How to make pop-ups work

Let’s discuss how to make pop-ups work on your website. It’s true that pop-ups have got a lousy name. And rightly so. You’re probably amazed we dare to mention them.

But their reputation has come about because they’re used so badly. That’s like blaming cars because some idiots sink 14 pints then drive the wrong way down the M1. It’s user-error.


What are pop-ups?

Pop-ups are those little windows that appear on your screen when you’re viewing a website. They’re usually in a bottom corner but sometimes they’re slap-bang in the middle of the screen. They’re there to encourage you to buy something or subscribe to something or visit another part of the website. And yes, sometimes they can be a real pain in the posterior.

When people don’t know how to make pop-ups work, they:

  • Are shown too often. Ironically, Marketing Week’s pretty bad at this. Its website constantly batters you with pop-ups to subscribe. Not once a week which might be acceptably intrusive. Practically every time you visit the site.
Ironically, Marketing Week shows its pop-ups too often. Although "too often" is a subjective judgement.

Ironically, Marketing Week shows its pop-ups too often. Although “too often” is a subjective judgement.

  • Are not relevant. You’re looking at a page about dogs and the pop-up asks you to download a guide on how to rebuild a lawn-mower. That’s just going to annoy you. You’re certainly not going to click on it.
  • Are obstructive. They cover the entire page. That’s annoying. Dare we mention Marketing Week again?
  • Are tricky. Some of them can be difficult to get rid of without ‘accepting’ their offer.

Pop-ups are one of the reasons there’s so little trust in the discipline of marketing. Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian, did a wonderful speech on that subject at 2021’s Festival of Marketing.

So, with so much going against them, why are pop-ups still used?

That question reminds me of the years I spent writing for Computer Shopper magazine. Readers often complained about the advert inserts that filled every issue. Why did advertisers bother with them, they asked? Don’t they know everyone held the magazine over the bin and dumped them? Well, they were there for the same reason pop-ups exist: they work. Some people did respond to those adverts. Some people do click on pop-ups.


The 8 golden rules

Our job is to make pop-ups palatable and acceptable so we don’t p*ss off 999 visitors to get 1 customer. How do we do that? Here are the 8 golden rules of how to make pop-ups work:

  1. Wait for the visitor to show interest in a topic. Don’t show a pop-up on the home screen. It’s just intrusive. Use your home page content and menus to guide new visitors to topics.
  2. Once the visitor has shown interest in a topic, make sure the pop-up you show is relevant to that topic. If you visit three of our pages about brand marketing you’ll see our pop-up about it. But if you don’t, you won’t. You’ve got a far better chance of a click if you keep your pop-up relevant.
  3. Don’t show your pop-up as soon as the page opens. Wait for a delay or wait for the visitor to scroll down the page a bit. Why? Two reasons:
    1. It gives the visitor a chance to read the page they chose to visit. You’re not blocking their chosen route.
    2. It helps avoid Google penalties. Google assesses a page’s performance as it loads. Pop-ups can dent performance – especially since Google started its latest regime called Core Web Vitals – so why not delay the pop-up until after Google has assessed the page speed?
  4. Make your pop-up unobtrusive and small. Don’t take over the entire page. Nor even the centre of the page. That’s intrusive. It’s possible you’d get more clicks with big pop-ups but it’s definite that you’ll annoy every visitor.
  5. Don’t use overlays. Overlays are the areas of shading that cover the entire screen apart from the pop-up. Can we mention Marketing Week again? It makes the pop-up more visible but… Google is going to hammer you if it finds you using them.
  6. If a visitor dismisses your pop-up, listen to what they’ve said. Don’t throw it back in their face a few minutes later. A dismissal doesn’t mean you can never show it again, just leave a good breather.
  7. If you know a visitor has already downloaded a document or signed-up for an email series, don’t ask them if they want that download or series. We all know how unpopular remarketing is because it always tries to sell you the thing you just bought on Amazon. Don’t fall into that trap with your pop-ups. It means, of course, that you need a system in the background that knows what people have downloaded and signed-up for. That’s where marketing automation comes into play.
  8. Lastly, don’t scare people. We were on Zoom’s site recently. We only wanted to know how much the webinar version of their software was. To find the pricing, we had to press the Buy button. That made us nervous.
    You get more button presses if you make the process less risky. That’s why our button says “Maybe – tell me more” not “Sign me up”. You can’t tell people what they need to know in a pop-up. You may need a page. Make people realise there’s no penalty for pressing that button and going to that page.