Go on. Ask any internet user how they feel about popups. You may learn some new swear words. And yet, when the business case for UX is stronger than ever, many brands still default to popups for pushing their marketing messages. Why?
No, they’re not lazy. Not entirely, anyway. It turns out that even though popups are the most disliked form of online advertising, and have been for a long time, they still work.
Popup ads are good for conversion. Yes, really.
Entrepreneur Magazine found an increase in both sales and subscriptions after running popup ads on their website. Econsultancy cited an “up to 400%” conversion improvement for sites using popups. Email marketing specialists AWeber reported on a case where a popup ad garnered 1,375% more signups than its inline equivalent. And these are only a few examples you’ll find on how well popups can perform — search the web; you’ll find even more.
Popups work because they grab attention and position your message above other distractions, like how a waiter makes a point of telling you the special of the day. This overcomes key psychological barriers to conversion caused by page elements themselves competing for importance.
Plus, there are all these different ways to deliver a popup nowadays. We’re not just spawning focus-stealing, flow-disrupting windows any more. Today’s popups sit over the content in the same window, sometimes with an attractive lightbox/shadowbox effect. You can make them wait before appearing, so users have time to get to know you before being asked to commit. Your ads can be configured to respond to specific events (like exits and scrolling), catching people at key moments in the engagement process.
And hey, we’ve even made it easy to create accessible popups — check out the Modal Popup module.
In short, we have ways of making popups less annoying.
But, it doesn’t matter. We still hate popups.
As users, we hate them because they get in our way. As designers and developers, we hate being asked to include them because in many cases, they make it harder to create accessible and delightful websites. Though they may improve conversions, they don’t necessarily improve subscriber engagement. And even the ones that only show up when the user leaves a page (“exit-intent” popups) can still get on our nerves.
However you cut them, popup ads are frustrating because they interrupt us when we’re trying to get things done (which, funnily enough, is exactly what they’re designed to do). Sites are putting their UX on the line for the sake of big numbers in a monthly report, and as far as audiences are concerned, that’s kind of uncool.
SEO penalties for bad popups — coming Jan 2017
As it happens, Google agrees that a bad user experience just isn’t worth it. And they plan to hit popups where they annoy us most: on our mobile devices.
After 10 January 2017, pages displaying intrusive popups and interstitials may rank lower in Google’s mobile search results. It looks like the downsides of ignoring user experience are only going to get worse — but thanks to 2015’s “Mobilegeddon”, you already knew that.
“I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I’m sorry.”
— Ethan Zuckerman, inventor of the popup ad
The changes won’t penalise pages with popups that respect the accessibility of page content. Ads that take up a reasonable amount of space, without getting in the user’s way, are still okay. And popups that do interfere with page content will still pass if they have a good reason, like meeting legal obligations or protecting private content.
This raises an interesting point: though interruptions have the potential to be annoying, they can also be useful. Like offering personal triggers when behavioural triggers suggest your users may be struggling on your site. Or like telling mobile users about your app as early as possible so they can head straight into an optimised experience.
Verdict — if you must use popups, use them responsibly.
Whatever your reasons for using a popup, remember they’re intrusive by design. How well you manage these intrusions in your design will determine how your users experience your brand — that is, whether they find you helpful or just plain obnoxious.
If you must use a popup, either out of necessity or by direct order, use it wisely. Here’s how…
Make sure your users can still get what they came for.
Easily, of course. Don’t let your popups hide too much of your content when they shows up. Make them easy to read or skip. Get them out of the way quickly when it’s obvious your users aren’t interested. And if you’re prompting users to take action, don’t divert them from their critical path once they’ve said yes. Beyond the look and feel, make sure your popups don’t break your site’s accessibility, both on your full site and within the mobile environment.
Save your popups for the right occasions.
Run your popup ads sparingly, using them more as a gentle reminder for useful information instead of a constant nag. I mean, do users really need to see an ad every time they visit your site? And what kind of details are actually worth bothering them about? An excess of popups in the user experience is not only annoying, it may suck the meaning out of even the most purposeful messages, training visitors over time to ignore what you have to say.
Empathise with visitor mindset.
Consider where your users are in their engagement journey before they see your ad. Promoting your email newsletter immediately upon their first visit might not be as interesting as it would be after they’ve had a chance to get to know your content. Similarly, if users have reached your site through your newsletter, showing a popup ad for your newsletter won’t offer value to anyone.
Make your messages worthwhile.
Finally, if you’re going to grab someone’s attention, make sure it’s worth their while. Make your copy easy to read, make it resonate, or at least make it interesting. Popups are still annoying at best, and should be treated as another opportunity to show users you understand them and care about their goals.