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Online community best practices: Effective signup process

This article focuses on providing new members with an effective join/signup process. Although some of these principles may seem obvious, I've gone through plenty of membership signup forms that still suck. So hence the post.

4 elements of an effective online community signup process

1. Easy to use web form design

As Luke Wroblewski put it in Web Form Design in the Wild, Part II, "Forms control the gates of membership." Never take form design with a grain of salt. Filling out web forms requires the highest level of user commitment and are the most complex UI elements of a website.

Although people kill time browsing the Web, they don't kill that time by looking for the next web form to fill out. In fact, you and I, as well as every other user out there in the world avoid web forms like the plague. So if your signup form is complicated then go ahead and call it quits. Complex forms are the bane of conversion.

Here are a few quick tips to make your web forms easier to use:

2. Lazy registration

Lazy registration is a relatively new concept to the scene, made possible by increasing levels of interactivity on the Web. What is lazy registration? While guests use the features available to them, their behaviors and preferences are stored in cookies. When guests finally register because your online community website kicks ass, some of the information is already filled out from the cookies.

An example of lazy registration is if a guest posts a comment and inputs their name and email address, that information is stored in a cookie. When he signups because he wants a profile and access to member-only benefits, the signup form will draw that information from cookies, saving users valuable time and keystrokes.

3. Partial commitment

Partial commitment is a persuasion strategy as old as dirt. It's the reason why you're more likely to keep hearing "yes" if a person has been responding with "yes." It's the reason why that tricky car salesman asks you to take a test drive. Commitment in little chunks at a time simply works. While some of these tricks are unethical exploitations, getting partial commitment to increase online community signups on the web is not only an effective sales technique, it's good for users, too.

The benefit to users is somewhat related to the idea of progressive disclosure in that users only need what they need in each moment to complete a task because any more is overwhelming. In terms of online community commitment, users don't want to spend time writing a biography to join your online community. They want to do the minimum required to start playing. They'll give you more information as they find another benefit they want to unlock.

If you're thinking, "I'll give them a complete form, but mark only a few fields as required," you should know that users tend to fill out all fields and ignore requirements. Just give them the bare minimum fields required to sign up initially, and all other fields available to fill out at their leisure.

4. Build confidence

As with any commitment, people need confidence in their decision. When submitting personal information over the web, users need to be confident that their information is protected and respected.

The most important thing is to address their concern for privacy, which is usually done through a privacy policy. Most privacy policies are failures because they are stuffed down into the footer—a place where users never look when filling out forms—and they are full of legal jargon gobbledygook. When has legal jargon gobbledygook ever made you feel comforted?

Good privacy policies are short, written in plain speak, and very easy to find—like a link at the top of the form. Give the link to your privacy policy a teaser, such as "We have a privacy policy to keep your information private. [link to privacy policy]."

Other elements of building user confidence include

Bonus tip: Confirmation

Although you've led your new members through an effective signup process, your followup/confirmation e-mail is just as important. Followup e-mails play key roles in the signup process:

Conclusion

Your signup form may be the most crucial part of your online community. You should be doing everything you can to insure an easy signup process that makes the user feel safe.