Seriously, Knock It Off With The Pop-Up Ads

It is an indisputable fact. People hate pop-up ads. According to research from the Nielsen Norman Group, when users were asked how various forms of advertising affected their web experience, 95% of people rated pop-up ads “negatively” or “very negatively.” Ethan Zuckerman, the guy who invented the pop-up ad in the late 90s, has even publicly apologized for inflicting this horror upon the world. (Note: In what has to be the height of irony, if you click on that link you will be greeted with a pop-up ad.)

Clearly, since everyone hates these things they must have been long-ago banished to the depths of technology obsolescence with the likes of dial-tones and Clippy the paperclip, right?

If only.

Instead of the beautiful pop-up free internet utopia we all imagined would come to pass with the invention of the pop-up blocker, any casual stroll around the web will tell you that pop-up usage is on the rise, having reached levels of near-ubiquity. Sure, they take different forms now, and they go by different names: modal windows, lightboxes, dialog boxes, slide-ins – but we know what they really are. They are pop-ups.

So what’s the deal? If people hate them so much (and they do, they really do), why are pop-ups still a thing?

Well, they work.

Kind of.

Depending on how you define, “work.”

There is simply no denying that pop-ups in all their various forms, can lead to big spikes in conversions and e-mail subscriptions. If that is the data you are tracking, and those are your goals, then by all means go for it. Load up your site with pop-ups and watch the e-mail subscribers pour in. Job well done. Pat yourself on the back. You deserve a raise and champagne.

If you prefer to think of your users as humans and not “conversions” though, you may want to think a little harder about this.

Let’s apply simple logic and reasoning. If everybody hates pop-ups, why are people clicking on them and handing over email addresses in droves any time they throw themselves in the path of regular internet use?

According to Andy Beaumont, whose Tumblr, “Tab Closed; Didn’t Read,” documents some of the more egregious and obnoxious pop-ups that people come across when wandering the web, the most likely answer is that people are confused. They click on the pop-up or put in an email address not because they are interested or wish to subscribe, but because they want the pop-up to go away and that seems like the easiest way to make it happen. (This is a conclusion that Andy and others like him have come to not by analyzing analytics, but by actually speaking with real people, conducting surveys, and doing research.)

So yes, the result may be an increase in click-throughs, conversions or subscriptions, but the reality of that result is that you are ending up with a bunch of email addresses from people who don’t actually want your newsletter. Subscribers obtained from pop-up ads have a nasty (and completely unsurprising) habit of having far lower engagement, higher likelihood of unsubscribing, or even worse, sending your newsletters straight to the spam folder.

While the upshot may be some usable leads in a now-bloated list, the downside is that you’ve annoyed people, potentially damaged your brand, and created a worse experience for your users. This is especially true on mobile where pop-up modals frequently don’t function properly or become near impossible to close.

I Hear You But Don’t Believe You / I Understand The Risks

Right, so despite all of that you still want to, or possibly have to, use pop-ups. This is the real world. I get it.

If you’re going to use them, here are some suggestions on how to minimize the badness:

First, treat your pop-ups like content. Make them clever, funny, original, etc. That way, if you are going to interrupt your users’ internet experience, at least it will have a shot of feeling cheeky and fun instead of just annoying. That also means making them relevant and valuable. The ad shouldn’t just be there because you have the opportunity to throw it in front of eyeballs, it should relate to the content on the page.

Second, make it super clear how to close them. If you want to minimize the confusion and make sure that the clicks and subscriptions you get are exclusively intentional, leave no room for users click or sign-up by accident, or just to get rid of the ad.

Third, test-test-test. Make sure you test your ads, run them by real people in real situations, and get feedback so that you can be sure you are minimizing the amount you are annoying or confusing people. If there is something about the ad that people are finding particularly egregious, go back, change it, test again.

Pop-ups are not the only form of advertising on the internet, and most people don’t loathe all advertising. Pop-ups are hated because they are intrusive, unexpected, and they obstruct a positive user experience. Try to find better, more organic, and more interesting ways to get your advertising across.

Because frankly, you’re better than this.

Need help creating a user friendly website? Contact 10twelve today to help your company put a stop to pop-up ads.