pop-up advertising

Few marketing tactics are as hated as the pop-ad ad. A Harris Interactive poll last year showed that Americans find irrelevant pop-up ads even more annoying than ads for male or female enhancement.

Yet marketers continue to use them, aggressively (MacKeeper is a personal pet peeve). Pop-up ads are 49% more noticeable than other online ads types. I’ve heard marketers tout the high conversion rates from pop-up ads. It’s hard to argue with the numbers.

However, I wonder if marketers are really factoring in the long-term costs of annoying their audience when they base decisions on short-term conversion factors alone.

The pop-up mentality extends beyond online ads to marketing in general. The numbers can lead marketers to focus on interruption gimmicks rather than building long-term relationships with their audiences.

There’s an arms race underway for attention span. Marketers continually find new ways to interrupt people’s attention and consumers continually try to block or ignore them. There’s not nearly enough emphasis on creating a reason to actually hold someone’s attention.

I like Dharmesh Shah’s synopsis, from Hubspot:

“Humans dislike interruption. People hate ads–especially pop-ups–when they’re trying to do something else. It’s an irritating experience, and irritated people won’t buy from you.”

Or as Copyblogger put it, “There is no question that pop-ups “work” — but to what end?”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the marketing line between annoying and effective.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

  1. Stephen Macklin says

    I don’t know if Mac Keeper is any good at what it claims to do, and I’m not even sure what it claims to do. I dismiss them without looking every time the interrupt. They have succeeded in annoying me to the point where if they had the best software for whatever it is they do, and were going to pay me to use it, I would say no.

    I can say with absolute certainty that I have never made a purchase or visited a site off a pop-up. The only action I take is to dismiss it immediately – usually without even looking at it’s content.

  2. Navin Kulkarni says

    Pop-ups are awesome!
    You just have to know how to use them intelligently.

    They have got their bad name because they are used out of desperation without understanding users/visitors mindset. Its like flashing banners on their faces without caring or having any idea what they are up to (actually, its mean and rude both). Those are some nasty pop-ups which go straight to hell!

    But you can create with love, a good new breed of popups that can understand and interact with visitors in a better way. How? Here are some examples.
    – Understand visitor activity on your site.
    – Get a feel of how interested the visitor is on your site.
    – Sense whether he is confused and needs help.
    – Detect whether he is going to leave your site.
    And its no rocket science to do that, you can get hold of the above aspects by simple mouse movement tracking and systematically noting page/scrolls for a session. Result? You can show popups only to those who are more likely to act on it! No annoying business here, pop-ups now boost interaction.

    – A ‘do you need help?’ Popup that asks the visitor who has been lingering on your site for 10minutes.
    – ‘There is a discount on adding one more item’ popup for the visitor who has added 2 products to cart.
    – ‘You might like this’ popup for user who is not able to make right choice. You get to know what he wants by studying his page views and scroll depth.
    – ‘Want us to call you?’ popup for visitor who seems to be interested but has not gone to the contact page.
    – ‘Have you seen our sale section?’ popup for the visitor who is going to leave your site.

    Popups create a new, much needed and pricey real estate on the website. It works best if done with some intelligence applied. I am sure even Tom can substantially increase his mailing list subscribers by effectively using one!

  3. Chris Marr says

    Hi Tom,

    I agree, pop-up ads are very frustrating and the majority of us are now blind to them. Depending on who you speak to, you’ll get varying opinions on the performance of them.

    One thing I learned early on about any kind of digital marketing is PAR – Personal, Anticipated and Relevant (Seth Godin).

    I spend a lot of time on other people’s blogs. I subscribe, download, comment, share, etc. For me, when the pop up ad is relevant, timed correctly, with something on offer that builds on the experience and adds value, then I feel that it works very well. However, this is not the norm.

    I completely believe in the Inbound Marketing philosophy and the quote from Dharmesh encapsulates my opinion on pop-up ads.

    Thanks for another thought provoking marketing debate!

    Kindest regards,


  4. Martin Steiger says

    I am wondering if pop-up advertising really still works. As far as I remember, I have always only ‘clicked’ on pop-up ads by mistake, especially in apps … so pop-up ads might not even be successful in the short term.

  5. Tony Mariani says

    The only times I have clicked on a pop up was accidently in trying to close them. Only irritates me more and your product is dead to me.

  6. Michael Boamah says

    I think you miss the point here Tom.
    No marketer does pop-ups ads out of pleasure. For them it is just a means to an end.
    Are pop-up ads effective and cost-efficient to drive our objectives (sales, clicks, awareness whatever) ? Yes.
    I am sure marketers also hate banners and such but since it works they will keep on doing it.

    I am sure that if everyone stopped clicking on these ads, you would see them disappear in a blink.
    This is just how it works.

  7. Darius Kemp says

    First, most of the data that I’ve seen on the ROI of this tactic is that it is not as effective as other mediums, even in the digital space. My hypothesis is that, as in any other mediums, the product has to at least be relevant in order to drive engagement.

    I believe that we are beginning to see a tipping point in the digital environment where it is getting to be more like traditional mediums. I believe that just like we can zip right through commercials on our televisions, we can completely ignore these popup ads (with significantly less effort).

