In (Mild) Defense of the Pop-up

Written by Keren Veisblatt Toledano, Senior Strategist

Whether one refers to the box as a pop-up, hover ad, modal, lightbox, popover, or an interstitial, the many named, often-square shaped overlay is a surviving vestigial tail of the early internet. From the 1990’s through the early 2000’s, the pop-up was a ubiquitous part of browsing. In 2004, ad blocker installs ran amok because people decried pop-ups as the most hated web experience (a belief further bolstered by Nielsen Norman Group). Even though the technological delivery mechanism has since changed, the end result remains. The user is still disrupted, and the content obfuscated, by today’s modals.

These often jarring displays can be triggered by various user actions or factors: length of scroll, time on site, link-specific targets, session count, and more. Quite literally, the word interstitial means “in between.” Within the context of web development, this box lives “in between” the previous page, and the page which your user is attempting to access. The item serves only to provide extra (not originally sought) information to a user during the act of navigating from one page to the next. The experience can be unpredictable and is usually scheduled at the whim of marketers’ needs.

If the tool is so obnoxious, why is it still in use? Copyblogger found that employing an email marketing strategy using pop-ups immediately boosted email list opt-ins. Overall, pop-ups generally have decent click-through rates: often around 2%, which is higher than other kinds of ads. In my past experience as the Integrated Marketing Manager at Birthright Israel Foundation, seasonal lightboxes were incredibly successful for fundraising when employed sparingly — a fews times a year at key intervals. Regardless of whether the interstitial creates successful click-through rates, it easily creates buzz and awareness. It is almost impossible to ignore the messaging, imagery, or other campaign-related materials that are force-fed to users via an overlay. Even if the user views the thing for a brief second, that’s a second more than previously seen. Most pop-ups greet the user upon entry, some particularly desperate pop-ups are activated by “exit intent.” Imagine this type of unrelenting sales tactic in “real life” — the pushy salesperson hyperbolized — literally following you out of the store.

Although this form of advertising and forced awareness can annoy users, the fact remains that users often engage with pop-up ads. Simply put, pop-ups work. They are social triggers that lead to results. However, those results might be due to a user who is motivated by stress, predatory sales tactics, or bandwagon propaganda. The results might also be due to a successful advertisement and user’s innate curiosity. It’s hard to glean. Like any tough decision, it’s a paradox of pros and cons. The pro is that your ad will likely garner the proper attention. The con is that you risk alienating and frustrating users. You are interrupting the intended experience, so be sure you are offering pertinent, helpful content. Remember that you are designing your website primarily for humans, and not search engines or CEOs or donors. User experience should be your first focus. If your pop-up serves your audiences relevant (desired) and useful information, then this is a great first step.

Since most campaign-driven overlays today are not technically “pop-up” ads in the traditional sense (they do not open a new browser tab/page/window), the experience is already less trying. That said, you’re still asking the user to invest more time into your site. You’re also hoping that the selected campaign will be applicable to the individual user (hard to do when serving a national and global audience unless ads are targeted). And, you’re hoping that the user doesn’t lose the sense of goodwill s/z/he had in choosing to interact with your organization. It’s a risk. If your marketing team decides to take the plunge, it should be continually tested. Do not solely test the quantitative success of said risk. Ask users if the experience changed qualitative, subjective factors — emotional feeling toward the company, ease of use, etc. Another basic and often overlooked risk is foregoing your site’s functionality. Since many interstitials require third party ad servers, or injected lines of code, the technology might not render properly on some devices. This can further alienate your audience.

Some interstitials trick users into supplying information, downloading an app, or clicking a link they would not have previously, just so the overlay will disappear. The “cancel,” “x,” “continue,” or “back,” buttons being purposely hidden or obfuscated. The type of dark pattern is so ubiquitously panned that in 2015, a Google representative stated that he would like to make interstitials a negative ranking factor in Google Search! In fact, as of the of writing this post, on August 23, 2016, Google announced that they will be treating interstitials on mobile results as a negative ranking signal.

Doantam Phan, Product Manager at Google, states, “Pages that show intrusive interstitials provide a poorer experience to users than other pages where content is immediately accessible. This can be problematic on mobile devices where screens are often smaller.”

Although, this is only one of hundreds of elements that are used in the ranking algorithm. Google also recognizes that certain pop-ups are helpful: for example, overlaps that appear in response to a legal obligation (cookie policies, age restricted content), login dialogs on websites where content lives behind a wall, or reasonable and easily dismissible banners (app installs, updates).

What now?

I’ve personally had great experience with less invasive versions of the pop-up ad. The Hello Bar is not just intuitive, but it also takes up much less screen real estate, and much fewer pixels. This tool can be positioned in various places within your website. The user can dismiss the message or continue viewing the website without closing the bar. Last year, Brooklyn United employed the third-party tool for a client attempting to drive more downloads of white papers over the course of a month-long campaign. Our conversion rate was 4.2%. Stellar. The Hello Bar also does not require any coding expertise to customize. Our clients were easily able to change their campaign branding, and edit in their own voice and tone, without the help of developers. At $12 a month, the cost is affordable. MailMunch also offers a third-party pop-up service that promises better customer acquisition & lead generation. It is mobile-friendly and integrates with a bevy of email service providers. Other less intrusive pop-up styles include the sidebar embed, and the slidebox.

But remember, although it works, even the inventor of pop-up ads has publicly apologized for his creation!