Is "Popup" a Dirty Word?

Chanelle Smith
Chanelle Smith

Last updated on

March 21, 2023

In the days before the dotcom boom, popups on websites were a nuisance. They were separate windows then, popping up in the middle of web surfing sessions and refusing to retreat until you clicked the “x” in the corner. Sometimes they even tiled over and over, spamming your screen with annoying, brightly-colored advertisements.

Email list lead capture popup

But popups are different now. Have you noticed? Among other changes, they no longer manifest as separate windows, instead gently appearing within the tab you’re currently browsing.

Ahh, much better.

What do people use popups for?

Email list lead capture popup

Arguably the most popular use for popups is as a strategy to solicit subscriptions to an email list. You’ve seen it before -- after a few minutes of browsing, a popup appears, asking you to subscribe.

So why would something as disruptive as a popup convert website visitors into subscribers? The most likely answer is that people will do whatever it takes to get rid of a popup -- and that includes offering their email address as a sacrifice.

On the other hand, some people subscribe simply because they’re interested in the website’s content and want to know when more is posted.

Even though some visitors give their email address freely (or out of popup-induced desperation), it takes a little more effort to get most people to opt in. There are a number of strategies for doing so, and one of them is the classic guilt trip. That’s right, one way to solicit opt ins is to guilt trip website visitors into subscribing by using persuasive copy.

The “ok” button on the popup might say something like, “Yes, I want to earn $$ while I sleep!” and the “cancel” button might say, “No, I’m not interested in increasing my income.”

Definitely not subtle, but effective.

Another popular opt-in technique is to offer visitors a free gift in exchange for their email address -- this type of freebie is called a “lead magnet”.

Often the lead magnet is a downloadable PDF that gives you desirable information related to the content of the site you’re surfing. Implemented on a retailer website, the freebie could be a discount code to use on your first purchase. For a coaching business, it could be a free 30 minute consultation. No matter what your niche, a lead magnet is a very effective tool for building an email list. After all, who doesn’t love free stuff? More about lead magnets here.

How are popups different now than before?

Email list lead capture popup

As we mentioned, popups are no longer separate browser windows that pop up over your current session and force you to click “x” to close. Instead, they’re designed and controlled with a website plugin, appear fairly subtly within your current browser tab, and can usually be closed just by clicking outside the popup.

Modern popups are easy to customize. You can decide when the popup should appear:

  • X seconds/minutes after a user lands on your website
  • After the user visits a certain number of pages or posts
  • Once a user reaches the bottom of an article
  • On “exit intent” -- when a user’s mouse behavior implies that they’re about to leave the site

And you can use popup behavior rules to annoy your website visitors as little as possible:

  • If closed, the popup won’t appear again for X hours/days
  • If the user subscribes, the popup will never appear again

So what kinds of results are people getting by using popups?

Email list lead capture popup

There are a number of popup case studies floating around online, and we’ve rounded up the results from a few interesting ones.

When Nikki, In Stitches tested an always-present sidebar opt-in alongside a popup that appears two seconds after a user lands on the site. After eight months of testing, her results showed that only 0.4% of visitors subscribed via the sidebar, while 5.5% opted in using the popup. Full details on the Aweber blog.

Dan Zarella tried out an opt-in popup and used his bounce rate as a measure of visitor dissatisfaction -- does a popup annoy a visitor enough to make them leave the site? Zarella found that his bounce rate didn’t vary significantly whether the popup was on or off, but his subscription rate was 3.08% while utilizing a popup and only 1.52% without the popup.

Interestingly enough, e-marketing pro Matthew Woodward also tried a popup and saw an increase in subscriptions -- from 0.85% to 1.23% -- but at a cost of a higher bounce rate, less pages viewed in a session, and less time spent on the site. This is why it’s so important to A/B test different strategies to see what your audience responds to best!

WPBeginner decided to implement an exit intent popup that only appeared when a visitor started to leave the site after having read a blog post -- blog posts specifically, not just any page on the website. Using this strategy, WPBeginner saw a 600% increase in signups, going from 70-80 opt ins per day to 445-470. Check out the details of their experience here.

Popup best practices

Email list lead capture popup

Even though most of us agree that popups are annoying, as you can see above they do work.

While encountering a popup may never be a completely pleasant experience, Evergage walks us through some ways we can make them a little more bearable for our visitors.

Always offer an easy exit strategy. Even if it’s possible to click outside the popup to dismiss it, still include an X button. No one likes to feel trapped!

Limit data entry fields on your opt-in form. The more information someone has to type in, the less likely they are to complete the form, so include as few fields as possible.

Customize the call to action. Popup plugins give you the opportunity to customize the copy on the submit button, so take advantage of it! Instead of “Submit”, Evergage suggests things like “Sign Me Up” or “Download Now” instead.

While the above suggestions are practical and a good place to start, don’t take our word for it. All audiences are different so it’s crucial to do some A/B testing to see what works for yours.

For example, many tout social proof as a sales best practice -- it’s a persuasion technique that suggests that since others did something, you should too. However, in a split test between three different versions of copy on an opt-in form, DIYThemes found that the copy featuring social proof failed miserably.

So if you’re looking to build your email list, don’t be afraid to experiment with popups. They’re customizable, proven effective, and (thankfully) nothing like the annoying popup windows of old.

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