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Dissecting Popup Anatomy: What Works & What Hurts Your Bottom Line

by Chelsea Baldwin

Popups get a bad rap.

To put it bluntly, people hate them.

There’s almost nothing online that’s more annoying than something getting in your way, interrupting your research, FORCING you to take time out just to close a window. Or worse—signing up for an email list you don’t care about just to keep reading.

Sure, things have gotten better from the all-out popup war that led to browser popup blockers, but just because the popup itself has gotten a little more sophisticated doesn’t mean it’s stopped being an unwelcome party guest.

Even in 2013, 70% of people thought irrelevant popups were really annoying, putting them on the same level as lottery scams.

popup anatomy

The popups we grew to hate. All caps yelling, the stench of desperation, and an all-out denial of the fact they’d already lost the reader’s interest.

Why They’re Still Around

But, let’s face it. Popups are still around and they aren’t going away anytime soon.

In fact, the reason they’re still around is because they work—better than almost any other lead generation strategy.

As annoying as the bad ones may be, marketers find popups nearly irreplaceable in increasing blog subscriptions and lead volumes.

In fact, Econsultancy found that an overlay can increase email opt-ins by 400%.

popup placeitSource: Placeit.net

Bad Popup Anatomy: A List 6 Things NOT to Do

The flip side of this, though, is that a 400% increase in opt-ins doesn’t mean those subscribers are as high quality as the ones that actively seek you out.

Fortunately, you can use popups to dramatically increase your subscribers and leads while keeping quality in check.

When you break down the anatomy of a popup, there are good practices and bad practices, so we’ll explore both. But first, a list of anatomical characteristics to avoid:

1. Don’t use bully language
Your visitors aren’t stupid, so don’t treat them that way. You can’t trick them into giving you their email address by using clever wording and trickery. They can read right through it.

popup anatomy

There’s no need to insult your users like this. They’re intelligent people who can make their own decisions, so respect them for it.

2. Avoid being a conversion sell-out

Sometimes, less is more.

It’s entirely possible that 50 quality conversions can increase your bottom line more than 500 generic ones.

Don’t get caught up in the thrill of a 400% increase until you find out that it’s also significantly impacting your bottom line. When you do your A/B testing and data tracking, use the monetary value of each conversion as your deciding data, not just the number of conversions themselves.

3. Don’t use blanket popups
Blanket popups with generic messages don’t serve anyone, and may be irrelevant to your visitor, turning them off from your website and services forever.

For example, if you have a website that sells health supplements and you’ve got a popup pushing your latest weight loss pill, it might get in front of the eyes of a lot of people, but don’t show it to people who want to boost muscle mass.

Instead of blanket popups, customize them based on purchase and browsing history. At the very least, make them page-specific so you know you won’t be too far off the mark.

4. Don’t hide the X
You might be desperate for people to convert, but hiding the X and making it harder for people to get rid of your popup only makes visitors resent you more.

And, the less they resent you, the higher your chances are for a quality conversion.

5. Don’t get in the user’s way
People get online to do their own thing. They don’t want you to boss them around. If you’re going to use a popup that stops users from doing what they want, you need to have a very easy-to-see escape route.

Better yet, use a popup that doesn’t get in their way at all. It’s less irritating and you won’t get the annoying website reputation.

And the email IDs you do collect will be higher quality ones because it’s more of an elected opt-in than a forced one.

popup anatomy bottom popup

Econsultancy’s popup is at the bottom of their page. It’s still noticeable, but doesn’t get in the way of scrolling, clicking and reading.

6. Don’t go popup crazy

In short, keep your popups in check and use them in moderation. Don’t use one on every single page, and definitely don’t use multiple popups per visit.

Choose a popup that offers the most value for each landing page, and employ it in a tactful manner. (Not right away, but ideally before they’ve already decided to close the window. Make Web World suggests a 30-second delay.)

The Anatomy of Page-Stopping Popups

Today, the most popular popups are light boxes and overlays. They increase opt-ins, but they do interrupt the user experience by forcing them to look at and interact with the popup.

lightbox page stopping popup

As soon as this page loads, a popup stops me from reading and requests me to like their Facebook page, even though I’ve already done so.

There’s a good side and a bad side to both of these, so you can’t really have a 100% win either way: to use them or not.

Since you know you visitors better than anyone else, you’ve got to decide whether or not the leads you get are worth interrupting your user experience and annoying them a little bit. A short stint of A/B testing should do the trick if you’re unsure. But these pros and cons will help you decide where to start:

Pros of Page-Stopping Popups

  • A significant increase in the number of leads and opt-in conversions
  • The ability to catch a reader’s eye with special value offers
  • Can use customized versions of popups to optimize online sales funnels

Cons of Page-Stopping Popups

  • Renders the site useless and forces readers to interact with something against their will
  • Lowering the quality of the visitor experience in exchange for lower quality leads
  • With too many, people become annoyed with your site and may stop visiting

The Anatomy of Hello Bar

Another, more recent popup option that doesn’t impede so much on the user experience is the Hello Bar.

It’s an app that lets you design custom bars that display across the top or bottom of your page—visible to the visitor while he’s scrolling and reading, but doesn’t force him to interact.

Depending on your goals, you can customize formats to drive traffic to a specific URL, collect email addresses, or promote your social media pages.

