The Right (and Wrong) Way to Use Popups in Ecommerce


If you have kids (or you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time with them), you know there’s a simple rule for sharing any object with a child younger than three: Don’t give it to them unless you’re okay with it getting absolutely — and hilariously — destroyed.

Kids are kids, after all.

They don’t share our grasp of cost or sentimental value, nor do they inherently understand how far something can be pushed until it shatters into a million tiny, painful pieces. Hell, sometimes that’s precisely the kid’s goal. As a result, we tend to withhold our nicest things from kids until they can truly appreciate the value and purpose of that particular item.Why Marketers Can’t Have Nice Things, EitherSee where I’m going with this?

Like kids, we marketers are drawn to shiny new things, too. Whether it’s a tool, technology, tactic , or an innovative idea, most of us are in this line of work because we love finding new ways to drive better results. Of course, some of us also live for the opportunity to squeeze every last little bit of beauty out of that new thing and ruin it for everybody else.

One case study of this in action: Popup email capture.

Popups have been around for a while. Darren Rowse famously used them to grow his photography blog’s audience by more than 800% in 2008 and numerous other marketers have had similar success using popups to build their opt-in lists and drive engagement. Shopify’s Richard Lazazzera does a great job of breaking down the different types of popups and exploring a few impressive success stories in this post.

Of course, like anything in marketing, those success stories can be easily counterbalanced against many others that tell a much less flattering story about popups. These stories warn of decreased engagement (here’s a good breakdown from Unbounce), slower page load times, and a generally worse experience (according to one survey, 70% of US users say they’re annoyed by popup ads). Copyblogger does an excellent job of exploring the UX risk. So, what gives?Are popups the greatest new tool in the modern marketer’s toolkit? Or are they the wolf in sheep’s clothing—a false prophet not to be trifled with?

As with most things in marketing, the answer isn’t simple.

While popups can be excellent tools for capturing email addresses, building lists, and engaging customers, they can also be user experience killers. The latter is particularly true when marketers fall into the trap of assuming that if some is good, more must be better. This almost always leads to every page on a website being peppered with every type of popup imaginable.

There are several big problems with that approach. Qualitatively, it produces a heinous web experience that’s akin to a sales rep chasing you around a store, dangling a clipboard in front of your face, and begging you to sign up for their email newsletter. Quantitatively, it’s been proven to hurt several key engagement metrics, including number of pages visited and average visit duration (one brief experiment saw both decrease by about 10%).How to Use Popups without Destroying User ExperienceGiven the fine line between using popups effectively and driving your customers insane, does this mean popups should be avoided completely? Not exactly.

Just as the very best content, email, and social media marketers continue to see great results from those channels, there’s no reason your business can’t see positive results from popups — even if some other brands are giving them a bad name. For that to happen, however, you need to be methodical and purposeful — using the right type of popup in the right situation, and only when certain behavioral triggers have been activated.

To help you stay within those boundaries, here are some good best practices to keep in mind:

1. Be patient
The general rule of thumb with email capture popups is that you should wait at least 15 seconds or until the visitor has explored multiple pages. The argument behind this is simple: Customers and website visitors need time to understand who you are and why your brand is valuable. When you give them that time, two things are more likely to happen:

  1. The right types of people — people who align with your brand and are more likely to engage with it — will self-qualify and opt-in.
  2. The email addresses you capture will be higher quality, which will only serve to improve the results of your other marketing efforts.

While this approach might lead to fewer contacts, it’s a tradeoff worth making if it ensures your website’s experience remains clean and unobtrusive.

2. Segment messaging and popup types by specific behavior

Of course, there will be times where the basic time-based parameters above don’t apply. For instance, if someone is about to bounce from a page, you might use an exit intent popup to interrupt their decision with a compelling offer (discounts are always popular). Similarly, if a user has visited your site multiple times and never converted, you might consider greeting them with a popup that welcomes them back with a custom offer.

Here’s one example of an effective exit intent pop-up from Artifact Uprising:

popups (1)It’s laid out well, plus they offer an incentive – the possibility of winning $500 – without promising the usual discount. Not only does it help their offer stand out a bit, it also keeps average sale price up.

Ultimately, the idea is to avoid blanketing your entire audience with the same generic messages and offers. The more your popups are built around — and triggered by — specific behaviors, the more effective (and less annoying) they’ll be.

3. Be considerate of when (and how) to show popups again
SumoMe published a pretty comprehensive study last year that revolved around the collection of more than 100,000 emails that were captured over a 30-day span. One of the questions the company wanted to answer: How long between visits should you wait to deliver a popup to the same person?

Here’s a chart showing what they found:

popups (2)The similarity in the number of emails collected after a minute versus after a month is somewhat surprising, but it doesn’t mean marketers should suddenly feel free to hit visitors over the head with the same offer every 60 seconds.

Truth is, the right frequency will depend largely on the types of products you sell, the types of offers you’re presenting, and your visitors’ tolerance for popups in general. The only way to get a good grasp of the right approach is to test different timing, refine based on your results, and optimize based on that information. One Guiding Principle to Keep in MindOf course, all of this is only scratching the surface. You’ll inevitably learn even more as you begin to implement these ideas and test some of your own. That said, if you want to take a deeper dive into popup best practices and optimization, here are handful of great guides:

As you read, just keep this one, very simple principle in mind: Think about the experience your customers want to have. Do they want you following them around and badgering them with generic offers? Or do they want the right offer at the right time for the right reason?

If we’re all being honest, it’s always the latter.

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