We’ve all come across popups as visitors of websites or have been using them in our own sites to capture leads as webmasters. We often hear success stories about how website popups have helped to grow ‘conversions in x amount’.
But do these improvements come at the expense of user experience? Popups can be an annoying experience for users if they’re not set up properly and according to industry best practices.
Popups, also called overlays, are a great way to get users’ attention. Some overdo it by having different popups enabled all together, ultimately killing the user experience. When a visitor runs into too many popups, it’ll create a bad image in their mind.
Later in this post, we’ll go through the different types of popups available and how to adopt best practices to have a balance between optimizing conversions without totally ruining the user experience.
How are popups useful?
According to an online survey carried out by Justinmind asking whether “the popups are here to stay?”, more than half of the participants were undecided. A total of 21 percent of respondents thought they’ll stay, while another 23 percent were against it.
Even though popups are not appreciated by most, what’s the single biggest reason we keep them seeing over and over throughout the web? Simple: it’s a proven way to increase conversions.
WPBeginner implemented an exit-intent popup using their Optinmonster plugin and saw a 600 percent improvement in getting new subscribers. Usually, they were getting around 70–80 subscribers from sidebar forms, contact forms, etc. After the change, it went up to around 450 subscribers daily.
It’s worth noting that it was not a site-wide implementation; rather, it was only on single post pages. Also, it was an A/B test, not a before-after test.
In another test, the University of Alberta was able to grow their newsletter subscriber base by 500 percent in less than a year.
Before the experiment, the users were sent to a different form once they clicked on the subscriber call-to-actions. The site set up a small nudge popup and triggered it when a user stayed on for 10 seconds on a story.
Signups were shot up to 12–15 per day from usual 1–2 they used to get.
Nikki McGonigal, a crafter and blogger, started testing a lightbox popup on her site. She already had a sidebar subscription form. After continuing for eight months, she got 1375 percent more leads from the lightbox form.
Do popups affect bounce rate?
If these popups are not so welcomed by the users, then they could be a possible cause for increasing bounce rate of your site. But the question is, do they? Let’s take a look at the information we have.
An on-site retargeting campaign run by digital marketer reduced the bounce rate by 8.5 percent and increased the time on-site by 35 percent. All this was achieved while improving their sales, which is the ultimate objective.
Matthew Woodward had experienced a 9 percent increase in bounce rate after implementing an opt-in popup. Before-and-after bounce rate was compared for a 50-day period. So, it was not a split test.
In such a test, uncontrollable and time-sensitive factors can pollute the results. It’s not a good practice to make decisions based on this type of test.
At first, we may think that the popups are going to increase the bounce rate, but there’s no clear evidence that this happens. It could possibly be due to the fact that people are more accustomed to them these days. It’s not a rarity anymore.
Psychology behind improving conversions
So, why are popups so effective? It happens due to a psychological phenomenon called “pattern interrupt”.
Think about how you walk. The steps involved in walking have already been mapped in your brain. You don’t actively think about them while you walk. It happens according to a pattern.
These mental patterns help us to do our daily tasks fast. Because of that, we are capable of performing two tasks at the same time. We can talk over the phone while walking, right? You’ve even seen people using phones while driving, though it’s not recommended.
As humans we are accustomed to pattern recognition. In turn, we are sensitive to pattern interruptions, and that draws our attention towards the interruption. This is exactly what is used in popups.
Imagine that you’re reading an article. After some time, you decide to leave the page. It’s a known task for you. You just have to move the cursor to the close mark in the browser tab and click it. You don’t have to think and simply just do it. It happens automatically as the pattern of performing that task is mapped in your mind.
As you’re going to close the page, if a popup comes up then it interrupts your pattern. It’s not something that typically is involved in the process. At that very moment, your attention goes to the popup.
That’s why these popups, especially exit-intent layouts, do really well in increasing conversions.
Why are popups bad?
Alright, popups do work. But there are downsides to them. Let’s take a look at them.
Poor user experience
Popups can be a real pain for visitors and it’s even more irritating when they are not set up according to best practices.
Entry popups are a real culprit of creating annoyance among your visitors. People would like to see the actual content prior to your marketing message (personally, I do). Let them get familiar with your site first.
Triggering rules can also be irritating for users. For example, if your visitors are seeing the popup again and again when they visit, it could be irritating for them. You can easily set them up to fire once every two weeks or month for the same visitor. Pay attention when you’re setting up timings for popups.
Multiple popups, especially with bad timing, could also cause havoc.
These are some of the instances where popups can go horribly wrong. But all these problems can be rectified to a great extent if you set them up with a common-sense approach. Try to wear the users’ hat and think before you set them up.
Damaging brand credibility
Popups, especially exit-intent layouts, are considered as “needy patterns” in UX designs which are aimed at grabbing visitors’ attention towards a goal or task of our interest.
