Do Popups Work? Not as well as we think


Summary: Upwards of 80% of people polled say they don’t like popups. So why are we using them? Even though some data shows they increase email signups, we need to evaluate the long term impact on brand sentiment. Popups are not inbound marketing, they are actually a form of outbound marketing.

True story: I hate popups. Hate them. Yes, popups grow your email list. So I know as a marketer I’m supposed to love them, sell them, and sing their praises, but I can’t. I despise them. I also suspect they aren’t working as well as we think they are working.

I blog a lot about my life as a television reporter and how it has organically led to what I do today as a content marketer.  So, what good reporters do is take anecdotal hunches or tips, and then act on them to find the story. (Here’s an infographic that illustrates how to do this)

I decided to find out if my my doubts about “modal content calls to action,” or those little windows that interrupt what you’re reading asking for an email address, are reflected in the broader public. My answer was overwhelmingly “yes.”

First, there are studies that show people hate popups more than anything else about a website. More than auto-playing sound. More than ads that blink.

Then, I conducted a little non-scientific survey asking people within my own network how they responded to popups and here’s what I learned:


People are Tuning Out

So it appears my hypothesis is correct, I’m not the only web user in the world who finds these things annoying, and looks for the little “X” immediately without reading the content.

It should be of grave concern to businesses that your marketing attempt may be a success with some, but completely severs your relationship with others. With customers who sought you out.

That’s like if they visited you in your bricks and mortar store and you pied them in the face. Some would find it funny, but plenty don’t come back.


Let’s start, though, with the people who don’t find modal popups offensive. They aren’t going to be positive or neutral toward them forever. Something else we learned in news is the fine balance between predictability and surprise.

Viewers want the weather to be delivered at the same time each day, and heaven help you if you change that. However, they also get good at tuning things out over time, so it’s important to continue to create new, surprising ways of sharing information. This is how we got holograms on CNN that time.

Same rules apply to a website. If you have no navigation bar, either along the top or along the side, people get confused. The utility of your website goes down overall. People want the expected controls to be where they have always been.

However, the popups that once elicited a response will eventually become a big ole yawn. Here is David from Red Star on this issue:

“Many people train themselves to ignore the parts of a website that don’t directly tie to what they’re doing, rending the CTA as a sort of white noise.”

On the other hand, David also says modal popup CTAs force the user to interact, because website visitors can’t ignore the popup. They have to click the “X,” or sign up, or otherwise respond.

I disagree. Many people I surveyed said they DO ignore everything except that little “X” and the popup just annoys them.

This means best case scenario, you have a limited time to milk the utility out of modal popup calls to action before people don’t even see them anymore. Meanwhile, you are alienating all other people who hate the popups. That may be why we don’t see holograms routinely employed on the news.

Popups Are Outbound Marketing

Why are we grasping desperately to everyone’s least favourite part of outbound marketing? The “interrupting the experience” part?

Mark Harbert, a smart internet marketer from MyLeadSystemPro acknowledges the pop ups bother him, but advises us use them anyway:

“I know they are annoying, but man do they work so good. [sic] Set up a pop up and make sure your offer is compelling enough to get people to opt in.”

But wait. If you have a compelling offer, you shouldn’t need to interrupt your user experience to flog it. You’re saying “my content is king” and then literally constructing barriers between that content and the users. Visitors seeking your content cannot SEE your content. This is better known as outbound marketing.

We think of outbound marketing was the old fashioned “look over here” method of selling stuff, like TV commercials, flyers in your mailbox, and billboards on the side of the road. They obviously worked to some extent, because they’re still in use today.

They aren’t popular with the audience, though. The audience typically dislikes outbound methods because they interrupt their experience. Billboards junk up the skyline. Flyers clog their mailbox. TV commercials interrupt this week’s episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter Arrests The Real Housewives of Reno 911. People hate that.

We especially hate interruptions that make us feel bad, and modal popup calls to action are particular culprits of that.

Here’s one from Nutrisystem that David Hoos posted on his helpful blog post:


Hoos also links to the survey I mentioned above, where of 18,808 web users, more than 50% reported that a pop-up ad substantially diminished their opinion of the advertiser, and nearly 40% reported that it affected their opinion of the website in a very negative way.

