By Jennifer Shore

I hate pop-ups—and more than likely, you do too. (Also, fun fact: The inventor of pop-up ads in the mid-1990s has publically apologized.)

Pop-up ads are often employed by websites for lead generation by pushing ad content to the forefront of a visitor’s attention. The conventional pop-up, an ad that opens a new window and completely disrupts your browsing experience, was popular a very long time ago (in internet years), with popularity surging in the 1990s and 2000s. With popularity came disdain: The first browser-based pop-up blockers emerged in the early 2000s.

Yet, all these years later, people are still using pop-ups—though we’ve shifted from the excessively annoying new window pop-ups to the generally more acceptable hover ad (aka lightbox ad), which opens in the same site page as the destination content. A lightbox ad opens in the center of the page, obscuring the actual page content. This kind of ad is frequently employed by news and media sites; however, it is finding increased use among corporate websites for marketers who want to highlight content or promotions.

With billions of pop-ups generated every year, the question remains: Do pop-up ads really work?

What Data Do We Have On Pop-Up Ads?

When you do a quick Google search for data on pop-ups, you may find this article on blocking pop-up ads, as well as posts on forums, question sites, and beyond about how to turn off the ads.

It seems like no one really likes pop-ups, and if you’re designing your website primarily for humans, not search engines, user experience should be your first focus when considering ads of any kind.

How do users really feel about pop-up ads?

  • 73% of internet users automatically disapprove of pop-up ads.
  • As of the end of 2018, adblocking software had roughly 200 million daily active users.
  • 45% of adblock users never want to view any advertising and want as many ads as possible removed from websites.
  • And now we need to factor in this: most users don’t even see pop-ups anymore. All major web browsers have built-in pop-up blockers.

Users say they don’t like ads, and advertising spend is notoriously difficult to track and tie to sales. That’s it, right? Pop-ups must be out of the picture. (Not so fast...)

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How Do Users Interact with Pop-Ups?

Here’s where it gets interesting: Despite self-reporting that ads provide a poor user experience—when pop-ups are implemented appropriately—they can be incredibly effective.

I don’t mean pop-up advertising as it was used in the Wild West internet of 2002, but lightbox-style pop-ups that you implement selectively on your own website—here are the facts:

Despite their anti-ad attitude, users often engage with pop-up ads. But pop-up ads still might not be the greatest idea. Copyblogger’s Beth Hayden noted that, despite the efficacy of pop-ups, she actually received hate mail when the site’s pop-up mechanism was implemented.

Also, if you’re thinking about introducing a modal or pop-up on your website, make sure you can hide that pop-up on mobile devices—or you may be facing a Google Penalty. If you’re using HubSpot, this responsive feature is built into the lead flows tool.

How Should Marketers Effectively Use Pop-Up Ads?

First, abandon the technical pop-up and embrace the hover or lightbox style of promotion. It provides a better, more consistent experience and shouldn’t annoy people too much, because it’s not actually opening a new window.

Second, test, test, test, and test some more. If you decide to go from a pop-up free to a pop-up embracing site, you have to be prepared to take a risk.

Whether or not pop-ups are effective will depend on your content and your personas—what works well for one blog or corporate site may not be successful for you. If you don’t have a way to test and measure results, or if you don’t work in an environment where a failed test is an acceptable risk, avoid pop-ups.

Pop-Ups Strategies That Work on Corporate Sites

  • Subscriptions: Dan Zarrella found that implementing a hover-style pop-up doubled subscription rates without increasing the bounce rate.
  • Premium Content: If you’re promoting a new white paper, e-book, or another piece of inbound-friendly premium content, a pop-up may be a successful way to draw attention to it, increase conversions, and boost lead generation.
  • End-of-Page Hover Ads: Sometimes the problem with hover ads is that they load right away when users reach a page, and users close them immediately because they don’t know anything about the site they’ve landed on. Instead of taking this approach, try using a hover ad when visitors are further down a page—like at the end of a blog post.

Always Think Inbound

If you decide to test a form of pop-up or lightbox ads on your site, always do it with inbound best practices in mind.

Be prepared to test for a specific amount of time and evaluate your results after that period before making a permanent decision. Especially when you are interrupting the user experience, be sure you are offering relevant, helpful content. The right kind of pop-ups can improve website conversions, but implementing a marketing strategy that annoys visitors will end your relationship forever.

Tread lightly. Test often. 

Originally written on June 10, 2016. Content was updated January 2020.

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Jennifer Shore

About the author

Jennifer Shore was formerly the Director of Marketing and a Seattle-based writer who has received numerous awards for her work. In her role at SmartBug, she is responsible for the development, execution, and optimization of the high-growth lead funnel, nurturing, and customer acquisition. Read more articles by Jennifer Shore.

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