    In order to be effective, successful marketers will need to treat the online environment as a critical element of their brand-building arsenal and determine if annoying 95% of their potential buyers is worth the 5% of the people that actually click.

  8. Bill Carlson says

    On a related note, very very tired of the intrusion of pop-up banners ads running at the bottom of my TV screen while watching a show (and for that matter, the ghosted channel i.d. in the corner). I am thinking about offering to pay an extra $5/month to have my cable supplier block those… Wait! I already pay to have that video delivered, perhaps I should ask them to simply deliver the product I am purchasing! :)

  9. DSprogis says

    Clicking on an unknown pop-up can infect your computer. There is no way to know for certain whether the pop-up is innocent or not – so why take a chance?

    As a rule, I click on nothing that pops up unexpectedly and I will kill the browser or application that throws a pop-up at me just to be sure that no virus can get a foothold.

  10. Steve says

    Let’s go one step further – what about how the ad space is actually sold/used?

    Example: Consumer X is searching for some new gear on a sporting-goods store’s website. What would that consumer think about the current (sporting) website if an ad for a completely irrelevant site (say male enhancement or MacKeeper) ‘pops-up’? I’d suggest that they’d not be too pleased…immediate click it closed and over time, the more their annoyed with pop-ups, the less likely they’d be to return to that site. They’ll go find their sporting goods (or news, or photos, or insert whatever you’d like) somewhere else.

    I’d argue, that the domain owners’ marketers should be as diligent in their evaluation of selling adspace as they are in using it elsewhere. What they allow on their sites may impact their brand positively or negatively as much as if the pop-up ad was its own.

    Then the question becomes is allowing pop-ups on my site, which may annoy 95% of my audience, worth the 5% that click-thru and get me paid for that space (but at the risk of losing the others)?

  11. Paul (from Idea Sandbox) says

    This falls into the category of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

    There are three types of pop-ups.
    1) The old school “new window” pop-up.
    2) The block the content until I opt-in, view your ad, or dismiss.
    3) The small “how may I help” you pop-up (that Navin is talking about).

    The first two force you into behavior. The third is designed to help.

    Marketers and owners need to understand how their marketing behaviors influence the way we feel about their brand. Does the hobo holding a “mattress sale” sign on a stick make you feel that that mattress place is quality?

    And, monetizing my visit to your site by forcing me to see an ad before I get to your content is NOT causing me to buy that product.

    Part of the problem with affiliate advertising is that brands are willing to pay people like me to put their ad on my site. They don’t care if my readers are potential customers… they just want to feel like they’re being seen.

    So… you force me to start watching an ad, I dismiss it the second I’m able… My perception about the advertiser declines, my perception about the webmaster declines.

  12. Robin Z says

    Don’t forget the “helpful” pop ups that slide across the screen asking you to evaluate the site or chat with a rep 2 seconds after you have landed, before you have had a chance to find/not find what you came for or even clicked on a menu item or link It is the equivalent of being harangued by a salesperson the second you walk into a shop: “Can I help you? What are you looking for? How can I help you?”. And sadly these are often large-scale, reputable sites for major retailers and publishers. Your site should be in service to my visit. My visit should not be in service to your user metrics report.

  13. David says

    Tom – I’d encourage you to check further into the link you provided on the “numbers” on the effectiveness of pop-up ads.

    The analysis he provided only showed a temporary correlation – and didn’t factor in the “noise” that is always present in click-through or opt-in rates. More relevant metrics would probably show a different trend

    I’d love to see an experiment that tests the points made above – measuring pop-up ads effectiveness for those that try to drive behaviour than those that try to help consumers solve a problem would be a great way to really measure the engagement of good pop-ups vs junk pop-ups. Consumer will really benefit when marketers stop being lazy and instead get the point of social online interactions.

  14. Chris says

    My first job in London was to ‘design’ this kind of thing, I wasnt there long. I’ve mentioned this before on here & it still confuses me: The advertising world cares about CTR, graphs & %. It was actively discouraged to talk about if a high CTA lead to more sales of the product or service being advertised. People find these things frustrating because they are not created to be of any use to them, I’m sure many people click these interruptions to make them go away. (Interestingly there are no graphs to workout if thats the case).

    Company X has the last part of a big budget that needs spending. They buy banners & pop ups to spend it quickly. In return they get graphs with big spikes on to show their bosses & the advertising guys get the cash. Its about pleasing the next business in the chain rather than building relationships or selling products or pleasing people. So someones frustration of the end result has no baring on the system because they are not important.

  15. #ThinkLikeMike says

    As a web developer who also sells advertising, the balance for ad banners these days is to use jQuery to pop-up modal transparent windows in front of the user after a minute or two, NOT IMMEDIATELY when the page finishes loading! Give the reader a minute to read the content they are interested in before blasting an ad in front of them. Sites that have ads with “Skip this ad” links in their windows will always be skipped because the reader wants to get to the content. Think of it like TV shows, you get the teaser, then a commercial or two, then the show starts. People are used to that experience and won’t be upset so much at you because you didn’t blast them with an ad right away.

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