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Do Obnoxious Pop-Ups Really Work?

  |   Classy Marketing, Reputation, Website Design   |   28 Comments

Do website pop-ups work and should you use them on your website? No, and here's why.

You’ve heard the sermon on website pop-ups, right?


It’s the one that says you simply MUST use pop-up email subscription boxes if you want to build an email list that rivals the population of a mid-size American city…


In six days.


(Okay. I may be exaggerating. Slightly.)


If this sounds new to you, here’s a quick recap!


“Pop-ups will increase your subscribers by 20000% percent overnight!”

“Pop-ups will make you filthy rich!”

“You’re a nincompoop if you don’t use pop-ups!”



(Such a great word. Nincompoop. It reminds me of my childhood Smurf-watching days. 🙂 )


Obviously these pop-up evangelizers are pretty hardcore…but do jolting, intrusive, unwanted solicitations actually work?


And should you use them to grow your brand?


Let’s take a look.





It is true.


There are people who fill out pop-up subscription forms.


(You may have also heard them called ‘lightboxes’ or ‘modal overlays.’ I can only guess that an evil marketing guru teamed up with an even more evil pop-up developer to invent such deceptively elegant lingo.)


Those that have pop-ups on their site frequently report that it doubles — and sometimes triples — their rate of email subscribers.


Of those people, many claim they don’t see an effect on their bounce rate.


(Bounce rate measures the percentage of people who move away from your website after viewing only one page.)


This data makes pop-ups sound like a sweet deal!


If you can grow your email list at double the pace without driving more people away from your page, what’s the drawback?


The problem is this: these numbers reveal only one kiddie slice of the cake.


(Unless they’re my kids, in which case my silly idiom doesn’t work.)


Reputable studies like this one from the Nielsen group show that people despise pop-ups.


And not just “some people.”


The vast MAJORITY of people: 95 percent.


So why, oh why, are pop-ups being filled out?!


On the surface it didn’t make much sense to me. Until I found smarty pants Andy.


Andy Beaumont, the creative tech director at the digital advertising agency Albion London, conducted a test and discovered this:


“Analytics will tell you that you got more “conversions”. Analytics will show you rising graphs and bigger numbers. You will show these to your boss or your client. They will falsely conclude that people love these modal overlays. But they don’t. Nobody likes them.


It is…fairly likely that they don’t know how to close it. I have tested this design pattern with real people, and a significant portion of them believe that they must do what the box is begging them for in order to close the overlay.”


Source: The Value of Content


Bottom line? People are confused!


Pop-ups by their very nature are all about surprise combined with a sudden shift in environment (blacked out screens, obscured windows, big bold text, bright buttons).


This is deeply unsettling for people who aren’t accustomed or wise to pop-ups.


Psychology teaches us that people who find themselves in unexpected, unfamiliar situations are easier to persuade, so the fact that pop-ups succeed in wrestling emails from their victims isn’t so baffling after all.


It’s also no big shock that clever Andy goes on to report that most of the people who sign up for a newsletter via a pop-up really do NOT want it.


And for many of them, they aren’t going to figure out how to unsubscribe for months! (Which leads people to believe they’re truly growing their list with lots of interested folks.)


What’s even scarier is that most people won’t unsubscribe.


All it takes is one simple click on “Mark As Spam” when they see the unwanted newsletter and voila…all future emails conveniently drop straight into their Junk folder.


Needless to say, these so-called “leads” on an “epic” email list are anything but promising.


They have no significant interest in the business or blog.


And, more than that, their first contact with that person left them feeling controlled.


The chances that they eventually begin engaging, or buying, is next to zero.


But if you’re the website owner who is only looking at basic signup numbers, you’re going to think you’re on your way to becoming the next Ree Drummond.


(Who has never used a pop-up, bless her heart.)


So what’s needed to fix this?


A few things.


One obvious place to begin is to gather better data.


You probably know that compiling quality, thorough information about what’s happening with a website is crucial if you’re going to depend on it to help you make money.


But if you’re going to execute something as risky as a pop-up, you better be prepared to get fanatical with your analytics!