Even though it doesn’t get directly in the face of the visitor, it’s helped businesses like DIY Themes gain more than 1,000 extra blog subscribers in one month.

hello bar popup anatomy more subscribers

When creating your Hello Bar, you get to choose which goal most suits your needs: more traffic, more subscribers, or more social media followers.

Effective Popup Anatomy: 5 Things You SHOULD Do

Though popups get a bad rap for their ability to irritate Web surfers, their reputation shouldn’t stop you from trying them out.

There are ways you can actually make popups valuable rather than irritating, vastly increasing your leads and subscribers while making sure the leads have sales potential.

To make your popups effective:

  1. Be as unobtrusive as possible. To be clear this doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding overlay or page-stopping popups, but it does constant data checking if you do. For example, if you have a valuable well-designed overlay popup that gives you better bottom-line conversions than a message bar across the top of your page, use it. However, if the value of both are equal, opt for the message bar.
  2. Offer real value. Offer users something that will actually help them in return for their email address. Hint: “bi-weekly updates” isn’t nearly as valuable as “7 concrete ways to reduce your ad spend while increasing conversions.”
  3. Have a nice, minimalistic design. Use clear, direct wording with clear, direct images and design layout so your visitors know exactly what you’re offering them and whether or not they want to take part. Clarity wins over confusion every time.
  4. Use respectful language. Don’t try to shame your visitors into agreeing with your offer. It will only make them resent you for insulting their intelligence. Instead, when they feel respected, they’ll have respect for you in return.
  5. Use brand-friendly colors. Bright red and yellow are only acceptable in McDonald’s advertisements. In designing your popups, use your brand colors or colors your brand designer gave you in your color pallet.
popup design popup anatomy popup language

Social Triggers offers real value with their well-designed popup, while respecting the visitors who reject their offer.

What’s Worked for Your Business?

What are your thoughts on different kinds of popups? If you’re a marketer who’s employed popups in your on-page marketing, which types gave you the most improvement in your bottom line?

Check out some of Crazy Egg’s other posts on user experience, or read more articles by Chelsea Baldwin.

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Chelsea Baldwin

Chelsea Baldwin is a web marketing consultant and business writer. She specializes in creating strategy-based content and marketing plans for better ROI and more sales. You can get in touch with her at chelsea@carolinafreelancewriter.com or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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  1. Hans Cudilla says:
    November 2, 2014 at 1:22 am

    I have never recommended using pop ups for my clients websites, not even once. I honestly hate them and most of the time makes me steer away from a website. After reading your article, given that I am currently building an audience for my websites, I am finally considering of using it (so ironic).

    I’ll keep in mind everything here especially #5 :). Thanks for this article!

    • Chelsea Baldwin says:
      November 5, 2014 at 3:21 am

      Hi Hans,

      You’re welcome 🙂 Glad you found some of the advice helpful – good luck building your audience!! 😀

  2. Lewis says:
    September 15, 2014 at 9:34 am

    The pop up that Social Triggers use (and I believe the same sort of thing is used on Quick Sprout) is something I’d like to replicate with the option of Yes and No. But I wandered if this is something that is manually coded or is there a tool/plugin out there enabling me to create something like this.

    Thanks a lot in advance, Lewis.

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      September 15, 2014 at 10:31 am

      Lewis, these are usually created through popups. Try PopUp Domination and Icegram.

      • Lewis says:
        September 15, 2014 at 6:09 pm

        I know they’re pop ups… I meant that actual plugin/app that produces those exact styles of pop ups. With some research I did find Bounce Exchange but boy is that expensive!

        • Kathryn Aragon says:
          September 16, 2014 at 11:37 am

          Sorry. I meant to say plugin. It’s challenging finding good ones that aren’t expensive. Good luck.

  3. Stuart Walker says:
    September 10, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    At first when I read “people hate pop ups” I thought you were going to go on to say they are bad and people shouldn’t use them.

    I was ready to shout “WRONG” ha ha.

    People say they “hate” them if you ask but I use them and my bounce rate, time spent on site, and average pages visited hardly changed when I implemented them.

    Return visitors remain consistent.

    So they can’t hate them that much. 🙂

    The quality of subscribers is definitely lower though. They have a high unsibscribe rate of my blog (exit pop up subscribers are much better quality)

    “Your visitors aren’t stupid, so don’t treat them that way. You can’t trick them into giving you their email address by using clever wording and trickery. They can read right through it.”

    Actually I’ve found using that sort of negative ‘no thanks’ buttons / text can work wonders. Give people choices and make one of them a bad choice makes them instinctively choose the good one.

    Good post.

  4. Tyson says:
    September 10, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks for the good post.

    In #1 you say: There’s no need to insult your users like this. They’re intelligent people who can make their own decisions, so respect them for it.

    But interestingly enough that is exactly what Neil does on his blog. I believe the exact wording is:
    No thanks, I have enough traffic.

    I’m not a fan of those either, I don’t want to ‘guilt’ somebody or ‘trick’ somebody to opting in. I’d rather have them optin because they like what I have to say.

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      September 10, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      Good catch, Tyson. We let our writers share different points of view because we truly believe different tactics will work for different websites. And interestingly, what works for one website might not work on another. If you get a chance, test the different approaches on your own website. Then let us know what works best for you.

    • Neil Patel says:
      September 11, 2014 at 9:27 am

      Tyson, thanks for the valuable feedback. We love to hear differing point of views so we can iterate and improve 🙂

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