Episode 5 – Forms

I’m going to tell you how to create embedded forms in your site, manage that information, and even get notified of data changes – all for free. First the disclaimer – this feature only works with self-hosted solutions. Sorry WP.com users, but this calls for iframes and WP.com doesn’t support that today. It’s another one of those constraints you have to live with.

I couldn’t help myself – I was going through the LinkedIn group on WordPress and saw a discussion about plugins that are available for creating forms. I saw people suggesting one called Cforms, Gravity forms, and Contact Form 7. While I don’t have experience with those, I saw that at least some of those had a pretty steep price tag associated with them. I have no doubt that these are fine products and provide functionality beyond what I’m going to talk about, but let’s start with my free solution and if it doesn’t meet your needs, you can look at one of the other options.

To begin, you’ll first need a Google docs account. If you use Gmail, you’re already set. If not, go to google.com click Sign In in the upper right and create an account.

Once that’s done, either go to docs.google.com or use the options in the upper left of the main Google page, click More, and select Documents.

Now it’s time to create our form. Click the Create New button on the left and select Form. The screen displays a default form with two questions to get you started. Give your form a name and a description in the top two boxes then use the icons on the right of each question section to edit, duplicate, or delete the question. To add additional questions, use the Add Item button at the top. If you like, you can add a theme to liven up the look of your form. There are limited themes and some may not agree with the theme of your WordPress site.

You can use this to create surveys, polls, or any series of questions to gather data. From experience, if you are creating a survey, don’t go nuts with questions. Keep them around 10-15 at the most. I know other services like SurveyMonkey.com are free and limit you to 10 questions. With a Google form, I haven’t found a limit to the number of questions, but keep your reader in mind. Think how you would feel if someone asked you to take a survey and you saw 400 questions. I think not. C’mon admit it. You’re more likely to fill it out if is short.

Once you’ve got the form the way you like, click Save, then click More Actions and select Embed and copy the contents from the textbox.

Now the final and simple step. Login to your WordPress site and create a new page. Change the visual editor to HTML mode and paste the contents you copied from the Google Docs site. Preview your page and have a look. Pretty neat! You can see a sample of one of mine at chucktomasi.com under Speaker Request.

The cool thing about this is your results are collected in a Google Docs spreadsheet which you can quick review, manipulate, or even export to Excel for additional analysis, graphing and so on.

Want to get email notifications when someone has added data? Go to Google Docs and open them document by clicking on the name. On the right click on Share, and select Set Notification Rules. Choose the options you like and how you want to be notified. Me? I like to know when any changes are made and email me right away. That’s it. You won’t know who submitted the form because they never login to anything.

If you need to change your form, just go back to Google Docs, click on the document name, and under the Form menu, select Edit form. I don’t recommend changing the form if you’ve already started collecting data, but sometimes its necessary. You won’t lose any data, but it makes analyzing it a bit uglier. If you do make changes, be sure to grab that embed code again because it includes a height and width of your frame. If you add questions or take some away, it is going to render the new form in the old space and you could end up with a lot of extra space, or heaven forbid, scroll bars within your WordPress page. ICKY!

Another suggestion if you do need to tweak the page in WordPress, such as putting in new HTML code. If you edit the page and start in the Visual Editor page, you’ll see the form rendered. Switching to HTML mode will just display the message “Loading…”, not the HTML code itself. Likewise, going back to the Visual mode will display Loading too. The solution to this conundrum? Switch to HTML mode and exit the page. When you go back in, it will still be in HTML mode and display the HTML code properly. Now you can put in the new embed code and everything will be fine.

There you go! Use Google docs to create a form, send you email of data updates, and embed the form in your WordPress page or post simply by pasting in a snippet of HTML code. You can view and analyze the data at any time via Google docs, all for no charge. How’s that for cool?

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