• Michael Kolodner

Why I Love FormAssembly: The Prefill Connector


An example basic webform

There are lots of webform tools in the world. If you only need to collect information from people and store that information in Salesforce there are many tools that can do it. Even if you don’t have the tool integrated to Salesforce, it would be pretty easy to import a spreadsheet of the responses.


But if you ask me to recommend a form or survey tool, I’m going to steer you to FormAssembly.

[Full disclosure: I am a FormAssembly partner, but I do not get any kind of compensation from them for that. It just means I can give a discount code to my clients. I don’t get anything in return for a client purchasing through my code.]


If you’re making only very simple forms, you’ll find FormAssembly easy to use. But you might do just as well with Google Forms (ugly, though) or you might even prefer something like GetFeedback, which makes fast and pretty customer satisfaction-type surveys.


It’s when you want to make your forms more interactive that FormAssembly really shines, and that is due to the feature they call their Prefill Connector. If you have FormAssembly at the Premier level or above, you can have the form talk to your Salesforce data before the user begins to interact with the form. This is a neat trick that few, if any, other webform tools can match.



URL Prefill

The Prefill Connector is not URL Prefill. It's so much more.

Just about any webform tool can handle what is called URL prefill. If you’ve ever looked closely at a link a company sent you, you might notice a format similar to this:

https://www.tfaforms.com/4992347?tfa_1=yourname&tfa_3=youremail&tfa_5=customer

In real life it’s usually a little harder to parse, but the idea is that you have a link to the web address, then after a backslash is the number or identifier of the particular form (4992347), then a question mark that tells your web browser what follows gets put onto the page that’s going to load. After the question mark you can see that question 1 and question 3 are filled with your name and email and question 5 has an identifier that you are a “customer.” This is basically a mail merge, only instead of creating a form letter, we’re creating a web form with some of the questions (possibly hidden) already filled out. As I said, most form tools can do this.


Go ahead and follow that link–it’s a real form that doesn’t collect any information. If you modify the values in the URL, the answers in the form change. There’s nothing happening outside the form though. Try replacing “customer” in the URL with “reader” and see what happens.


Honestly, URL prefill is pretty handy.


You can send personalized surveys to people using your email marketing tool (like Mailchimp or Constant Contact), or from a spreadsheet, or out of your CRM. All you need to do is concatenate fields about the people into the right place(s) within the URL. This allows you to do some great things to make forms personal or to conditionally display the right questions, etc.


But URL prefill requires that any logic (about the form recipient or related information) already be figured out before the form link goes out the door. There’s nothing dynamic about the information available to the form once that URL is generated. If I send you the link today and you wait a week to click on it, the form isn’t going to be any different. If I send you a link to a First Time Volunteer Experience form and then you don’t click on it for a month, having volunteered with my organization three times in the meantime, you’re still going to get the questions as though it were your first time when you finally click on that email.


The Prefill Connector

Unlike URL Prefill, FormAssembly’s Prefill Connector talks with Salesforce at the moment the form is loaded. This means that the form could look you up in our CRM by name and email and then, if it sees that you have already volunteered three times, show you a different set of questions than if you had just volunteered for your first time.


Or we could take an example that doesn’t need any URL prefill at all. We could make a form on our website that’s for signup to our upcoming volunteer events. Most form tools would require that someone manually update the form as volunteer events are added to the calendar. But with the prefill connector, when the form loads it can ask Salesforce which volunteer events are coming up and then display those when it loads. Now if you want to add a new event to the signup form all you have to do is create that event in Salesforce. The next time someone goes to your website they’ll immediately have the new event as an option.


Pause for a moment to think about how powerful that is.


The prefill connector opens up all sorts of really interesting possibilities. Here a few to get you thinking:


An attendance form:

  1. Teacher enters their email address.

  2. Form looks up the class for that teacher and finds all students in today’s session.

  3. All the teacher has to do now is mark each student present or absent.

Now you don’t have to have attendance taken only by someone with a Salesforce login.


A smart field trip form:

  1. Parent enters their email address and upon submit is redirected to a second form (for them it just looks like a new page.)

  2. Form looks up the kid associated with that parent and prefills the emergency contact information we have on file.

  3. Parent then fills out the field trip permission and can either change the emergency contact or keep what we already have, without having to reenter the information.

A data update form:

  1. I click on a link that has my contact Id embedded in it.

  2. The form looks up my most up-to-date email, phone, and address, allowing me to edit or confirm that information.

Of course, you could do this via URL prefill, but consider a couple of differences:

  • WIth URL prefill the link would have to have all my personal information in the URL itself, so if I send that link out via email (which is always insecure), my personal information is pinging around the Internet unencrypted. Using Prefill Connector, when the form loads my information it communicates with Salesforce and my browser using secured HTTPS.

  • WIth URL prefill, if any of my contact information changes in the database after the URL was generated, the form won’t know that. If I use the link a second time it will look like the changes from the first time never happened. With Prefill Connector the form is always up-to-date.


A smart grades entry form:

  1. Parents arrive at the form with the unique identifier for their child (like from a mail-merged email reminding them to enter the child’s report card.)

  2. The form looks up which school the student goes to and their grade. Based on school and grade, the form asks only for the courses and grading method that is appropriate for that student.

In theory you could do this via URL prefill too. But each parent’s link has to include all the information about the student, the school, and the report card type. That can be a lot to jam into that URL. And you would have to make sure you’re re-generating that URL any time a student’s information changes. Much easier to manage using the Prefill Connector.


Realtime Information Display:

This is just a single example of many ways you could create a form to display information to your stakeholders without needing to create a full-blown portal.

  1. Mentor clicks a link within the learning management system that has their contact Id embedded through URL prefill.

  2. Form looks up all the timesheets they have submitted, displaying the amount of time and whether that timesheet is approved or paid yet.

Note: For a form like this, we hide the submit button. Now we’re just using “a webform” to pull data from Salesforce and display it. I’m not sure “webform” is even the right thing to call it anymore!


Other Competitors

It’s been a couple of years since I last spent the time to compare if other webform vendors have anything like FormAssembly’s Prefill Connector. When I last looked into it, the answer was a resounding No, though it took wading through a lot of marketing-speak to confirm it. Most salespeople hear a question about prefill and think you’re asking about URL Prefill, so they say “Yes, we have that!” But they don’t.


Submit Connectors

I don’t want to ignore the fact that FormAssembly’s connectors for putting the data into Salesforce once the user clicks Submit are also really powerful. (And maybe the subject of a future blog post.) But I think most form tool integrations have similar capabilities here, so it’s not my focus today.


Anyone building webforms should keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to put all the information you collect on a single form into a single object/table within your CRM. I could send out a single “post program form” for people to fill out that combines two different things, such as a post-module reflection (questions about the last module of the course) and course satisfaction questions on the same page. For the user, that’s one form. But when the data goes into Salesforce I can have the module reflection questions update one record while the satisfaction questions create a different record, perhaps even on a different object.


Learning Curve

Learning to use any webform tool is going to be its own learning journey. If you’re new to Salesforce and are about to integrate a webform–even one you’ve been working with for years–give yourself the time to explore and the grace to make mistakes. You can always ask for help from those of us a few steps ahead of you–we were in your place not too long ago!



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