Excuse Me: When Is It OK to Interrupt With Pop-ups?

Pop-ups have long been the bane of web advertising, but many news outlets, blogs and retailers have been using them (with success) for getting email and social opt-ins, merchandising, cross-selling and upselling. They can convert incredibly well, or blow up site abandonment, depending on how they are designed and executed.

What not to do

The biggest mistake I see is pop-ups that deploy far too early. My first visit to a site, I need time to look around before I’m ready to join a Facebook page, download an e-book or sign up for a newsletter.

The above blog dropped this request upon my arrival. The box was quickly closed, but not before I could grab a screen shot (the visit inspired this post.)

How to use pop-ups effectively

First rule is don’t tick off your visitor. Visitors get ticked off a lot less when the popup (or lightbox) doesn’t interrupt a task, is relevant and includes a strong what’s-in-it-for-me (value proposition).


An on-arrival pop-up is okay in the following situation: when it improves the user’s site experience.

There are some cases when you need to get user input in order to continue using the site. This may be for business/personal segments (like for telecom, software, etc) or for geographic segments.

Websites that work with FiftyOne, for example, often announce that they offer international shipping with landed costs shown in cart (no surprise duty or taxes upon delivery). It’s a significant value proposition, and the interruptive pop-up is a great way to communicate this value prop clearly.

In some cases, the pop-up window includes a pre-selected country and currency option that can be overriden.

It’s not recommended to bombard a new visitor with a request for a social follow or share upon arrival, before he or she has had enough time to interact with your site and experience your brand. Even though not all “new visitors” are new to your brand – they may have cleared cookies or have searched your site out after using your product or visiting your shop – it’s safer to ask for social opt-ins or email sign-ups is to ask on a returning visit, or in the case of a content site, after “x” number of page views (you determine the “x”).

Ditto for feedback surveys. Ask users that have viewed at least 2 pages on your site, not upon arrival. The user has 3 seconds to determine if she wants to stay on your site – don’t cover up your site’s value proposition with a lightbox unless it’s essential to guide your visitor to the right content (e.g. geographic content).

If you have a strong brand and detect a visitor has arrived by direct type in of your URL (indicating user is aware of your brand and is seeking you out), an email opt-in request, like OfficeMax’, may be acceptable.

Ensure you split test it and measure both opt-in response and abandonment rate before sticking with it. And remember, use the direct type-in segment and/or returning visitor segments only.


Victoria’s Secret has been using pop-ups on cart pages for years. When a shopper clicks to view the cart, the upsell offer (usually tank tops) appears, and I’ve heard through the grapevine this converts well.

Groupon uses post-purchase pop-ups to ask for a social share and merchandise other deals to get a follow-up purchase.

There will always be customers who find this annoying. But these calls to action are launched at appropriate times. Their in-your-faceness may pay off in higher uptake (test, test, test).

Pop-up best practices

If you dare to display pop-ups, make sure they follow these rules:

1. Clearly communicate your value proposition(s).

Don’t waste your user’s time. If what you’re showing in the pop-up isn’t amazing, you risk sending your customer away from your site. If you’re asking for an email address, state why they should bother. If you’re asking for a social connection, show off some social proof (numbers and faces), and tell them why it’s worth their while.

2. Optimize everything.

Test your headlines, images, offers and copy with your pop-ups. You may test a pop-up against no pop-up and find the no pop-up wins, but your test pop-up may have had an irrelevant or uncompelling offer.

3. Have a clear call to action

This goes without saying, but it never shocks me when marketers neglect this. (Hint: also make the label text explicit on what action the user is taking). Bonus points for including point-of-action assurances, like the KISSmetrics example above (anti-spam statement).

4. Make it easy to close

If you shroud the close icon, users have no choice but to abandon your site. Don’t be tricky.

KISSmetrics’ example hits all of these nails on the head. Kudos.

Finally, A/B testing is great to find out the what (quantitative results of using pop-ups), but user testing can tell you the why – what users hate about your design, offers and implementation.

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11 Responses to “Excuse Me: When Is It OK to Interrupt With Pop-ups?”

  1. Mo says:

    Great article!
    Do you know tools that let me know where the specific visitor comes from? (To let him know what languages, shipping costs are available for him).

    Thanks, Mo

  2. Marcel says:

    Very insightful post. I especiialy like the KISSmetrics example.

    I think that pop-ups also make sense when you want the user to focus on a very specific action, like filling out a signup form, reviewing your shopping cart or typing in product details.

  3. Very nice. Do you know of a widget for including these with wordpress that adheres to your suggested guidelines?

  4. Damian D. says:

    Your best point was “an on-arrival pop-up is okay in the following situation: when it improves the user’s site experience”. This statement reflects the teachings from Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing. In Seth’s own words: “Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them”. If you can provide value to people, who are asking for it, then they will be often back to your site. What are some good examples of non-retail sites that are making effective use of pop-ups?

  5. Linda,

    I have to say I really enjoyed this post. Lately I’ve been finding an increasing number of sites imposing a pop-up that insists I like their Facebook page before I continue reading their article. I find this to be a huge turnoff. Of course, I understand just how competitive the Internet marketing sphere can be, but sometimes I think we really do need to dial back how much we beg our readers, as our efforts can sometimes backfire and produce the opposite effect for which we were hoping.

  6. Great article Linda, it’s such an often misunderstood practice from commerce which really could affect the performance of a site.

    On the topic of Kissmetrics, it’s fantastic for testing things like this. I’d also say it was important to keep a close eye on your analytic’s and set up the relevant goals tracking for added data.

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