Here’s a glance at the bare minimum that should be collected on email subscribers:


Open Rate — how many people are opening their emails


Clickthrough Rate (CTR) — how many people are clicking on links inside their emails


Unsubscription/List Growth Rate — how many people they’re losing to unsubscribing and how that compares to their rate of new subscriptions


Hard Bounce Rate — in email marketing this is how many emails are being returned as undeliverable because they’re invalid/closed


Forwarding Rate — how many people are passing their emails on to others


Returning Visitor Rate— how many people are returning to their site on their own (not through an email link)


Engagement Rate — how many people are engaging with their website content (leaving comments, sharing articles)


Conversion & Retention Rate — how many people are actually making purchases, and how many are remaining long-term customers


These metrics need to be tracked for pop-up subscribers and “regular” subscribers separately, then compared side-by-side.


(Regular subscribers are those people who sign up through standard signup forms, like in a sidebar or header).


Only then could someone begin to judge pop-up effectiveness and whether it was helping move their business forward.


Unfortunately, installing an annoying pop-up and waiting a good year to get some meaty measurements (not all of which are easily obtained) can wreak havoc on the main thing your business needs to survive.


What is that?


Your reputation.





Richard Branson, the bleach blonde, billionaire entrepreneur behind Virgin Group, once said this:


“Your brand name is only as good as your reputation.”


Think about that for a moment.


He didn’t say your brand name is only as good as the size of your email list.


He didn’t say your brand name is only as good as the amount of money you make.


And he didn’t say your brand name is only as good as how famous you are.


No, he said that your brand rises and falls depending on one thing:


Your good name.


Once you realize that, you can’t help but make better business decisions.


And that includes decisions about marketing techniques like pop-ups.


Because when the first thing you do to your website visitors is stick out your hand and ask them for something, how do you think you look?








Of course not.  You come off looking like just another greedy, scammy biz on the interwebs.


Talk about instant reputation-buster!


It also creates a vast (and unnecessary) distance between you and everybody you’re trying to “woo.”


It’s not impossible to overcome, but if you’re not already VERY well-established and 150% irresistible in every other way…


You’re going to struggle for business.


Why would you do that to yourself?!


I think you deserve to be successful AND keep your fabulous reputation, don’t you?


I hope you are shouting “YES!” 🙂


Here’s my philosophy:


“Smart marketing understands that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should.” @OlyviaMedia (click to tweet)


Likewise, just because something “works” doesn’t mean it’s the best, or only, option for you.


So instead of relying on a risky strategy like a soul-crushing pop-up to build your list (I don’t know yet, can you tell I hate pop-ups…?), here are a few proven methods for attracting excited, client-worthy subscribers:



Use a Prominent Header for Your Signup Form


This is what I’ve done here on Olyvia, and results have shown that similar set ups are crazy effective. They work because they’re the first and biggest thing your visitors see, and they keep on seeing it on every page they visit.


When they feel comfortable enough to subscribe, they know right where to find you!


(Sidebar opt-in forms are notoriously low-performing. They don’t catch the eye and so they have trouble moving your readers to take action. When most people say pop-ups increased their subscribers, they’re comparing it to when they had an ugly, bland form in their sidebar that no one wanted to notice.)


Here are some others who have used signup headers — also referred to as feature boxes — nicely: Rebecca Tracey, Sally Hope, Missy Ward, and Jon Morrow.



Create a Useful, Interesting Opt-In Gift


An opt-in gift (also called a ‘lead magnet’ or just a ‘freebie’) is something you give away at no cost in exchange for someone graciously providing you with their email address.


Frequently they’re e-books and worksheets, but they can be just about anything: a video or video series, podcasts, printable planners, sewing patterns, etc.


These opt-in gifts not only have to be especially suited for your unique target audience, they have to be QUALITY. Even if you have a gorgeous header form, it’s not going to convert for you if you’re not giving away something compelling and professional!


A one page list you hastily threw together in Word or one ho-hum recipe someone could get from anywhere is not good enough.


So make it valuable, make it relevant, and make it classy. 🙂





You may have gone through agony (or spent the bank!) to have a sparkly website, but are you taking every opportunity you can to send people to it?


Or are you just sort of hoping that people will magically show up?


No one is going to sign up to be on your list if you aren’t constantly marketing yourself and the fact that you exist. (After all, there’s over 644 million websites out there!)


Putting out valuable content is a great start, but it alone can’t be your sole friend; you need to buddy up with a marketing strategy, too.


If you’re just starting out, here’s a good beginners tip: make sure EVERYTHING that goes out to the public actually lists your website! Have you done this on your personal Facebook profile? Your LinkedIn profile? Your Google+ page? How about your email signature? (You do have an email signature, right?)


