Pop-Up Ads: The Most Hated Web Experience, and How to Do Them Right (If You Have To)

Posted on September 23, 2014
4 min read


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Ever since the early days of online marketing, pop-up ads have been annoying. Back in 2004, pop-ups were the most hated web experience, according to Nielsen Norman Group. Since then, the inventor of pop-up ads has publicly apologized for his creation. (Feel free to marvel at the irony that you might see a pop-up ad if you click through to read that article.)

These days, the old-school type of pop-up that opens a new window is virtually dead, thanks to the advent of ad blockers. But advertisers have gotten clever and started using modal overlays to effectively do the same thing. These pop-ups can be set to appear after a certain amount of time, or if the user performs a certain action, like moving their cursor toward the back button. And do you know what?

Marketers have found that they work.

An overwhelming amount of evidence shows that pop-up ads are extremely effective at collecting email addresses or driving traffic to certain pages. For this reason, many conversion rate optimizers and growth hackers swear by them.

But just like in the good old days, they still annoy users.

So the question is: Are pop-ups worth it?

It can be very tempting for fast-growing companies to use pop-ups to drive their email list. But before you decide to implement an overlay on your site, there are some important questions to ask yourself and your team.

Is there a more user-friendly way to achieve the same goal?

There are many less-obtrusive lead generation tools out there, like SumoMe's Smart Bar (we use this on the UserTesting blog), Hello Bar, or slide-in ads that don't cover the whole page. These are still very effective at driving new sign-ups.

Will these subscribers remain engaged?

There’s evidence that leads who subscribe via pop-ups have lower engagement than leads acquired through other channels.

If you're going to try using a pop-up, measure the engagement level of the leads who signed up through the pop-up. To do this quickly, you can set up a simple nurture campaign with a few emails that will be sent to the new leads over the course of a couple of weeks. If you notice low open rates and high unsubscribe rates, your pop-up probably isn’t making a positive impact on your business.

How does your target customer feel about pop-ups ads?

Different audiences have different tolerances for interruptions. If your target market is web designers, they will probably have a much different reaction to a pop-up than a group of Etsy shop owners.

Make sure you understand who your visitors are, and run a couple of user tests with your target audience. Send users to the page where they will encounter the pop-up, and watch to see whether they interact with it, politely click out of it, or become irritated. After the test is complete, ask them if they found anything frustrating about the experience. If several of your test participants comment on the pop-up, you might need to stick with a more low-key lead generation tool.

What if you have to use a pop-up?

Maybe after answering all of these questions, you're still sold on the idea. (Or maybe your boss insists on it!) Here are some things you can do to create a decent user experience while still generating a ton of new leads.

Write excellent copy

Make sure you aren't insulting, tricking, or confusing your users with your choice of copy. This is a great opportunity to do some testing. If you aren't 100% sure that your copy is going to resonate with your readers, try A/B testing a couple of different options or running a few user tests with your target audience.

Gothamist's pop-up ad

"No, I'd rather cry alone in my apartment" could certainly be perceived as passive-aggressive copy, but it's also possible that Gothamist's readers find it funny or cute. The only way to find out is to test.

Understand the user's mindset and behavior

If a visitor is coming to your site for the first time, they might not be all that thrilled to see a pop-up asking them to start a free trial at the very top of their entrance page. Give it some time! It might make more sense to save that pop-up for the bottom of the page, once they've had a little more time to learn about your brand and your offerings.

If possible, try not to ask your users to do something they've already done. For example, if the goal of your pop-up is to get users to like your company's Facebook page, it might be a good plan to avoid showing that pop-up to visitors who came to your site through Facebook.

Make it easy to close (and mobile-friendly)

The best pop-ups don't force users to interact with them. They collapse when the user clicks outside of them, they have a clear X in the top right corner, and they use cookies to remember when users exit out of them (and then they don't pester that user again for a designated period of time).

Make sure you test your pop-up on multiple mobile devices, too. If it won't close, doesn't scale down, or breaks the mobile experience in any way, make sure to turn it off for mobile users.

Test it and monitor its effects

Dig deep into your data. Is your pop-up really working? Are the leads high-quality? How do they perform over time? How do they compare with other leads?

Run periodic user tests or surveys to see if your pop-ups are negatively impacting customer perception of your brand. Ask users to describe your company using three words. If they say anything like "spammy," "desperate," or "obnoxious," your pop-up might be doing more long-term harm than the initial spike in signups is worth.

What’s your take?

We found out through a recent poll that most of our blog readers don't use pop-ups. Are you one of the few who does use them? How are they working out for you and your users? What do you do to make sure you’re providing a good user experience?

And for the pop-up haters out there, what’s the worst pop-up experience you’ve ever seen?

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