The use of pop-ups on websites is a topic that has received a lot of attention recently. The Internet marketing crowd seems to just love these annoying gimmicks, salivating as they do over every increase in e-mail subscriptions or click-throughs for various promotions. Not everyone loves these pop-up advertisements or subscription requests though. In fact, some users are quite put out and may even leave the offending site in a hurry. Further, some users with small screens (like mobile devices) report cases where pop-ups cover their screen making it impossible to browse the site or close the pop-up window. How to win subscribers and influence readers…
First things first
“The real problem with popups is that they indicate a much more fundamental problem: the blogger/website doesn’t understand the basic idea of putting the reader first” argues Leo Babauta during a recent conversation about pop-ups. I could not agree more. Pop-ups and similar devices are annoying to the reader, interfere with the reader’s experience, and distract the reader from engaging with the content in any meaningful way. Adding pop-ups to a website ignores the reader while placing the Internet marketer’s agenda ahead of the reader’s agenda. This is not the way to impress readers in a virtual world where the reader is only one mouse click or keyboard stroke away from leaving your site forever.
Leo Babauta also makes a second, very important point concerning pop-ups: “Most people who are irritated by popups don’t complain. They close the window with your site in it and don’t come back.” Once again, I have to agree with Leo. I have only e-mailed a webmaster once to tell them how irritated I was by their expanding gizmos that were supposed to draw attention, but instead distracted me from reading. Every other time I simply closed the pop-up window without reading what was being “sold” in the pop-up, and I frequently hit the back button in quick order. I will occasionally read something after killing a pop-up, but more often I just leave the site. At that point the website publisher has abused my trust and left me feeling violated. The trust is destroyed before it can even be established.
The subscription dance
Subscribing by e-mail is a more personal connection than subscribing in a feed reader. This is a point that too many Internet marketers seem to miss. Asking someone to subscribe by e-mail requires a different level of trust than asking someone to subscribe in a feed reader.
I subscribe to a handful of sites in a feed reader. Increasingly though I prefer to “Like” an associated Facebook page or to subscribe to a site by e-mail. I would rather subscribe to every site that I wish to follow by e-mail or Facebook. Feed readers are just one more thing to check each day.
I do not subscribe to just any site though. I am selective about which sites to follow because there are just too many sites on the Internet to not be selective. Occasionally I will discover a new site and read everything on the site right away. This may encourage me to subscribe. More commonly I will visit a site several times, typically by placing a bookmark on my bookmarks toolbar, before deciding whether the content is consistently engaging enough to justify subscribing.
Usually one of two situations motivate my decision to subscribe to a site by e-mail:
- I have been reading the site long enough and consistently enough that I don’t want to miss anything. I know by this point that the site is going to consistently deliver information that I do not want to miss. At this point I have developed some trust in the site owner/publisher and am willing to share my information.
- I may subscribe to a site that I have been reading if the writer “gently” and respectfully suggests subscribing at the end of the article. This approach is unobtrusive and still respects me as a reader. In fact, I am far more likely to subscribe to a site after reading an article that I enjoyed than when first landing on a site.
Ultimately, top-notch content that is consistently delivered will always make me want to subscribe – but only after I have developed some trust with the writer/site owner. Pop-ups violate that trust relationship before it is even started. Pop-ups cause me to kill the pop-up and hit the backspace key in rapid succession.
Quality over quantity
Another issue that I have yet to hear an Internet marketer discuss while proclaiming the gospel of pop-ups is that of quality. Readers who are sufficiently interested in a site’s content to voluntarily subscribe by e-mail are likely to be a higher quality of reader than those who are tricked or coerced by gimmickry. I’m not sure how this could be effectively and accurately measured, but it would be interesting to compare the retention and response rates of readers who subscribed only because of annoying pop-ups versus readers who subscribed because they were sufficiently interested to use the sign-up form in a sidebar. I would wager that pop-up subscribers are “lower quality” subscribers who unsubscribe at higher rates and respond at lower rates than their counterparts.
Snake oil sales
Finally, trust is everything in a relationship – whether virtual or personal. Why should any reader trust a blogger or Internet publisher whose site they have only just discovered? Trust takes time to earn and establish. Trust is not established the first time a reader visits a site following a search engine link. In fact, I would argue that many (if not most) readers enter a site from a search engine link with a certain degree of suspicion.
Internet marketers who hit readers with an e-mail subscription pop-up or advertisement before trust is established are little better than spammers who fill e-mail in-boxes with promises of health, wealth and prosperity. Internet marketers who use pop-ups to solicit e-mail subscriptions communicate an image not unlike the proverbial snake oil salesman of yesteryear. “Buy my product, subscribe to my e-mail list, make me wealthy while I make you healthy, wealthy and wise in the ways of making money online,” they cry from their virtual soapbox.
Popping the pop-up bubble
Pop-ups may increase e-mail subscriptions or sales over the near term. Many Internet marketers swear that this is true. Snake oil salesmen of a bygone era also increased their sales by annoying anyone within earshot with hollow promises. Snake oil salesmen, like so many modern multi-level marketers, must also constantly find a new supply of customers because they have ticked off their last customers with questionable business practices.
Web content is ultimately about the reader. Any technique, widget, or gizmo that irritates, annoys or disenfranchises readers from doing what they came to the site to do is counterproductive. Internet publishers annoy their readers at their own peril.
Websites that consistently deliver outstanding content, treat readers like friends, and exhibit respect toward their readers will thrive over the long term. Readers who subscribe by e-mail because they have danced the subscription dance and trust the site owner or publisher will be quality readers who value the relationship.
Internet publishers all too easily forget that the Internet is still quite new. Technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace presenting opportunities that may or may not be wise to adopt. Sites that respect their readers will be positioned to still be successful in the years to come. Sites that try to make a quick buck (or subscription) off their readers with questionable marketing practices will fail as their supply of new readers begins to evaporate.
Should you use pop-ups on your website for a promotion or to encourage e-mail subscriptions? Internet marketers argue that these gimmicks increase e-mail subscription rates. Readers often have quite a different perspective. Perhaps the question is really whether you value and respect your readers.
- The Ultimate Guide to Pop-Ups (Barrie Davenport and Mary Jaksch at A-List Blog Marketing)
- The Quiet Theory of Influence (Leo Babauta at Zen Habits)