The much-maligned email pop-up can annoy users and disrupt your site’s visual experience. But is there a way to make pop-ups work?

Have you ever wanted to set a room of marketers into a blazing argument? It’s easy, just ask them whether pop-up ads work. There is strong evidence that they can work, with certain sites reporting doubled email subscription rates and little to no impact on user engagement. However, users vocally dislike them, with 82.2% stating that they dislike pop-ups. 

It is difficult for marketers to square vocal user dissent with positive data and the reason lies in the troubled history of pop-ups.

Why web pop-ups have such a tumultuous reputation

Now let’s take a look at the history of pop-ups in order to better understand how best to use them. As commerce rose with the web — so did the associated marketing. You may remember the dark days when a slew of pop-ups were everywhere we went.

The source of this nuisance was Ethan Zuckerman and the website tripod.com in the 1990s. According to Zuckerman, the idea came to be when a major car company became concerned that its content was appearing on porn sites. The pop-up ad was designed to dissociate the advertisement from the content on the page and protect the advertiser’s brand. 

By 1997, the pop-up plague had spread to sites across the net, including Geocities, AOL, and The New York Times. Pop-up ads were more effective than traditional banner ads, and this quickly led to the proliferation of more nefarious variants. 

Adware (software built primarily to advertise to users) like Gator began to appear. Gator was normally installed along with other free applications. This allowed Gator to collect data on its users and deliver pop-up ads to match user “interests.” As pop-up ads became more obnoxious and invasive, efforts to block them stepped up. Now, most browsers include some kind of anti-pop-up ad features. 

Today, the pop-up ad has evolved into a more docile specimen. It is primarily used to encourage users to subscribe to newsletters or purchase one of the site’s products. Despite this evolution, most users still associate pop-up ads with the days of the early web, and it has proven difficult for marketers to shake that association. 

Should you use website pop-ups? 

Despite this troubled past, the pop-up plague might not be as virulent as users say it is. Like everything else, pop-ups have both pros and cons. 

The evidence shows that they still work 

The biggest pro, and probably the only one you will care about, is that pop-ups are one of the best lead acquisition tools out there. A 9% conversion rate means that you could get 90 new subscribers or sales for every 1,000 users.

The evidence consistently demonstrates that despite vocal complaints, users are engaging with pop-up ads. A study from Sumo found that the average conversion rate of a pop-up ad was 3%, the average of top-performing pop-ups was 9%, and that one particularly good pop-up ad had a 50% conversion rate

These findings have been corroborated time and again and the same message keeps coming up: Users say they hate them, but will consistently engage with well-designed pop-ups that add to, rather than distract from, the experience. 

They’re useful for promoting new or important content 

Pop-ups can also be used to take users to specific content on your website. This can be something like a base page that the user may need to see (eg, an FAQ or returns policy). The placement of these kinds of pop-ups can be difficult to determine. Analytics should help determine where visitors might get stuck and be open to a helpful pop-up.

More commonly, navigation-oriented pop-ups are used to highlight a new page or item for sale. This is particularly useful before search engines pick up new pages and display them in organic search results. For this purpose, the pop-ups should be placed on high-traffic pages.

Timing these pop-ups is critically important. See the section Timing is everything below for more about this.

Pop-up issues to avoid

There are some cons with pop-ups, however. The most obvious is that they can disrupt the flow of your site and may offend a small proportion of users enough that they no longer want to engage. This can be mitigated with best practices.

But arguably a bigger problem is that users acquired by pop-ups are not as engaged as those who signed up through landing pages. This issue too can be limited by designing the right pop-ups and targeting them correctly.

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How to craft engaging and useful pop-ups

Pop-ups are an invaluable lead generation tool when used properly. But you need to avoid driving users away. Luckily there are a large number of studies into how users interact with pop-ups. By combining that with your own experiences you can build successful pop-ups. 

1. Design for your audience 

The first step to creating a great pop-up is to nail the content. To do this, you need to spend time understanding what works for your audience. But generally, a good starting point is to make sure that you have: 

  • A catchy headline
  • Bright Colors
  • A unique offering
  • A strong call to action (CTA).
  • A catchy image.

You might not need all these things, but the key is to produce something that will catch attention without annoying your users. This means it needs to be understated (no flashing animations). Sometimes, just four words with an email capture field are enough. Other times, you’ll need to produce something more complicated. No matter what you do, make sure that you reduce friction by keeping the capture field simple. 

It’s also important to keep your unique value proposition in mind. The product is important but users are:

  • 11.9% more likely to click on a pop-up if it offers a discount
  • 4.8% more likely if they can win something 
  • 4.4% more likely if they know they’ll get access to exclusive offers. 

If you can properly marry these elements, you have the foundation of your pop-up sorted. Just remember that design is only the first step. 

2. Timing is everything 

One of the key driving factors for any ad campaign, but particularly for pop-ups, is context. If a pop-up is served at the wrong moment it could do more harm than good. Given the right context, a pop-up can have a conversion rate of more than 40%. The wrong context can make it fail immediately. 

Let’s say that you have written a new e-book and want to encourage your customers to buy it. They need to first understand what it is your site offers, and why they should care about the ebook before you even mention it to them. In other words, they need context about your offer. 

In order to give context, you need to time your pop-ups perfectly. This will require some dialing in but there are some best practices:

  • Never show a pop-up on entering the site, but don’t wait longer than 60 seconds or you risk losing users.
  • In order to maximize engagement, you should time your pop-up to the moment when a user is connecting with your content. 

3. Don’t overuse pop-ups

What is the main complaint about pop-ups? Forty-five percent of users complain that they are everywhere. This problem becomes exacerbated if you are continuously bombarding your users with pop-ups. A further 19.2% of users are annoyed when they see the same pop-up every time they visit your website. 

If annoying your users wasn’t motivation enough, think about diminishing returns. There are some sites I love, for example, The Guardian, but I now completely ignore their requests for payments or for me to sign up because I have become numb to their pop-ups. 

Luckily, this is easy to rectify. In order for your pop-ups to be successful, you need to target them carefully. So don’t use blanket pop-ups across your site. Tailor them to the specific piece of content that your user is engaging with. Additionally, you should take advantage of cookies in order to avoid showing regular visitors pop-ups too often. 

TL;DR? Pop-ups are brilliant when they’re used correctly

Now is probably the best time to look into adding pop-ups to your website. Although the pandemic has generally been hard for businesses, There have been some bright spots. Some online business sectors surged, with conversions and revenue being driven by pop-ups. For example, business and finance sites, including news sites like Bloomberg.com, online brokers like Schwab, and broker review sites, have seen exponential surges in traffic and revenue.

The key takeaway here is that pop-ups are a valuable tool to add to your website. But they’re just one part of your arsenal. Without great content, a strong hook, and perfect timing, pop-ups won’t do much to help you.

If you plan your pop-up strategy correctly, then it can become one of the best ways for you to attract new sign-ups or leads, without hampering engagement. 

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AvatarSaul Bowden

Saul has worked with a variety of startups, from crypto companies to emerging AR & VR technology companies. He has leveraged his experience in marketing and communications, as well as a flair for storytelling, to help these companies carve out niches with investors and the market. Now he’s using this background to identify the latest trends that startups are attempting to capture and explain what should work, and what will likely fail.