Are Pop-Ups Effective or Annoying?

[The Socio-Technology Gap] Why Your Popup Is More Annoying Than A Pushy Shop Assistant

There’s an on-going debate around the web about the use of lead generation popups and popovers.

Some think they are super annoying and borderline evil. Others also think they are super annoying and borderline evil but they don’t care, because they convert!

I’ll admit that it’s really hard to attract your website visitors’ attention.
Interrupting them with a giant popup does work.

It’s like a shop assistant promoting a new shampoo to you in a beauty store when you only came to buy make-up. Sure it interrupts your shopping thoughts and you’ll probably answer with a polite “Thanks, but no thanks”.

But they got your attention.

Why you popup is more annoying than a pushy shop assistant

What Do Users Think About Popups?

While there have been several small site experiments done, I wasn’t able to find any large scale studies on how people feel about popups. However, I figured we can get a relatively decent idea by going back to our initial example of the pushy shop assistant.

68% of UK shoppers don't like being offered help in store

survey of 11,000 UK shoppers by found that 68% of people think the “Can I help you?” question is super annoying.

Imagine what they think of random offers…

Anecdotal Evidence That Users Find Pop-Ups Annoying

I scoured the web and found some eye-opening comments via the following article on Fizzle on how readers feel about popups-

See a selection of my favorite comments below (If you, by any chance, posted one of these, I just want to let you know that I love you):

“Holy f*ck, why would anyone suddenly put a box in front of my face and blacken what I’m trying to read? Most pop-up boxes are “instant resentment generating” machines.”

“Pop-ups are like illegal drugs, say, crack.
Yes, blame the pusher, but without users there’d be no pushers.
Don’t click on the damn popups, in fact, leave the site and go elsewhere, and the perps may have to find a more honest way to make a living.”

“To me it feels like they’re putting their hand in my pocket before I even take a look at their site.”

“If you want to build a relationship, a community around your blog, then a pop-up offers a short-term solution to a long-term issue. You’ll get results, but at what cost to quality? Would it be better to have 1,000 dedicated users or 10,000 useless browsers?”

*Nod of approval* All of this is so true…

I could point out everything that’s wrong with popups and shop assistants.
Or all the reasons why they work.

I won’t do that.

It’s been done a hundred times by people who have far better writing skills than I do.

Instead I want to look at one of the psychological reasons behind popup hate.

It’s called the social-technical gap!

What’s The Social-Technical Gap And What Does It Have To Do With Popups?

“The social-technical gap is the divide between what we know we must support socially and what we can support technically” – Ackerman 2000, p179

In other words, it’s the difference between what computers can do and what we, as humans, do.

A good example: how we share information in real life VS on the web

Let me give you an example inspired by an amazing study on the subject published in Human-Computer Interaction.

The study takes a closer look at the way we share personal information in real life and on the web.

Let’s take Facebook for example.

You can more of less tweak settings to decide who will see your posts, photos and so on.

It usually looks something like this (yes, I use Pirate English, and I think everyone should too):

Privacy settings on facebook

Yet, there is a huge difference between how you can control what you share online and IRL.

Technology lacks nuance!

Selecting people you want to share information with one by one is a tedious task.
So social networks let you create groups of people, supposing that you’d like to share the same information with people from the same group.

Say, you’d share the same drunk photos with all your friends and the same holiday pictures with all members of your family.

In real life, we make decisions on more of a case-by-case basis.

We’ll, for example, show our holiday photos to friends who ask for it and not to others.

Why popups fail by putting us all in the same group

One reason popups are making a lot of readers angry is because they put us all in the same group.

Sure, you can play with parameters like time on site, exit-intent…

The problem?

These are so general they do put very different people in the same bag!

Let me take the example of these giant, kind of douchey, exit-intent popups.

Yes, I’m thinking of you Bounce Exchange:

Douchey exit-intent popup

I don’t know about you, but I have a very specific way to browse the web for content:

– I open Google and type in my search (let’s say I’m looking for “dating and relationship advice”)
– Oh, here’s Cosmopolitan, looks good!
– Ok, let’s explore other options before reading
– Damn, that’s too many tabs opened, it’s time to read what I have
– Great, let’s start with Cosmopolitan

And then…
This happens!

exit-intent popup example from Cosmo

Wait a second Cosmo…. What the hell is that?

I’m looking for relationship advice, not a make-up tutorial!

See the problem here: They send a really specific offer to a really large group of visitors.

Only few visitors will be interested, most will ignore the offer, some will leave the website, and some will get angry.

We got used to seeing ads we absolutely don’t care about. We’ll usually just ignore them.

The problem with popups is that they jump in front of your eyes when you least expect it, making it impossible to ignore them.

Imagine if people did that in real life?

Imagine you are entering a clothing store looking for a hat.
You spend exactly 10 seconds there, a shop assistant pops up in front of you holding a bag from their new collection and tells you how awesome it is and why you should buy it.

Now imagine the shop assistant does that with every single customer, no matter of their age, gender, if they are blind…

See where I’m getting at?

In a real-life situation, you would read context and social cues to at least rule out some customers.

Popups Are Rude and There’s Not Much You Can Do About It

We use popups because we want to get website visitors attention while they are doing something else.
In other words, we want to interrupt.

“Interruption: a way to demonstrate how much more important you think what you have to say is than what another has to say”

Is interrupting really that rude?

Yes. And no.

The level of rudeness associated with interruption depends on a bunch of factors like culture, context, the reason of the interruption.

For example, French people have a quite high tolerance for interruption. Being French, I’ve never really paid much attention to it but I’d say this is true and it kinds of starting to bother me now that I don’t live in France anymore.

So, interrupting might be normal in France but, as explained in this article on the University of Cambridge’s website, it makes us look rude as hell to others (Brits and Americans in particular).