From there you’ll want to branch out into strategic sharing on social networks, guest blogging, and active participation in niche online communities.



Now I’d love to hear from you.


What is your opinion on pop-ups?


Does it negatively affect your view of a business if it uses them? Are there times when you think pop-ups are OK?


I’ll see you in the comments!



Erika Madden

(Chief Olyvia)


Image (c) a.pasquier + edited by Erika, CC 2.0



The free 21 day ecourse that creates pro online impressions for business owners!

  • Christina C

    I’m not surprised to hear that these don’t work. I’ve found them to be nothing more than an inconvenience when I’m browsing website. It’s particularly obnoxious when I’m on my mobile device and can hardly navigate away without losing the entire page!

  • I love this! Pop-ups do show statistics, but not results!

    • Precisely, Kristie!

      • Okay, I’ve been thinking about pop-ups a lot lately, and thought I’d come chat with you about it. What are your thoughts about pop-ups that only come up when the reader clicks on something. Like a subscription box that pops up when they click subscribe?

        • Great question! I think typically those are okay. To me it’s different from a regular pop-up in that the person is actually taking an action on the page and consequently is expecting some sort of behavior to happen. (Whether that means being taken to a new page, receiving some sort of message, etc.) It’s not an obtrusive ad so much as it is just an integral way the page functions — plus if it’s a subscription box when they click, they’re CHOOSING to subscribe. It’s not being thrown upon them.

          In my mind, the big things to consider before implementing it would be:

          1) How does it work on mobile? A big frustration from mobile users that I hear again and again is that popups are impossible to close on such a small screen — or it causes them to accidentally go off-page. If there was a way to disable it and instead go to a separate page on mobile, that would be ideal.

          2) Is there a clear & prominent way to close the window on normal screens? And is the box small enough that it doesn’t obscure the entire screen?

          3) Is it compatible with all (or at least the vast majority of) browsers?

          Those are my thoughts! What are yours?

  • I personally find pop-ups very irritating…and have not installed one. Thanks for a very thoughtful post about this topic.

  • Hey Erika, just found this via Pinterest.

    My first thought was, could people feel like - I am going to miss out on xxxx, if I don’t sign up…..

    Just like you, I hate pop ups, especially the ones that take over your whole screen.

    But I’m a blogger, I’m suppose to be getting more & more subscriber… Yes!!! ALL OF THE SUBSCRIBERS (tongue in cheek).. isn’t that what we are told.

    Yet I hate how intrusive pops can be.

    I want to make the decision when I am ready to follow someone.

    Thank you, this article just made a decision I have been struggling within myself for awhile now.

    I’ve know for awhile that I want my business and thereby my blog to grow naturally. Therefore I will be leaving the pop up sign in’s off my site.

  • nikkiham

    I love this! I do not have a pop-up & I have been agonizing over it. I hate them. Especially on mobile and I can’t get it closed. I will keep working on my content & marketing my site & myself, hopefully slow & steady will win the race. Thanks for all the details & in depth tips!

  • I was seriously looking into adding a pop-up to my site (even though I despise them myself), but now I think my answer is clear…nope! And I’m kind of relieved! Thanks for the eye-opening article and statistics:)

    • I love that you say you are relieved, Lindsay. That is what I hear a lot of people admit privately. (“You mean I don’t have to perpetually annoy people in order to gain readers or build my biz? Thank goodness!!!”) FWIW, I have never had a pop-up on my site and my list is growing by leaps every month. A high-quality, attractive, targeted opt-in gift that is well-displayed throughout your site is beautifully effective. Also great is a strategy such as this one:

      Pop-ups are certainly not a necessity. 🙂

      • Your results are good to hear! And the link you just shared… “it’s very, very introvert-friendly AND perfect for beginners.” Yes, yes, yes. Just what I need! I just launched my site 3 weeks ago and now I’m kind of in the “now what?” phase. This is exactly what I want to do, just need to narrow down a topic now:) Thanks again.

  • Thanks so much for this post! I had recently taken mine off from my website after a discussion in a private facebook group. It’s clear people hate them, including myself! I only had mine installed for like a month and honestly I wasn’t getting any new subscribers. So guess what? I don’t miss it and after this post, I’m never going to put one on again. I have one on the side bar of my blog and added a link at the top of my site for anyone who’d like to subscribe. I’m loving the signup headers idea - very inviting!

