Why does your company have a web presence?

If “to generate new leads” isn’t high on your list of answers, it should be. A website that isn’t focused on generating new leads is just shouting into the void — and the internet is a big void.

For ages, the web form has been the go-to tool for lead generation. Content marketing bloggers have spilled vast quantities of pixels to explain how to optimize web forms for lead generation. Everyone has an opinion about how to structure web forms, where to place them, what colors they should be, which fields to use, how to write the best CTA text….

These are all moot points, though. No matter how elegant and thoughtful web forms are, they’re still not an ideal tool for lead generation on the web.

Here’s why.

Forms Don’t Know How to Get There From Here

Picture this. You’re driving down a country road when you suddenly realize you have no idea where you are. It’s dark, it’s raining, your GPS is out, and you’re utterly lost.

You pull over at the first intersection you find and read the street signs, which inform you that you’re on the corner of Oak Road and Pine Lane.

Great. But where is that in relationship to your destination? The street signs give you a point, but you need context in order to move from that point to your goal. You might, as Claire Grayston recommends, add “a landing page for every promotional campaign you run,” as well as one for every social media ad. More street signs might help. Or they might simply overwhelm your visitors without ever providing the information users need to get where they want to go.

Web forms, with their static design and single call to action (CTA), are street signs on a dark and stormy night. They give some indication of where the visitor might be, but they don’t help the visitor orient themselves to the website, the business, or the buying journey as a whole. Without that map of the territory, it’s tougher for visitors to get where they want to go — and easier for them to stop trying.

Unfortunately, forms don’t offer an easy solution. “Picking the right CTA is all about getting inside your customer’s head,” Jacob Baadsgaard writes at Search Engine Land. And while smart CTAs can help, as Andy Williams at SmartBug notes, they’re still just street signs in unfamiliar territory — the equivalent of the gas station attendant who says, “Oh, you can’t get there from here.”

Forms Don’t Go to Sales or Marketing Meetings

People visit a company’s website for reasons as varied as the visitors themselves. While many of those visitors are potential customers, others aren’t.

Both marketing and sales teams often have criteria for identifying qualified leads, Sam Kusinitz writes at HubSpot.

Because marketing and sales often differ in their tactics, the criteria from each team can differ, too, Jenna Puckett at TechnologyAdvice writes. And even when sales and marketing teams have worked together to create, understand, and implement their vision of qualified lead identification and generation, there’s still a weak link in the chain: the form.

Forms can collect information to help people determine whether the lead is a qualified one, notes SmartBug Media’s Sarah Hecker. But the form itself doesn’t provide additional insight. As a result, your followup emails to those leads go straight into the spam folder because they don’t remember who you are or why they filled out your form.

Generating a lot of leads that will never pan out is bad enough, but often a form can’t even determine whether those leads are real humans. Form spam is a real problem for many businesses, dumping hundreds or even thousands of utterly fake “leads” into a company’s CRM, says ActiveProspect founder and CEO Steve Rafferty. And while tools have arisen to combat this kind of spam, adding safeguards takes time and effort that could be better spent on turning leads into sales.

Forms Are Bad Conversationalists

One of the best ways to start a conversation is to ask another person something about themselves, says Maralee McKee, the Manners Mentor. Forms are certainly great at this: They can ask for nearly any information under the sun, from names to favorite ice cream flavor.

But a great conversation can’t just start. It has to continue. And for a form, that’s an impossible task.

Humans can continue the conversation where the form left off, but statistics indicate that they often don’t. Even when leads are turned over to a sales rep, only 27 percent of those leads are ever contacted, according to Caitie Gonzalez at Invoca.

The average time between form submission and a follow up from a sales person  is 47 hours — nearly two full days! And it’s not always easy to predict how the call experience will go, which risks the 74 percent of customers who say they won’t deal with a company after a phone conversation goes awry sideway, says Gonzalez.

Even though forms can start good conversations, their ability to do so is as good as their design, notes Denise Goluboff, who at the time was senior web designer at Trew Marketing. A form that asks too many questions upfront is like a nosy stranger at a cocktail party: They tend to repel visitors rather than get them talking.

Forms Are Bad Filters

One popular use of web forms as lead generation tools is to attach them to certain special or in-depth pieces of content, like reports or white papers.

Gating content with lead generation forms has some benefits. For instance, information gathered by the form can tell you more about who accessed the information and make outreach easier. It may also result in collecting more marketing-qualified leads, since humans tend to value things it took effort to get, says Moz’s Rand Fishkin.

Form-gated content appeals to many marketers who see it as a way to filter leads. Form-fillers who are really interested will give us their information, while casual visitors will move on. Yet even when the filter works perfectly on human leads, it leaves out more important connections: links and search engine rankings.

GFirst, gated content (and its landing page) tends to generate far fewer links and shares than non-gated content. “A lot of people will see the form and say, ‘Forget it. I don’t want to fill out the form,” says sales strategist David Meerman Scott. “The vast majority of people are unwilling to share a piece of content that has a form in front of it.”

Furthermore, search engine indexers will find themselves sitting outside the gate, too. “Search robots won’t fill out forms; they don’t have a name, email address or phone number,” says marketer and entrepreneur Janet Driscoll Miller. “Search bots view most forms as almost a brick wall – gating the content from humans essentially walls it off to search robots.”

For certain types of content, this isn’t an issue. To maximize the value of your site content from a lead generation perspective, however, forms are not only a clunky tool, but may be an actually harmful one.

What’s the Solution?

Instant messaging has long been a tool for customer service humans to communicate with website visitors, whether the visitors are looking for information or need help with a recent purchase.

Ever-advancing opportunities in artificial intelligence and machine learning have made it easier to produce conversation bots that more closely mimic human conversation — and lead users to better information more quickly.

Unlike a form, a conversation bot can analyze user-provided information to predict make educated guesses as to a visitor’s needs, using these to offer a map to the visitor’s desired destination. The bot can tailor questions based on previous answers to qualify leads more effectively. And it can be embedded on pages that aren’t gated, allowing for easier linking, sharing and search engine ranking of content.

Conversation bots can also provide some of the personalization today’s users crave. As Erica Hawkins at CallRail writes, old-fashioned phone calls provide 10 times the conversion rates of web forms, yet they’re also increasingly tough in an era of mobile users who prefer to do things via text. An interactive conversation system bridges the gap, providing the personal feel of a phone call with the convenience of texting.

As Erin O’Bannon at Cortex notes, AI can’t fully replace humans. Making the person-to-person connection will always be necessary. But thoughtfully-designed conversation bot software can provide the guidance and connection your visitors need to become leads.

Avery Potter