We’ve all been there.

You’re browsing a website and enjoying the content, when all of a sudden, your screen is obscured by a popup asking you to sign up for something, buy something or enter your email address.

The popup hints, not so subtly, that you’re somehow not as smart if you decline to do whatever it’s asking. But really, you just want to get back to the page you were on and then make up your own mind about whether signing up or buying is really worth it.

It can be hard to get an audience’s attention, and popups can be a way to keep people on your site long enough to convince them to purchase or take the next steps toward purchasing. But there are a lot of people that are vehemently opposed to them.

Let’s take the emotion out of this issue, because really, it’s about results, not opinions. Do popups work or are people so sick of them that they’re one popup away from leaving your website for good? Keep reading for our take on the issue.

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Bad Practice?

Traditional digital advertising tactics such as large banner ads and popup ads are widely considered to be nuisances to many people. In fact, people named “too many ads” as their top reason for blocking websites in a SurveyMonkey survey, reported by Search Engine Land.

Once referred to as one of “the most hated advertising experiences” by web design and usability experts the Nielsen Norman Group, popup ads are, as most people would agree, one of the most annoying things you can experience. (The Nielsen Norman Group points out in the article above that companies should steer clear of any kind of popup, not just ads.)

While many people don’t enjoy any kind of popup that makes it harder to interact with websites, annoying and effective are two different aspects of popups that can be mutually exclusive.

Best Practice?

So, here’s the thing: popup forms are actually effective. Very effective. According to research from Aweber, popup email opt-in forms are over 1,300% more effective that email opt-in forms located in the sidebar of the site.

It might be more aggressive than letting your audience find the CTA themselves, but popup forms really do drive conversions by making it clear how you want your users to take action and putting the ability to do so right in front of their faces.

The Verdict

We say that popup forms aren’t really unethical, but they should be used very carefully, just like pretty much any digital marketing or advertising tactic. Use them too much or without finesse, and you risk turning off your audience and potential customers.

Note: Google announced that on January 10, 2017, sites using popups that detract from the mobile experience, or, “intrusive interstitials,” may see their mobile ranking get worse. However, the only popups Google will be considering are the ones that appear on the first page someone visits after clicking through a Google search result link to a website, as reported here by Search Engine Journal. Because of this, extra attention will need to be paid to the mobile experience and any ads that Google deems intrusive.

However, when used responsibly and in moderation, popup forms can offer a great opportunity to convert website visitors. The trick is finding the healthy balance between using them too much and not at all, and making sure that your popups don’t compromise the mobile viewing experience (or alternately just removing popups from the mobile view of your site).

Tips for Making Them Work

Here are our recommendations for creating popup forms that are effective without being annoying.

1. Be careful about when you choose to display your popup forms

Give people time to read and absorb your content before throwing a popup form or window in front of their faces. If people took the time to visit one of your blog posts or landing pages, they probably have an interest in your content. Let them experience it and start forming opinions about it so they’ll be more primed to take action when presented with a call to action.

2. Don’t patronize or subtly demean your audience

There’s nothing wrong with making your desired course of action sound more inviting to your audience, but be careful about how you word the alternative to it. Some companies go a little too far in making the opt out sound like a bad or downright dumb decision. Don’t turn off your audience by talking down to them or insulting them. That way you’ll have a better chance of converting them next time around.

The example below is of a full-screen popup ad from Convince & Convert. Note that the text on the decline button is worded in such a way that it doesn’t demean or insult the reader. (In light of the change to mobile search rankings mentioned above, you should consider disabling large popups for the mobile version of your site beyond early 2017, especially if a large percentage of your traffic comes from mobile users.)

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3. Don’t make it too difficult to close the popup

Likewise, respect people’s decisions if they choose not to sign up, buy, subscribe, etc. You’ve probably seen popup forms with impossibly tiny exit buttons, which can be frustrating for your users. Make it easy for people to close the popup form if that’s what they want to do.

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This email signup example from Contently’s blog is well-designed and minimal with a clear way to close it if you’re not interested.

4. Don’t give a weak offer

When people get interrupted, they generally want the interruption to be worth it. If your CTA isn’t strong and compelling, why did you have to bother them in the first place?

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This example from Canva’s Design School Blog provides a clear and persuasive message with the added edge of being well-designed. (As a design tool, Canva wouldn’t be able to get away with anything less than sleek and polished ads.)

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Do you use popup forms on your website? How well do they perform and have you discovered anything about what makes them most effective? Let us know in the comments below or share your thoughts with us on Twitter.

If you’re interested in exploring other ethical issues related to forms, read our previous posts on the subject.

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