Pop-up Windows Still Suck

Pop-up Window

In 2004, Jakob Nielsen — the foremost expert on Web usability — wrote:

“Users not only dislike pop-ups, they transfer their dislike to the advertisers behind the ad and to the website that exposed them to it. In a survey of 18,808 users, more than 50% reported that a pop-up ad affected their opinion of the advertiser very negatively and nearly 40% reported that it affected their opinion of the website very negatively.”

I thought this what a settled issue in Web design, but apparently I was mistaken. Virtually every commercial blog or news site I visit these days uses trigger coding to spawn pop-up e-mail subscription windows upon either scrolling or exiting a page. It’s more than maddening, because it interrupts and frustrates my ability to seamlessly navigate pages in mobile environments.

Like so many core usability principles, Nielsen’s sage advice and corresponding research have gone the way of the dial-up modem, but user feelings toward pop-ups (now renamed “modal windows”) have remained the same: they still suck. Even more, using them to force e-mail subscriptions is a horrible way to begin a relationship with your customers.

Debunking an “Expert”

Nevertheless, I still encounter articles, like this post from Social Media Examiner’s Ian Cleary, advising unknowing site owners to readily, yet cautiously, use pop-up window plugins to grow e-mail subscriptions.

“Pop-up boxes that appear when readers are browsing a website can get you more email subscriptions when they are used correctly,” said the author. “But they can also annoy users, so they need to be handled with care and tweaked for your audience.

Riddle Me this Ian: How does one “tweak” a pop-up window to overcome the immediate anger engendered by their presence? What could a publisher possibly offer me in pop-up space (save the immediate transfer of $20 to my bank account for the offense) to get me to chill out and subscribe to their e-mail list?

Answer: Nothing. There is no “correct” use of any marketing or design tactic whose sole goal is to ambush the end user into subscribing to your e-mail list. Unintended or not, it also reflects poorly on your business ethics, leaving visitors wondering what else you might do in the future to dupe them into something. Will you really honor your promo codes? Is it really “Buy 1 Get 1 Free” or is there a catch? You put those doubts in their mind with one pop-up.

Solution: Instead of forcing visitors into subscribing to your list to escape a pop-up window, a better approach would be to ditch them all together and adopt less intrusive techniques that creatively demonstrates, both on site and in social media, that your content and services are valuable and worthy of a new subscription.

The Last Word …

The more the things change the more they stay the same. Pop-up windows were a bad advertising tactic in 2004 and, while they’re fancier and easier to implement, nothing has changed 14 years later.

They still suck.

Pat McKenna is a digital strategist, social media manager/instructor, web designer and founder of MojoWeb Productions, LLC. in Milwaukee, WI. He can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 732-3397. Keep up to date on Pat's latest scribblings by subscribing to StrategicMojo, the monthly e-newsletter no SMB can be without!