How to Do Pop-Ups Right

Damn the pop-up ad.

Every person who has ever surfed the web has hit this rock countless times. All you want to do is view content, but the pop-up ad gets in the way, blocking your view, freezing the page, forcing you to look for the magic “x” that you must click to make it go away.

Yet — believe it or not  the pop-up ad need not be a bad user experience. While pop-ups are easy to do wrong, there are ways  of doing them right.

In the beginning…

The first pop-up ad was born out of desperate need, back in the mid-1990s. Ethan Zuckerman, then working at Tripod.com, created the pop-up as a way to display an ad separately from a web page  thus avoiding embarrassment if the ad should be unknowingly displayed on a page with which the advertiser does not want to be associated.

Pop-ups multiplied from that point onward. They inspired ad blockers. Google even went so far as to penalize search results for web sites with disruptive pop-ups.  Viewed skeptically, pop-ups do not produce impressive results. And they get in the user’s way.

“[T]he question is not just whether pop-ups work, but also: how many people get irritated?” noted pop-up critic Henneke Duistermaat. “People are getting tired of constantly being sold to.” Duistermaat runs Enchanting Marketing, a content marketing advisory firm.  She prefers to rely on sign-up features, particularly in the web bar or footer, rather than pop-ups. “I let the content speak for itself, and use less pushy ways to nudge people to sign up,” she said.

In the end…

While the critics point to low numbers of click-throughs with pop-up ads, proponents instead see massive gains. A banner ad only has a click-through rate of 0.15-to-0.25 percent, noted Ashley Boening, director of digital marketing at eCommerce platform BigCommerce. With a well-placed, well-timed pop-up, that click through can reach 2-to-4 percent of visitors. Millions of visitors can translate into tens of thousands of new customers, if the basic math holds.

This point can be a make-or-break for the pop-up. Simply doing a mass campaign with the same message will only cause people to ignore or bypass the pop-up. “Doing it wrong is broad targeting,” Boening said. One size does not fit all.

Which brings the digital marketer to the next challenge: doing the pop-up right. It’s not a hard sell, but a right sell, according to the practitioners we spoke with.

The rewards of patience

The first thing to do right is wait.

“Trigger the message at the exact time when the visitor is about to leave the web page,” said Greg d’Aboville, head of growth at WisePops. Next, use attractive visuals. “Most pop-ups are very basic.” he said. Finally, offer something of value in the pop-up message. “Providing a good user experience is  putting yourself in the user’s shoes,” he said. Offer a discount,  a coupon, something of value.

One example d’Aboville gave was for a client that used pop-ups to gather e-mail addresses from interested visitors. Click-through rate was one percent. Using the pop-up to offer g a $6 discount coupon kicked up the click-through rate to six percent.

One common mistake is expecting the pop-up to produce conversions just by itself. “Think beyond single session conversions,” said Jay Sarwar, vice president for global client services at optimization and personalization platform Monetate. “You have to maximize customer lifetime value.” That means looking past a single sale/single visit  to cultivate a customer that will last for months or years, with repeated sales. The pop-up can begin building that relationship, offering information before offering a deal.

The guiding philosophy is to craft pop-ups to produce a “tail wind” that will propel the customer towards a conversion, Sarwar continued. The user must appreciate the interruption because it gets to what the they have in mind.

Picreel focuses on conversion rate optimization. Client development director Chris Browne sees three points where pop-ups are easy to get wrong:

  • Ad copy in the pop-up may be using the wrong design and rhetoric to get the point across
  • Filling out a form just does not work out as well as asking for a phone number or e-mail address
  • Surveys should show pre-loaded questions with clickable answers, not blank boxes where visitors can write lengthy comments.

“In the long run, the challenge with setting the correct parameters is to capture traffic,” Browne said.

One big don’t is pushing a pop-up on to a mobile screen, stressed Boening. The tiny screen “makes it more difficult for the person to opt out,” he said, as the exit button may be too small, or some other feature will be clicked by accident.

The future is now

Pop-ups are not going away. They are being coded directly into web pages to bypass ad blockers. They are being delivered in ways that do not shut down the user experience. How do you get more out of them?

D’Aboville sees the advent of smarter pop-ups. “The targeting is going deeper,” he said. “Marketers are using the data about the customer to refine targeting.” This will be coupled with customization, as a marketers can use this information to deal out different pop ups for new and repeat customers, each with different incentives, he explained.

Personalization will come to pop-ups, perhaps based on feedback and survey data coming from the users, added Browne  “Who are the users? What do they want?”

Sarwar sees marketers using AI to figure out consumer intent. If the user is viewing a web page on his smart phone, the purpose may well be research. That knowledge can then be used to serve up a pop-up to spur conversion when the user revisits the site on his desktop or laptop.

It takes repeated page visits to convert the visitor into a customer, Sarwar continued. Yet the first time the user visits is when the marketer knows the least about his potential customer. The marketer may know some basic demographic facts — the high likelihood that an iOS user probably makes more money, or that a desktop user still running Microsoft Explorer is probably older. Even the zip code of the user’s ISP can reveal some demographic information.

“Marketers are adopting AI that reveals the customer to them,” he  said. Revelations that can feed relevant and effective pop-ups.

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