Isn’t that what marketers are trying to avoid?  Apparently not. Hoos directs readers to this hilarious Tumblr collection of guilt/shame/regret-inducing modal popup CTAs.

So what happens as a result of all this? Easy. We seek, invent and then enthusiastically embrace technology to avoid interruptions whenever possible. We can now fast-forward through commercials on television. There is legislation limiting junk mail. I’m sure if there is an Augmented Reality way to avoid seeing bus bench ads, it’ll appear in the future.

So how ironic then, that a popular method of gathering an audience for your quality inbound marketing materials –your terrific content, your tailored experiences, your targeted offers– is the most egregious sin of outbound: interrupting people’s user experience.

Ergo, this method won’t work forever. Because someone is going to invent a technology that allows visitors to avoid it.

We don’t know enough

More and more businesses have smartly adopted terminology and methods from the medical community to determine outcomes.

One example is measuring both proximal outcomes, the short term consequences of an action and distal outcomes, the long-term consequences of an action.

Modal popup calls to action aren’t that old. We are adopting them with great fervour based on proximal outcomes only: the immediate effect of plenty of people inputting their email when faced with a popup window.

So while the proximal data is great, it’s worth pointing out that we don’t know why. Maybe people input an email just to get rid of the window. Do visitors stay on the email list for which they’ve signed up or do they unsubscribe? Do they simply use “that email address?” You know, the one most of us have for sign-ups, but never check?

So popups may get people to join your list, but remember, the list isn’t the metric. The conversions are the metric. Today’s marketer who says the ROI on popups is the number of people on your email distribution list, is yesterday’s marketer who said the ROI on a communications plan is the number of media hits your brand got. NO. You don’t get paid in email addresses or TV appearances. You get paid in customer conversions, and customer conversions depend on positive brand sentiment.

Which is why proximal data on email signups isn’t telling us anything even close to the whole story. Marketers have never released ANY distal data on pop up list building. In other words, the long-term effects of using pop ups on your company’s brand impression:

  • How loyal do consumers feel toward email lists they’ve signed up to through a pop up?
  • How do they feel about companies who target them this way?
  • How does that emotion translate into sales?
  • What qualities do they associate with companies who use pop ups
  • Is that is the brand association you want?

Let’s use the example of bargain furniture stores. In Canada, The Brick is one example. Many of these stores adopted the high-pressure commission hard-sale model, which includes shouty TV ads and the like.

Yes those hard sell ads “worked,” in that they got people to the Brick. Proximally. But distally, the impression people have of the Brick is that it’s the cheap place to go for furniture. It’s not the place for investment pieces.

Recently, as consumer spend on home furnishings continues to grow and grow, the Brick launched a range of design-focused furnishings targeted at a more upscale audience. Their marketing has changed to try to capture this audience.

Getting people to equate the store with quality and design has been challenging, because of the distal effects of years of hard sell marketing.

We just don’t know the distal effects of popups. But based on my small survey, we should be worried they’re not good.

Some hypotheses about what people may be internalizing about your brand when they’re assaulted by windows full of what they aren’t looking for:

  • You value prop isn’t good enough to snag their attention on its own merits
  • You care more about pushing your message than responding to their needs
  • You’re the online equivalent of the pushy salesperson

How do you want to be marketed to?

I mean, hey. It’s up to you. I understand that a pop up window will garner you more email addresses than no pop up window. And that in the words of one expert, email marketing is, “totally worth dating, engaging, marrying and having babies with.”

There are choices, though. For example, here’s a great list of many kinds of CTAs from Rachel Sprung on Hubspot. You’ll notice when you visit Hubspot, you aren’t assaulted with a popup. They do occasionally use something called a slide-in CTA, which is more subtle, but you can read their blog without having your view obscured by something you didn’t ask for.

Maybe ask yourself if YOU like your online experience interrupted by pop ups. For me, I don’t subject my clients to practices I find distasteful, even if those practices could potentially make me money. That alone is a good enough reason for me to avoid pop ups.