The Secret to Pleasant Pop-Ups

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Ideas and Strategies for Real-Time Personalization
The Secret to Pleasant Pop-Ups

June 15, 2014 by

You’ve just arrived at a website you thought sounded interesting, you’re keen to see what it’s all about, but then—pop!—a floating box obscures your view of the good stuff. Why? To tell you about some other good stuff that you can have, if you’ll only surrender your email address.

Though Seth Godin has preached permission for more than a decade, the average internet user’s experience is still dominated by interruption marketing. So how much does your online audience hate pop-ups, and should you use them or not?

Long-Term Brand Image vs. Short-Term Conversions


A 2013 survey says that 70% of internet users rated irrelevant pop-ups as the most annoying type of advertising, putting them on a par with lottery scams. They’re intrusive and sometimes infuriating, but they’re also impressively high-converting. Like any tool, they’re ethically neutral until they’re applied, so consider the evidence before you draw your conclusions.

A web page with a pop-up typically sees more conversions than the same page without a pop-up. More important, a page with a well-designed and thoughtfully implemented pop-up converts better than one with a crappy pop-up.

A crappy pop-up can drive a large proportion of your audience away, their perception of your brand irrevocably tarnished. Avoid these pop-up pitfalls:

  • Pop-ups with hidden or inactive exit buttons make your audience feel deceived
  • Including too many fields — every additional input field in your pop-up form will put people off completing it
  • Extra large pop-ups that occupy most of the reader’s screen — they make visitors more likely to leave
  • Pop-ups styled to look like browser dialog boxes — they are underhanded and deeply mistrusted
  • Multiple pop-ups — they scream “spam” to any sane website visitor


Getting this right isn’t merely a matter of balancing bad user experience or bad brand image against good conversion rate. The ideal is to create a win-win in which a pleasant (or, at least, inoffensive) user experience supports a conversion rate increase. If you create the perfect pop-up for your readers, there’ll be no hurt feelings and minimal change in your bounce rate.

Simply put, your pop-up must offer something your reader believes is worth the interruption. The best way to do this is with a careful focus on relevance.

Focus Targeting and Messaging by Relevancy

There are differing degrees of relevance. If you’re browsing a recipe blog and a pop-up appears offering you an eBook of recipes, that’s relevant by topic. But if you’re looking at the meat-free recipe selection and the pop-up offer is a collection of carnivorous cooking ideas, that’s not so clever.

Never forget that different people seek the same thing for different reasons, and for optimum effectiveness your pitch needs to reflect their reasons. If the pop-up offers meat-free “low-fat diet recipes” to a visitor who wants dinner without animal cruelty, that’s closer but still not on target. The more you do to make your offers relevant at the individual reader level, the higher you can expect your conversion rate to climb.

This isn’t just about preventing the annoyance a website visitor feels when the offers they receive are wildly inappropriate; it’s all about giving your audience something they genuinely want. Useful, relevant information offered to the right person, in the right place and time, will get you further than any one-size-fits-all offer.

Creating individual profiles of each of your visitors, even the anonymous ones, based on real-time preferences and intent, can help you determine the most relevant message for each visitor. With behavior-based analytics guiding your marketing and user experience decisions about pop-ups, you can make well-targeted offers that your readers are happy to receive.

The Importance of Measuring and Testing

Even if your pop-up content is personalized for each visitor to your site, you still need to test, measure and analyze the effectiveness of your pop-up campaigns. After all, there are many ways to provide personalized content and even more ways to design and implement a pop-up, so testing is the only way to make sure you’re getting it right.

Some of the elements to test include:

  • Your pop-up’s headline copy. Clear, relevant and specific usually works well. Test several different headlines and then go with the ones that perform best.
  • Headline design. Once you’ve identified a good headline, try a few variations of the headline font, color and line breaks until you settle on one that stands out and reads cleanly without causing eye strain.
  • Pop-up box design and images. Find out what colors, dimensions and imagery perform best on your site. Simply adding a relevant, appealing image to your pop-up can make a massive difference to the conversion rate.
  • Pop-up form field labels. Test different fonts and placements—inline, above the field, or on the left? Make sure they’re correctly aligned after each time you move them, as a messy or cluttered-looking form discourages visitors from signing up.
  • User escape routes. Should your pop-up have an exit button, a “No Thanks” link, or something else? Do your users want to close the pop-up by clicking on the background outside it? You won’t know what keeps your visitors happiest until you test, and in this case you might find that website heat-mapping or visit recording technology gives you the deepest insight into what your users do when they experience your pop-up.
  • Body copy. Should you describe benefits and features, or offer social proof? Don’t assume that you can nail the best option by instinct or guesswork. For example, one surprising split-test on the DIY Themes opt-in form showed that removing all of the body copy entirely resulted in a 102% lift in conversions.
  • Call to action copy. Don’t stick with the default “Submit” button copy. Test some more specific copy options like “Get Your Free Report,” “Download Now” or “Sign Me Up.”
  • Action button design. Do you know how much difference a rounded corner on your action button makes to your pop-up’s conversion rate? Neither do I. That’s one more reason to test everything: shape, size, color, texture and any other attribute you can control.

Aside from the offer itself, timing is crucial. Pop up too soon and you prevent your readers from ever seeing enough of your content to decide they want more. When you ask them to opt in they’ll feel like you’re jumping the gun. Pop up too late and you’ll miss them entirely. No amount of smart web personalization in your pop-ups can convert a visitor who’s already left.

Most testers have found that 60 seconds into a website visit is about the right amount of delay to optimize conversions against bounce rate, but the optimum timing varies from site to site, so test your own pop-up with different timings to see what works best for you. You can also set your pop-ups to display to visitors based on behavior. For example, only show a pop-up to encourage visitors to sign-up for your blog after they’ve visited a minimum of two articles.

And for the love of all that’s holy in user experience, set your pop-ups so that visitors you’ve already converted never see that pop-up again!

Even after you’ve tested your pop-up almost to extinction, it’s never a done deal. Re-test elements from time to time if you think there might be room for improvement. In fact, re-test even if you don’t think so, because there’s always room for improvement somewhere.

So What’s the Secret to Pleasant Pop-Ups?

Relevance, on an individual scale. For pop-ups that don’t annoy anyone, you need to find out who you’re talking to and then make your offer as personalized as if you were consulting with that visitor face-to-face. Web personalization is complex, but there are some elegant solutions available to put the power in your hands without a steep learning curve.

The other big secret is to test, evaluate, split and iterate, then test some more. A quick review of recent case studies shows that conversion rates differ widely in many tests, and variations in pop-up content or design can increase or decrease conversion by 10%, 100% or even 1000% compared to the control. That means that making a single well-chosen change to your pop-up could potentially double its effectiveness, so test each element to find out which are the keys to your pop-up’s success.

Read more:

Intro to the 5 Main Types of Personalization Messages and Experiences

Follow the Data: Personalization Beyond the Homepage

6 Personalization Challenges and How to Overcome Them

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