Pop-ups are divisive

The downside of pop-ups

In November 2018, I wrote an opinion post entitled ‘Down with pop-ups’.

It’s about the aggravation of going onto a website and being assaulted by an onslaught of pop-ups. And the disbelief I felt when I heard people in my industry insisting pop-ups work and help to increase conversions.

Because I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t find pop-ups intensely irritating. The people I’ve spoken to say they close down every pop-up immediately, often without even reading it. And if there are too many pop-ups they’ll leave the site altogether.

The upside of pop-ups

Do pop-ups really work as a conversion tool?

Some say they do and even provide data* to back up their assertions.

Like Optimonk, for example. In a survey of their users, they discovered an average pop-up conversion rate of 11.09%. But this increased to averages of:

  • 42.35% in the highest performing pop-ups — which is impressive
  • 17.12% in the case of cart abandonment pop-ups — and these performed better when there was an incentive, like free shipping or a 10% discount
  • 11.88% for seasonal offers.

In another study, Wisepops noted that, on average, email popups converted 3.8% of website visitors.

*In the interests of fairness, we should note that both of these companies design and promote pop-ups. So they’re only looking at the positive data.

However, the cart abandonment statistic is interesting. This pop-up appears as the visitor is about to leave the site — so when it converts, it’s actually rescuing the sale.

Why your website visitors find pop-ups annoying

The question is, what can we learn about pop-ups from the people who dislike them so much?

And can we use what we’ve learned to make website pop-ups less annoying and more effective?

Let’s start by having a look at some of the reasons website visitors find pop-ups so irritating.

Poorly timed and/or irrelevant

Most pop-ups are timed and they seem to appear when visitors have just landed on a website and haven’t had a chance to see or read anything.

Unless the company is a well-known brand, chances are these visitors don’t know anything about it. They don’t know if they want to buy the products. They don’t know if the service is right for them. They don’t know if the content is valuable.

So why would they want to give their details in exchange for a discount or sign up for marketing emails?

At this point, a pop-up is often seen as an annoyance, because it has to be closed down before they can continue their user journey.

Intrusive and distracting

Most pop-ups are intrusive. They’re overly large and appear in the middle of the screen, covering all the content. This means you’re forced to engage with them in some way — even if it’s just closing them down.

Now I know this is kind of the point, but it’s also why many people dislike them. Because they see them as disrupting the user experience rather than enhancing it.

On a smaller screen, like a mobile, tablet or laptop, the intrusiveness is even worse. Some websites aren’t even usable for people on these devices because:

  • They cover the entire screen or significant portions of it
  • They’re impossible to close down or get rid of completely
  • The close-down button is beyond the edge of the screen.

Relentless and presumptuous

Some websites have a succession of pop-ups, one after the other.

There’s the cookie consent, then the confirmation of the cookie consent, the mailing list invite and the ‘helpful’ chatbot popping out to say hello. Then, as you scroll down, there are lead magnets, free trials and discounts.

For the visitor, this can feel like an onslaught.

For some people, one pop-up is annoying. Show them this many and they’ll leave without buying anything.

Hard to close down

When an unexpected pop-up appears on the screen and the user doesn’t want to engage with it, their first instinct will be to tut loudly — there’s always a tut — and try to get rid of it.

But this may be easier said than done.

Because sometimes the ‘X’ isn’t obvious — or its reveal is purposely delayed. And sometimes there isn’t an ‘X’ at all.

Sometimes the only way to continue engaging with the site is to hand over your personal/payment details and accept whatever the pop-up is offering. And for many, that won’t be acceptable.

Limited offer countdowns or fake scarcity

A visitor has just arrived on a website and is immediately confronted with a pop-up.

If they buy something in the next 15 minutes, they’ll get free shipping, a 10% discount or some other time-limited offer. And there’s a clock counting down the seconds until that offer runs out.

There’s nothing like a countdown timer to make a visitor feel rushed and pressured.

Even worse, if the visitor refreshes the page only to find the timer refreshes as well, meaning the limited offer was fake.

Autoplay videos

Pop-ups with autoplay videos are particularly intrusive and annoying.

In many cases an intrusive black box will appear on the screen. And, if the internet connection is slow, it can sit there for several seconds while the video loads.

If the user has their sound on, having a noisy video start up unexpectedly can be a shock. And if the user is at work, it will disturb them and everyone around them.

Video pop-ups are often hard to close down — and, even if the user does manage to close them, some just keep reappearing.

Passive-aggressive opt-outs

What’s a passive-aggressive opt-out?

At the bottom of the pop-up, next to the ‘yes please’ option, there’s usually a less obvious ‘no thanks’ option. This is the opt-out.

But when it’s passive-aggressive, it won’t just say ‘No thanks’. It will probably say something snide like:

  • No thanks, I already know everything about…
  • No thanks, I don’t want to be the best version of myself
  • No thanks, I’m happy with my flabby belly (or other flaw).

Opt-outs like these can make visitors feel they’re being sneered at. In which case, they’re likely to leave and far less likely to come back.

Malfunctioning or freezing

I was once on a website with multiple pop-ups that fired in a sequence as I scrolled down the page.

I managed to close down the first few, but the last one just froze in the centre of the screen. I couldn’t close it or scroll past it, so it killed my user experience dead.

If your pop-ups are malfunctioning like this, you can probably guess what it does to your user engagement and conversions.

