion across the board by 25-40%. Before and after views:

Image source

8. Communicate errors clearly

If they fail to fill in a mandatory field or do something wrong, be very clear about it.

Meetup does this well. In this case I didn’t enter the zip code:

If they did fill the form incorrectly and you need to show an error message, make sure the fields are populated with the data they entered. If they have to start from scratch, it causes frustration and they might not do it.

9. Don’t be picky

When asking for information. There is nothing more annoying than a form that requires information to be entered in a very specific format.

For example, if you’re asking for a date, accept the year as in 11 and 2011 both. Let them use either slash (/) or dot (.) in between the numbers. When you ask for a phone number, don’t require spaces, brackets or anything else – let the user enter their phone number as they please.

If you need the data in a specific format, make it clear, or better yet have it converted by a script. You can also design the interface in a way they don’t have a choice. In the case of dates for example, you can have them choose it from a calendar.

10. Don’t ask for the password twice

The more fields you ask people to fill in, the less will. Having two fields for passwords is stupid.

Most people do it as “everybody is doing it”, but for no good reason. The idea is that entering it twice makes sure that there’s no typo in it. Well, a better way to do that is to give the option to see what they typed.

Vimeo doesn’t do it:

Traindom has a “check your password” checkbox you can tick to show the password instead of *********. A much better way to verify whether there are any typos:

11. Drop-down lists, radio buttons and auto-complete fields

You’ve probably seen those huge drop down lists for selecting categories, countries or citis. If there are tons choices, drop-down list is not convenient. This is bad:

Instead, use auto-fill fields such as this one (give it a try, it works):

Here’s a great article on redesigning the country selector.  Get the country selector script from here.

Use smart defaults where appropriate. For example, if most of your users come from the UK, it might be a good idea to default the country to ‘UK’.

If there’s anywhere between 7 and 15 options, a drop-down list is usually a really good fit. If there are only a few choices (2 – 6), go for the radio button:

Male Female Neither

12. Submit button width = field width

Call to action is the most important part of your form. A small button has weak affordance and can make users feel uncertain about using it. Make it as wide as the input fields (and join our email list while you’re at it):

Join our private newsletter and get the instant-impact guide for boosting your conversion rates.

13. Avoid clear fields button

Nobody who fills in your form wants to clear the fields. If they don’t want to fill it in, they can just leave.

If they fill the form and accidentally clear the fields, there’s a good chance they won’t start over.

14. Don’t use captchas on forms

Captchas are those anti-spam things:

One study done over 6 months found that when forms use captchas, the company could lose out on 3.2% of all their conversions. Another study found that up to 30% of the captchas could be failed/incorrectly answered by people as they’re too hard to figure out.

Animoto used to have captchas on their sign-up form, then removed it, and thereby boosted their conversion rate from 48% to 64%. That’s an uplift of 33.3%!

So instead, what do you do?

If it’s an email list signup form, just use double opt-in.

If it’s a quote request or another type of form, you can use the “Honeypot” captcha technique. It involves using CSS to hide a form field that is supposed to be left blank. Every time the form is submitted you check the field and see if it’s blank, if not, mark it as spam but not delete it.

If you’re still keen on using captchas, this is the best captcha in the world.

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  1. Very helpful post. I have been seeking out help for getting more people to signup on my site but I realized in your last post that I was not thinking the right way. So I thought maybe it was my signup form so I came to this post and wow, what great info. Thanks and I will start to change my forms to just email only and then build that relationship and provide value added content to them for free. Thanks again for creating these posts they helped me a lot today…

  2. Is there a Mad Libs wordpress plugin?

  3. I’m trying to create a great sign up form with a little style to it. I’m not sure if basic looking forms are better for conversion as I have now or a more professional looking form. I am not good with styling, graphics, or anything like that so not sure if it’s worth hiring someone to design a good form. Do you want the form to stand out from anything else on the site? But then I don’t want the colors to look horrible with the rest of the site.

    Anyways, thanks for the information here. I’m going to start working on an email signup form and will use the guidelines you’ve given here. I can tell you put a lot of time into the post, and I thank you for that. Hope I can do a good job designing this form.

  4. Very true. The shorter the form the better. I like to get a phone number on forms for the simple reason being if they are serious…then they want to talk to you about your product or service. Getting the email address is key.

  5. Hey there – I’ve been searching for research on whether or not the width of the button makes a difference. I see the reference frequently, but nothing to back it up. Business leaders at my company think the large buttons look goofy and downmarket. Thoughts?

    1. Peep Laja

      It can make a difference, and I’ve seen plenty of a/b tests where they have. The only way to know the impact in your case is to test.

  6. Killer ideas. It’s funny because as I was reading your list, I was adjusting our email signup form. I’d say it looks a heck of a lot better now!

    Thanks for the tips!


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14 Steps to Building Sign-up Forms That Convert