  • I commented on this post, but it hasn’t shown up, so I’ll try again. My apologies if this is a duplicate. Thanks so much for this post! I *HATE* interstitials and wanted to avoid them, but so many blogs seem to be using them I was worried it was the only way to grow a subscriber list. I completely agree with your points here and will NOT be installing one.

    You’ve also convinced me to move my subscription field from the right sidebar to the top, so thanks for that too =).

  • stealthkitty

    Is this only concerning popups that take over the whole screen or does it include things like the Hello Bar that only shows in the corner? It’s noticeable but doesn’t obstruct content or ease of use. I don’t have either but was thinking of something like Hello Bar. Not sure how it works on mobile, though.

    • I actually really like the Hello Bar. It’s not obtrusive, like you said, and it’s not a pop-up so it doesn’t interrupt or block the user experience. 🙂

  • Anna Welliver

    I can’t stand pop ups on a website, but that is my personal opinion…

  • I debated for a long time whether to add a pop-up, but I finally did and I have it activate only when the reader goes to exit. I also refer to my list as “Join my friends and collectors List”. As an artist my opt-in is monthly desktop calendars with my artwork and those seem to work well. So far, my main sign ups come from the opt in at the end of a post and the pop up. I do think I will disable the pop up for mobile devices though. What are your thoughts?

    • Carmen, I’d definitely disable the pop up for mobile devices. Even fairly “polite” pop-ups on desktop screens are super frustrating to deal with on mobile!

      • done and done! Thanks so much, I always look forward to your posts!

  • Amber Whitworth

    I love that you clarified that a subscription header is the way to go - because I totally agree! Both you and The Nectar Collective have it down. I felt completely comfortable browsing and clicking around because nothing popped up like “HIII! DO YOU LOVE ME YET?” (after 3 seconds? Really? Haha.) With you, I knew exactly where to find it, and I did it pronto to get that e-book. Thank you for understanding us. I’m just starting to jump into blogging - this Friday is payday so that’s when I buy my domain. It’s a little daunting but thank you,THANK YOU for helping to break it into bite sized pieces for me. I’ll be blogging about being an artist and a mother, and hope to publish several e-courses to help creative mamas like me.

  • I have to argue the point that, for my business, pop-ups work. REALLY work. When I take it away, I get fewer subscribers and that’s not because I’m not using other methods (I have plenty of opt-in options elsewhere on the site and I promote A LOT on social media.)

    I’d also like to mention that the craze for using “prominent headers” which are essentially giant splash pages built into the top of the landing page are hugely annoying. I came here to read a blog/look at a shop and I’m faced with what is essentially a giant pop-up, except I can’t click away I have to scroll down to get to the content I actually wanted to see.

    Offering incentives to sign-up are also questionable. Why do I want to bribe people into joining my list for 10% off, free postage, or a free guide to something or other? Those people clearly just want the freebie and will unsub in a matter of days if not hours.

    It’s all about finding the method that works for you, not pushing your opinions of pop-ups being GHASTLY on other people.

  • Sasha Minsky

    It’s nice to finally hear excellent explanation of the uselessness of pop up.

    A bit upset that the supporters of pop ups still may find clever way of using them with delay, at the end of the page, thinking that it is less annoying. I wish to tell that this decision is annoying not less. My usual reaction: “Unbelievable, good site without popups. Let’s read… OK… OK… Oh no! Let’s get out from here”))

  • Yael - Mix Savvy

    Thanks for speaking the truth!! I don’t want to put one on my site but so many others say it’s what works = moral conundrum. But think I’ll stick to my guns on this one! Quality over Quantity 🙂

  • Pop-ups are as annoying as pushy salespeople in a store. I went to an article to read it, not get pushed into a subscription that I have ALREADY subscribed to. I rush away from the article just because of the irritation. Now those without them, get my full attention. I’ll even stay on the site to gain more of what they have to offer. Pop-ups are great for immediate offers on landing pages… NOT an article. Wish publishers would get it right.

  • What a great perspective. This completely makes sense. I’ve been wresting with this conundrum for a while and now, based on your logic, it completely makes sense. Thank you. Oh, and I hate pop ups, too. And, I also hate them on sites that I visit/go back to because I often see them on EACH page. Ultra annoying.

  • Sarah G

    Really helpful post, thanks! I’ve been debating, since my blog went live 3 weeks ago, whether or not to use a pop-up and after reading this I’m definitely NOT going to add one! I hate them anyway and was only debating it because, like you mentioned, the stats sound so good.