What I Learned from Reverse-Spamming Aggressive Subscription Pop-ups

Have you ever landed a site, looking for the answer to a burning question, only to have the screen darken and a pop-up appear, covering the content you want to read and asking you to give them your personal information so they can send you updates? They’re everywhere, so I’m going to assume you have. How many of you just love those pop-ups? How many of you say, “Oh man! I was just wondering how I could stay up-to-date with this website I only discovered three seconds ago!”?

I’m going to make another assumption and say zero. Zero people like that. Some sites are going even further and disguising the close button, making users search around and read through multiple pieces of content that are not what they’re looking for to get to the content they are looking for.

I find it so annoying that I’ve actually started filling them in with an extremely obscenity-laden fake email address. It’s not really fit to print, but I will tell you that it has four instances of the F-word.

And the amazing thing is, through reflection, observation, and experience, I’ve learned a lot more about these pop-ups than I ever thought I would. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned from intentionally trying to break sign-up lists.

They make me less willing to click ads

For good, useful sites, I’m generally in favor of clicking an ad or two as a thank-you to the site owners — unless they assault me with one of those obnoxious popups. If they do that, there’s no way I’m clicking an ad, because the feeling of indebtedness I get from reading their free content is gone.

Studies have shown that when you impose a tariff on something, whether that’s a late fee or an added step to view your content, the other party views that as payment for a service. Daycares that switch to a charge-for-lateness model usually see a rise in late pick-ups because the parents feel more justified picking their kids up late when they’re paying for it than when they’re inconveniencing the daycare.

When I read free content on a site, I realize that ads pay the bills, so I feel a moral obligation to click ads for good content. That’s my payment for the service. But when a site makes me jumps through hoops to view their content, that becomes the payment and the ads become a nuisance. When I actually complete the transaction and sign up with an email — even a fake one — it just intensifies that feeling that I’ve paid for the content.

They don’t make it easy

While many pop-up subscription requests utilize an AJAX submission to complete the process within the popup, many others will take you to a different page to complete the registration, sometimes even asking for additional information to complete the sign-up. Subscription requests are already interrupting the user’s train of thought and pulling them away from the content they wanted. If users decide to subscribe anyway, but then find out you’re asking more of them, that’s a slap in the face to people who are willing to work with you.

Case in point: me. I’m not the target audience, who is interested in the content enough to ask to receive it on a regular basis — I’m way more motivated than them. I’m intentionally trying to break the system. (Spite is a terribly effective motivator.) But even my intense desire to troll these websites is thwarted by these practices. If I give up, how do you expect someone who is giving up some of their privacy to react?

The most hard-to-read content usually isn’t worth it

Taking on this challenge really made me think about the content of the sites I was trolling rather than just blindly dismissing the pop-ups. There are some sites where I would be interested in receiving updates — sites that feature fresh, original content that I can’t find anywhere else. These sites don’t throw a pop-up in my face, though, and the sites that do definitely do not fall into this category.

The biggest culprits are cooking blogs and travel websites — both of which are heavily saturated markets without a lot of customer loyalty. When I want to cook something, I never ask, “I wonder how Susie Foodblogger would do that?” I just Google what I’m looking for, and I usually get thousands of results. If a website makes it hard, in any way, to view their content, I don’t have to put up with that. I have literally thousands of other options to choose from.

Aggressive sign-up tactics are usually a sign of poor sign-up numbers — that much is obvious. What’s less obvious (although it should be very obvious) is that poor sign-up numbers usually aren’t a sign of poor visibility — they’re a sign of poor content. If your content is great, people will find a way to stay up-to-date using things that are already set up for that, like Twitter or RSS feeds. This is why quality sites usually don’t have to have annoying pop-ups to ask you to subscribe. Aggressive sign-up tactics do nothing to improve the quality of the content — in fact, they usually degrade it. They interrupt the user’s train of thought and can be difficult to dismiss, particularly for mobile users. This is why Google is soon going to start penalizing sites that do this.

Some of them don’t even work

That’s right: some of the popups that disrupt and hurt the user experience don’t even work. I would fill in my fake email address and either get a JavaScript error or nothing at all. I don’t have any hard numbers on this, but I would estimate somewhere around 10–15% of the annoying popups fall into this category. This is a worst-case scenario, because you’re pissing off most of your users already who don’t care about your newsletter, and you’re also pissing off the ones that do.

Now, I realize a lot of the sites that do this are run by people who are not professional web developers. I understand, you’re doing the best you can with complicated web technologies — but for the love of cats, test your functionality in as many situations as you can. Or better yet, get rid of the annoying pop-up.

Spamming a fake address is a better policy than ignoring pop-ups

Some of you might be mad at me for filling in obscenities on dozens of sites who are just trying to meet their business goals. I’ve already pointed out that this is not good for users. The truly sad thing is that reverse-spamming my fake email address works better for me than ignoring the pop-ups. When I ignore those popups, they have a tendency to pop up every time I visit the site; when I put in a fake address, the pain stops. No more pop-ups.

In case you missed that, let me repeat: by putting aggressive sign-ups on your site, you’re putting users in a situation where it’s in their best interest to poison your supply of legitimately interested users. With so many sites using these tactics, how long will it be until users figure this out? My guess is that it won’t be long until browser plug-ins exist that automatically reverse-spam sign-up sheets just to get around this. At that point, the entire system will be broken, which will hurt site owners and their interested followers. This will not be good for them.

What it all means

Gerry McGovern, founder of Customer Carewords, once said that if business goals don’t align with customer goals, the business has no future. If the solution to your problems and the solution to your users’ problems don’t overlap, your business plan won’t work. Aggressive sign-up tactics are a sign of a wild mismatch between the two. They may produce more sign-ups, but they represent a widening gap that will ultimately destroy small online businesses when it gets wide enough.

The solution isn’t to just give up and not offer a way to keep up on updates. I will admit that there are people who want to follow particular websites, and they should have a means of doing so. But it should be opt-in rather than opt-out. There are very easy ways to maintain visibility without hurting accessibility, which existed before this bothersome trend caught on. If we keep pushing it into people’s faces, though, even those methods may soon become unusable.

We may look back at 2016 as the glory days before the sign-up bubble burst, when people were collecting emails left and right and emailing their newsletters out all over the place. In a few years, this practice will be remembered much like blink tag or table layouts: an embarrassing reminder that technical capability is no indicator of quality. That is a day I, and many other people, are eagerly waiting for.