Tips on how to keep growing your newsletter subscriptions without pissing your visitors off.

How to get more leads without sacrificing UX

This article was originally published at

Rethinking best practices

It’s almost 2016 and the internet is littered with a deluge of horribly intrusive newsletter subscription forms. They come in all kinds of annoying formats ranging from pop-ups, exit-intent pop-ups, and even full page roadblocks. Tons of websites are displaying their newsletter subscription forms this way. That’s thanks to the current norms and because the vocal minority recommend these tactics.

The problem is that most of them are bad for your site. They really are, at least in the long run. We, as the designers of user experiences on our websites, are letting our visitors down in exchange for short-term gains. Just give me a few minutes to tell you why we’re screwing up, and how we can all fix this.

This isn’t just a rant…

If you’re one of the vocal minority or think you fall into that camp, take a breath because I already know what you are thinking. I’m used to them because I do online marketing and they don’t annoy your target market as much as they annoy me, right? Maybe, but that’s changing very quickly, as is evident from the rising tide of other marketing folks that have been expressing their own reservations over the last few months.

But let me pretort (I’m coining this as a retort but before you can object). Think back 21 years ago, to 1994. Back when there were about 30 million people using the web. AT&T decided to launch an online display advert; the hideous one below. It averaged a click-through rate of around 44%. What?! These days the average CTR for display ads is around 0.1% and that’s before you audit that data for botfarms.

Why was it so successful? Probably partially due to novelty effect, and probably because most people didn’t know it was an advert. Even if they did know then they were likely happy to click it because there weren’t any others like it. Fast-forward 2 decades and over 180 million people are installing adblockers to hide display ads like this.

Why? Because the internet is overrun with annoying adverts. The novelty effect has worn off and people hate having their flows interrupted by swathes of irrelevant crap. Ask yourself if you think your current newsletter subscription forms, pop-ups and all, are immune to this behavioural evolution? Be honest.

Keep pressing the questions

You could argue that we should make hay while the sun still shines. But in this zero-sum game, the more hay we collectively make, the quicker our sunset approaches. You know that old customer service saying that for every complaint you get there are 20 other silent, yet disgruntled customers? What makes you think the same doesn’t apply to your own visitors?

Again I’d like to pretort your argument that you’re doing customer feedback and most people you talk to are happy about it. But do you ask them specific questions about degraded user experience due to interruption advertising on your website? Do you take into account self-selection bias and consider that the people that become annoyed may not want to provide feedback? What if they’re part of a silent majority?

Make better hay

So what’s the solution? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows what the perfect solution is. But great place to start is to remove the interruptions, get visitors to trust your platform as an annoyance-free location, and to display email collection forms with better UX in mind.

Just remember, I never said that the annoying ways don’t convert (or even possibly convert better), but sacrificing good UX for quick gains is economically stupid. If you push through someone’s threshold, they’ll leave and refuse to come back. We all have it drilled into our heads that customer retention is cheaper than acquisition, and once you’ve lost someone as a customer, getting them back a second time makes the first time seem like a warm up lap.

The easy clean up spots

If you want to get serious about this process, you can start with a few really simple things. The first of which is to remove CAPTCHA if you use it. For the love of whatever entity you worship, your CAPTCHA fields are killing your conversion rates!

Now that you’ve dealt with that, consider adding some social proof to show how many people have already subscribed. If your subscription numbers are high enough then consider making it show the amount of people that have signed up in the last month, or even in the last week if you’re getting a ton of subscribers.

Better design

A couple of factors that strongly weigh in on the success of your subscriptions form conversions are their designs as well as their supporting content. Having excellent implementation in each of these will help lead to a higher conversion rate.

To achieve this, make your subscription forms stand out. But remember, do not make them intrusive or annoying. An intrusive form is one that prevents a person from carrying on with what they were doing. An intrusive form prevents a visitor from performing the very task they visited your site to perform.

If the form(s) don’t stand out then your visitors may not see them. We all suffer from content blindness, advert blindness, and input form blindness. Cues from images help point people to forms, especially if those images contain faces whose eyes are looking at the form container.

Understand that when a visitor fills out a form they are signalling that they want to stay informed. They’re expressing interest. This doesn’t give you carte blanche to email them about every insignificant (or at least insignificant to them) thing your company ever does or plans to do.

Either keep your mailing schedule lean or provide them with checkboxes to specify exactly what kind of emails they’ll be getting. This will also give them confidence that if they do sign up then they won’t get spammed about things they don’t care about — even if you, as the marketer, really do. BuzzFeed does this really well.