No matter if you are French or British, there are untold social rules for interrupting people in a polite way. For example, you should try and make eye contact with the person and somehow show them you want to say something.

As a general rule, you shouldn’t interrupt to talk about you and how great you are.

Once again, rudeness is often defined by intangible social rules that are impossible to reproduce in a computer system.

When is it ok to interrupt someone?

No wonder your popups are so rude. It’s really not their fault if they can’t read social cues (yet).

However, it’s totally up to you to not put a douchey, self-centered message on them…

Talking about the message… Use more personalized offers

You’ll always have readers who will think your popup is hella rude because you are missing 2 very important things: context & social cues (socio-technology gap if you were not following). It doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to lower your chances of pissing off people.

One proven technique that both improves conversions and satisfaction is to design more targeted offers.

When used on your blog, this is often referred to as the “content upgrade formula”. In a guest post for Buffer, Brian Dean mentions how he increased conversion rate by 50% using a content upgrade popup instead of a generic one.

As he says, you don’t even need to create 1 offer per article. You just need to identify themes for your content and create 1 offer per theme.

What if you want to promote your product and not your content?

You’ll need to be creative. (I know you are, so don’t be shy.)

Here are few ideas you could use:

– offer a discount to 1st time visitors (visit count = 1)
– offer a discount on a specific product (show the popup on product page only)
– give customers the opportunity to schedule a demo/quick call (show on your contact page or if people spend a long long time on your website)

Or anything that would make sense in your particular case.

Now that you’re using a little more context, let’s talk social cues

With personalized offers, you’ve got part of the context right but this won’t be enough to turn your popup into a polite invitation.
(Nothing will make that happen but you can get closer to “slighly annoying” and further away from “infuriating”)

Another big part of why popups are rude is because they can’t read social cues.

In real life you’d wait for someone to finish a sentence, look up or pause to interrupt.

You won’t be able to be precise using a basic time triggered popup.

Actually, let me rephrase that: Don’t use time triggered popups.

Want your blog readers to come back? Stop using time triggered popups!


A good way to integrate social cues is to use event triggered popups.

I’ve found 3 main types of event based offers so far:
– exit-intent trigger (show a popup before the visitor leaves)
– scroll trigger (show a popup when the visitor reaches the end of the page)
– click trigger (show a popup after the visitor clicks on an offer)

I think exit intent technology is brilliant but browsing habits can make it hard to use.
I also hate what people did with it, just using it for random offers.

The 2 other options aren’t bad at all.
In the scroll case your reader is done reading anyway and in the click case, they are actually showing interest.

Awesome, So I Can Use Popups Without Annoying People!

Hey, hold your horses.
I didn’t say that.

Basic popups = Super duper annoying
Tailored + event triggered popups = Slightly annoying

Popups are annoying because they interrupt our natural browsing flow (and don’t get me started on popups showing up on mobile).
You can’t change that.

What you can do is try to make advantages offset disadvantages.

The simple formula to decide if you should use a popup

– Helps you collect emails
– Helps you sell more

– Annoys your readers
– Drive some people away

It eventually all comes down to how valuable whatever you want to collect is to you.
If you are a business:
How much money each conversion could bring you.

Here’s a simple infographics to guide you.
(NOTE: If you hate your mom, please replace “mom” by someone you love and respect)

Should you add a popup to your website?

If you are are trying to build a long-term relationship with your customers.
Popups might not be your best bet.

To come back to the shop assistant example.

Have you ever avoided a shop because their staff is super pushy and follows you around?

I know I have.

The same will happen with your website. Especially if your emails are as “in-your-face” as your popup!

Go with an alternative, less annoying tool

There are a multitude of tools out there that can help you increase conversions without making you look like a slimy used car salesman.

One of the main points of Human-Computer Interaction’s paper on the social-technology gap was that one way to minimize it is to make computer-generated suggestions instead of imposing computer-generated choices to users.

Here are 3 solutions to increase conversions that are more “suggestion” oriented than popups:

1. Proactive live chat invitations

Here comes the shameless sales pitch from us (yes we sell a live chat tool).
But hear me out…

Chat invites are actually pretty close to popups in the way they work.
Meaning you can set them to show up after few seconds or your visitor performs a specific action.

Live chat proactive invitation popup

There are, however, 2 main differences that make them a lot less invasive:
– they are meant to start a conversation (you are actually getting involved there and show visitors you care about their opinion)
– they don’t block out the entire page (ours don’t) so you can choose to just ignore them and keep on browsing.

2. In-article content upgrades

Bryan Harris from Video Fruit has been using this technique for quite some time now and wrote an excellent article on the subject: The Complete Guide to Setting up Post Specific Bonuses with MailChimp (save yourself $300/month)

Here’s an example of an in-line content upgrade from this very article:

example of a content upgrade popup

It’s a non-invasive and yet very attractive offer.

The most important factor is that you give your readers a choice.
You are not shoving your offer in their face, you’re letting them take action.

3. The feature box

I stole the name from a conversion optimization blog post from Derek Halpern but I first saw this on the amazing Buffer blog.

Here’s what I mean by “feature box”:

example of a feature box on buffer blog

It’s a kind of “header” placed at the top of your blog page.
I like it because it is visible and yet doesn’t interrupt your browsing experience.

These are my 3 favorite alternative options but there are a lot more out there if you want to explore:
Adding a form to your “about” page, static sidebar forms, Hello bar…

Just keep in mind this simple principle: Suggest, don’t impose!

Enough About Me, What do YOU Think About Popups?

I know this is a controversial topic which means: passionate comments!
(Well, I hope…)

I am really excited to hear your thoughts on this.
Do you think popups are worth using even if they annoy a few readers?
What do you think of alternative tools?

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