Privacy concerns

Some people are intensely private and don’t give out their personal details to just anyone.

If a website is obstructing its content with a pop-up, and these visitors can’t keep reading unless they subscribe or pay a fee, chances are they’ll choose not to.

Using this insight to improve your pop-ups

Using the insights above, I put together this list of takeaways for creating better pop-ups.

Consider your timings

Timed pop-ups often appear too quickly and don’t give readers time to get their bearings.

If you want to use a pop-up this early in the user experience, consider a pop-up that appears as visitors scroll down. This will, at least, give them time to read and explore a little, so they can:

  • Make sure they’re in the right place
  • Find whatever it was they came for
  • Get a sense of who you are, what you’re offering and how you can help them.

Examples of early pop-ups that work

If you’re confident about what a large proportion of your visitors are looking for, a timed early pop-up might work for you. Examples might include pop-ups with direct links to:

  • Seasonal sales pages
  • Products for an upcoming event, like Father’s Day
  • Products that have recently appeared in popular media
  • Well-publicised and popular service offerings
  • Your most popular products — as indicated by page views or purchases.

What if visitors aren’t activating the pop-up?

💡 If lots of visitors are leaving a page before they start scrolling down, it would suggest they’ve realised they’re in the wrong place and your page isn’t delivering what they were expecting. If this is the case, you need to check where those visitors are coming from.

If they’re coming from a search engine results page (SERP), make sure your meta description is correct and that the content on your page is matching their search intent.

If they’re coming from a link in a marketing email or social media post, make sure the description accompanying the link is correct.

Limit the number of pop-ups

If your website is throwing up a succession of different pop-ups, it will seem that you have no strategy and you don’t really understand what your visitors want or need.

It can also come across as desperate — and that you’re just trying everything in the hope that something sticks.

Try limiting the pop-ups you’re using at each point and making more them relevant. Which brings me on to my next point…

Make your pop-ups more relevant

To make your pop-ups more relevant, think about where your visitors are in their journey when the pop-up appears and what kind of pop-up would be most useful to them at that point.

For example:

  • If they’re about to leave your site, but still have items in their basket, a pop-up to remind them could save the sale.
  • If they’re nearing the end of an article, a pop-up offering them further content by email might be of interest.
  • If they’re browsing products/services or reading a buyer’s guide, a pop-up offering them a discount or a free trial might be welcome.

Make sure pop-ups are easy to close down

If your visitor is annoyed by your pop-up, they’re highly unlikely to engage with it and will want to close it down immediately. If you don’t make it easy for them, you could lose them altogether.

Have a clear ‘X’ close-down button in the top-right corner of the pop-up, where visitors will expect to find it.

And avoid tactics like delaying the appearance of the close-down button, hiding it in the corner or making it difficult to see. They will just irritate your visitor further and make them less likely to want to engage with you.

Avoid underhand tactics

Underhand tactics include creating a fake sense of urgency or scarcity to push for a quicker sale.

This pressures your visitor to act faster and it means they might not take as much care as they should over their purchase. It also means there’s a risk of them being unhappy with their purchase

Using tactics like these will make visitors wary and less likely to trust your brand — which could be disastrous for you.

Take care with autoplay videos

Personally, I would never advocate using autoplay videos — either on a pop-up or on a website in general.

People like consuming video content, but if they’re going to watch a video, they want to be prepared. They want to know how long the video is before they start, so they’ll know if they have time to watch it. They might want to get a drink or a snack. They want a chance to to plug in their headphones and open their notebook.

They want to make sure they’re paying attention. And you want them to be paying attention. But if you catch them off guard, they might just close your video down instead.

Don’t be snide

Being snide with your visitors won’t win you any fans — and could even make your brand unlikeable*.

So it’s best to avoid passive aggression in your pop-ups or anywhere else.

If your visitor isn’t ready to commit, it will either be because they’re genuinely not ready or because you haven’t done enough to persuade them. And passive aggression won’t work in either case.

*Unless you’re one of those rare brands that uses snide humour successfully and has a devoted tribe of fans. But that doesn’t happen often.

Check your pop-ups regularly

If your pop-ups are freezing or malfunctioning, they’re definitely costing you customers. So it’s important to check them often and make sure they’re working as they should be.

You can check them by viewing your website in your browser’s private or incognito mode.

Only collect essential data

If your visitors have privacy concerns, these will only be heightened if your pop-ups ask for too much information.

So only ask for the minimum you need. For example, if you’re signing people up for an email list, a first name and email address is the most you should be asking for.

In each case, follow GDPR rules carefully. Explain exactly what they’ll be getting and what they’re agreeing to.

Other ways to improve your pop-ups

Create the best headline and copy

  • Grab your visitors’ attention/interest
  • Highlight your value proposition
  • Make it short, clear and to-the-point.

Use good design

  • Make it engaging to look at
  • Use attractive and relevant images
  • Keep it simple, minimal and focused on the goal.

Use simple CTAs

  • Make your CTA obvious
  • Make it clear what’s on offer
  • Collect only minimal and essential data
  • Limit the choices available to 1-3 links max.

About the author

I’m Jenny Lucas, a freelance copywriter, content writer and website specialist based in Leicester, UK.

I’ve been using websites daily since 1995, writing them since 2009 — and have even designed several myself.

You can find out more about me and how I help my clients by visiting my main website.

Photo by Matt Glover Photography