Always clarify exactly how subscribing will provide people with value. Your form’s call to actions need to inspire just as much excitement as your headline titles do. People fear spam! I fear spam. I don’t even trust sites that have subscription forms with that small text underneath that says “we hate spam”. That’s exactly what a sneaky spammer would say!

Speaking of button CTAs, try using contextual copy instead of a boring ‘sign up’ button. What about ‘unlock more content’? What about discover, reveal, or master? Play around with some of these.

The social proof can help alleviate that fear. Tell people what to expect (how many emails, whether they’ll get an email burst and how many of those bursts to expect). Tell them what the general type of content will be. Tell people that they’ll be able to unsubscribe in a single click. This sounds obvious but some emails don’t even have unsubscribe links! And it’s 2015! Heck, some sites even require you to login to unsubscribe (Please always report these as spam)!

Content upgrades

The Information has an interesting design flow. I emailed one of their writers, Amir Efrati, a while ago as part of some outreach for my Mobile Chat Groups website because he seems to have an interest in Whatsapp. Amir replied with a link to one of his articles about Whatsapp’s messaging app. You can see in the screenshot below that The Information shows visitors a portion of the content, as well as an article takeaway.

This takeaway acts as a TL;DR and an overview for people that don’t want to subscribe to read the full thing. It’s brilliant because it doesn’t exist in a BuzzFeed headline realm where it forces you to subscribe in order to get the outcome. The outcome is provided to you, but the details are provided as a content upgrade.

What was even more impressive for me was that Amir shared the link using a special URL that resolved with a slightly different page. Because I visited using the special link as opposed to visiting the article directly, I was able to read the full article without having to sign up (not pictured above). Hows’ that for design thinking?

The Information isn’t the only website that provides content upgrades though. Many sites do it and this is actually one of the better approaches. It’s optional and it allows people to achieve what they came to achieve without having their flows interrupted.

Upgrading your tactics

If you want to take it a step further, marry your UX design with your technology. If you have one or more email address forms scattered across your site, provide them all with a single history. Let them all have access to a current visitor’s information.

Chances are that you are already using cookies. You should also use your cookies to prevent your forms from showing to people that have already subscribed. Instead, use JavaScript to hide those form containers, or replace them with something else. Reddit has this cute image that shows up for redditors that don’t use adblockers. Do something similar for already subscribed visitors.

Why not use the space that your forms usually occupy to show your visitors some kind of appreciation? Maybe offer them discount codes, or more free resources, or even pictures with hearts and love.

If you can, save their email address in the cookie and do an API call on each page load to check if they’re still subscribed. If not, then you can even use JavaScript to convert that container into another short form to find out why they unsubscribed. A cute little sad face with a single question form that asks what you did wrong can go a long way (What?! Pawel, aren’t you advocating against polluting pages with forms?).

Super Saiyan tactic upgrades

Do you know what converts well? A form with a single input field. Wherever you can, just ask for a visitor’s email address. If you want to get fancy, ask for either their first name or their full name in the same input field. Anything more than 3 input fields is a sin. Any decent UX practitioner will tell you that people will abandon forms given any kind of resistance.

Dan Zarella from Hubspot did some research and found that 3 fields yields the best conversion rate. But do you know what’s better than 3 fields? What’s better than 1 field? No fields at all. What about just using a button…

Now this section is purely speculative because I don’t have the willpower to go and read Facebook’s usage policies, but I’m sure this idea is legit. Why not skip having an email subscription form altogether?

What’s stopping you from using a social sign in button to capture your subscriber’s information? Facebook, Github and Google Plus all provide social sign in. You can easily capture not only email addresses but additional metadata about your visitors. Unfortunately Twitter does not provide an email address via their API.

Imagine getting all of this information for free while removing almost all effort from the side of your visitors? Holy crap!


The conclusion here is simple. Do not piss your visitors off. Even if your existing approach is a success. Think critically about your design and don’t just cargo cult off of the practices of people that write on the internet (myself included). The best way to get sign ups is by focusing on your product and your content.

Amazing content helps build the required trust and it helps remove the doubts of subscribing. Eliminate people’s doubts and fears (about spam), remove complexity and work, and you’ll be on the path to growth in no time.

Want to learn more about removing bad UX patterns? Check out Dark Patterns. Please get in touch if you have any thoughts or refutations. I’m always up for a good debate.