Exit-intent messages display according to the movements of the cursor. Once the cursor starts moving towards the browser tab the site assumes that the user is going to navigate away from the web page and so it triggers the popup.
Imagine the user is doing some research about a certain product while keeping a few tabs opened and all he is trying to do is move to the next tab to carry on his task. He doesn’t have the intention of closing the current page.
Or else perhaps he wants to open a new tab, and in both these instances he wants to come back to the current page again later. So, he doesn’t want to close it. There’s no way that the program is going to understand the motive of the user, and hence, it’ll trigger the layout, assuming he’s moving to close the page.
Occurrences like these could be harmful to your brand credibility. Users might get a bad perception of your brand. It may not reflect in your success metrics.
Popups are a proven method of growing your subscriber list. But what about the quality of the leads we gather? Is there any difference between regular vs. popup subscribers?
Mauro d’ Andrea has found that subscribers gained from popups showed lower engagement when compared to people subscribed from website.
How many of your visitors need to see your popup to gain one active subscriber? In an industry study, it’s found to be 1319 for a small- to medium-sized business, and 271 for a large-sized business.
These are not small numbers, especially for the small and medium category. The majority will fit into that segment. It could be the total number of visitors you get monthly or weekly. Is it worth risking your brand image just to grow your list with ineffective users?
It doesn’t matter whether we do A/B tests, or segment users to send a more personalized messages, or maintain the bounce rate, or get no complaints from users, etc. Popups are always a bad experience for users, argues Jon Reed.
So, how can we minimize these bad effects if we want to utilize popups in our sites? Here are some of the best practices you can adopt while implementing them.
Number of popups – Don’t overuse popups. Often, we see entry popups, exit-intent layouts and other ones used simultaneously. It could be a major put-off for your visitors.
Frequency – Decide how often your repeat visitors are going to see the popup. A longer time span, like one month, is the better. Don’t overwhelm users by showing popups each and every time they visit your blog.
These days visitors use multiple devices to browse. There’s no way to track their visits at a user level. Therefore, it’s best to avoid setting the frequency to a shorter time period.
Timing – When you enable timed popups in your site, always give users enough time to read through the content or familiarize themselves with your site. So, what’s enough time? This is something that you have to test and find out. You may find suggestions about timing intervals that worked for others, but your context and audience may be different to theirs.
Avoid entry popups – This can be the most annoying type of popup of all. Instead of allowing users to see the content, you put your marketing message in their face. Either they have to complete the action or close it to view the content. It’s not a good practice at all.
Escape routes – Offer a clear and easy-to-find close button. Often the close button is disguised or not provided at all. At times, it’s provided as the secondary CTA, which isn’t very clear and visible. It’s like forcing them to stay on our site and limiting their freedom to go away. These practices should be avoided.
Segment users – Are you showing same message to new visitors and to repeating visitors? They may have already subscribed to your list. That’s one example. There can be other instances where you have to segment your visitors based on various criteria and show them a personalized message, or set up triggers according to the state of the users.
Single objective – Define a clear objective and stick to it. Do you want to collect leads? Or do you want to drive visitors to a specific section of your site? Likewise, popups can be used to achieve various purposes. But focus on one objective at a time.
Offer value for users – Provide something valuable and useful for users. Make it relevant to the context of the page they are browsing. If you ask for their information, and in exchange, you provide nothing for their benefit, then why would someone want to be a part of your list?
Avoid arrogant language – Personally, I hate these kinds of phrases and most other people do too. They are being frequently used as well. I might be an expert on a certain niche and a well-recognized person, but it doesn’t mean that each and every user visiting my site knows nothing about it. It’s better to be humble, polite and offer respect to your readers.
Simple copy – A concise headline, short description and clear-cut call-to-action will convey the message to the user more quickly. Hence the decision-making time will be shorter. Don’t complicate users’ thinking process by giving a complicated message.
Ask less information – Try not to ask for too much information. It can reduce the conversion rates as well as be a nuisance for the users. You can first collect their email address and at a later time you can ask for additional details such as their name if needed.
Finally, test it – Prepare yourself to do testing. It’s how you can improve the results without making the users unhappy. Most of the above aspects could be tested.
Using popups is a great tactic that is helpful in many ways, like increasing the subscriber base, reducing cart abandonments in ecommerce sites, getting the attention of the users whenever required, etc.
But all those positives come at the expense of user experience. They are categorized as ‘needy patterns’ in UX design and could ruin your brand image when implemented incorrectly.
Moreover, another concern is the quality of the subscribers gathered via these popups. Is the engagement level of these users the same as that of the regular subscribers? You have to be vigilant about that fact if you are going to use popups on your site.
Lastly, if you decide to use popups, then you have to maintain some best practices to have a balance between the results you gain and the user experience you provide.