In Defense Of The Popup


It’s a well known that most people do not buy from you on their first visit. In fact, a study from Episerver showed that “92% of consumers visit a brand’s website for the first time to do something other than make a purchase.

While there are many factors that go into getting consumers ultimately purchase, popups can be quite effective at getting your visitors to buy but are quite controversial.

Whether you personally love it or hate it, the truth is, sticking a big ole pop-up in their face can be one of the most effective ways to jolt their attention & grab their email for a return visit.


It’s related to a persuasion technique known as the “pattern interrupt,” which is basically when something unexpected happens after the brain has become lulled into a rhythm. You’ll experience this frequently in negotiations, while watching movies & when watching comedians.

In the context of email & content marketing though, it’s particularly effective when the “interruption” proposes to solve the problem that the the reader has been tuned into, or programmed to expect given the nature of the service.

For example, our friends at Made.com offer a free £10 voucher in exchange for your email, because they know 1) everyone likes free money & 2) £10 is a small price to pay to have continuous contact through email. 


In fact, according to ExactTarget’s data “Email” is far and away the preferred permission-based marketing channel by consumers. A staggering 77% of consumers prefer e-mail over other channels.

So maybe pop-ups might not be a bad choice after all?

NO, NO… popups suck, everyone hates them & they don’t work… right?

Don’t you just hate when you land on page and the first thing that happens looks something like this:

social triggers, automatic pop-up right off the bat

Or this:

(Image source)

You may or may not know what’s on the site but are already bombarded with these popups. Definitely not a good first impression.

Ideally, I would want a few minutes to see what you’re all about before being forced to get my “FREE Traffic Generation Guide”, “FREE EBOOK” or hop on your newsletter.

Personally I hate when that happens, and the arrogant language like “NO I have enough traffic” and “NO THANKS i’ll stick to my gut on how to grow on my subscriber base” is not helping anyone either.

My personal preference aside, Exit Intel’s Matt Cimino disagrees:

Almost across the board, asking if they want it in a “Yes/No” fashion is almost always going to win.

It’s not about being snarky. We’ve tested “No, I don’t want to save money,” but the value is getting someone to accept or decline, not to feel unintelligent for not taking the offer.

Of course, there are exceptions. Here are the results of a pure “no thanks” test. The only difference in the creative was the copy.

Email Capture – No Thanks CopyUnique ImpressionsEmail CapturesCapture Rate
No Thanks, I prefer to pay full price for my clothing.165,4169,9286.00%
I am not interested.165,6257,9614.81%
No Thank You.165,0217,6164.62%
No Thanks!166,0727,4334.48%

We’re looking at a lift as high as 34%. Variations all ran simultaneously to the same cohort of traffic, and for the same date range, at 25%/variation.

So… since this is an CRO blog, so let’s be a bit more scientific with this whole popup thing. Haters gonna hate, but numbers might have a different story to tell.

Let’s go ahead and see results in the wild of people who are using popups in various disguises and exactly the results they are seeing.

WPBeginners experience with using popups

WP Beginner is a beginner’s guide to WP and on a normal day they would get 70-80 new subscribers from their different lead generation efforts from around the site.

Still, as is the case with most other online business, the more subscribers you have the more successful you will  become. So they tried different lead-gen plugins until they found one that made a significant change to their bottom line.

So what did they do?

Using OptinMonster they designed a popup with exit-intent—which means that the popup only displays when you are about to leave the site. It uses mouse tracking and other variables to figure out when you’re about to leave and then BAM, displays the oversized popup like this:

wpbeginner, exit intent

What were the results?

Using exit-intent popups on only single posts and not site-wide on every page they saw an increase of sign-ups by 600%. They went from typically 70-80 daily new subscribers to 445 – 470 new subs per day.

And they are not alone in this. Brian from Backlinko had an SEO training and link building blog that was getting a sizable amount of traffic The only problem was that conversion read for email sign-ups had dropped to an all time low of 1.73% .

So he messaged a friend who he knew could probably help him— Noah Kagan, and help he did indeed! He suggested using List Builder app in SumoMe— essentially a hybrid of different popup plugins that includes exit-intent technology.


Remember how the conversion rate was hovering around 1.7% before using List Builder?

This is what the stats looked like after running for just 2 full days:


Over just 2 days, conversion rate went from under 2% to an average 4.83%.

In a world where we’re seeing case-study after case-study of 100% lift, 200% lift, 1300% lift a measly 3% doesn’t even seem something that should be mentioned really.

Let’s dig a little deeper and see what that 3% really means for Brian Dean & Backlinko.

3% Increase, Pffft… So what?

First off, Brian understands that by having his own email list, he has direct access to his customer base. With direct access he’s able to create content that serves his readers, & occasionally pitch a product or a service here and there.

That last bit is crucial, the occasional pitch helps makes his average list subscriber worth $15.

So a little math tells us that by adding 15-ish more subs every single day thanks to popups they are making $225 every single day which otherwise would be lost.

Stretched out over a year that makes $82,125 more. Not bad for something that took 2 minutes to set-up…

Popups impact bounce rate and overall user experience…Right?

One of my first thoughts when it comes to popups used to be that surely they will increase bounce rate—more people will simply close the window and move simply because of the popup.

What the guys over at WPBeginner discovered though, was that their bounce rate stayed the same with or without the exit-intent stuff. So no change, interesting. Same story with Brian from Backlinko—no change in bounce rate.

In fact, Dan Zarrella came to the exact same conclusion running tests with or without popups on his own personal page:

The only thing that really changes was that he got around 50% less subscribers thanks to not running any popups.

And when it comes to user experience…

…. Visitors don’t seem to really care about it at all. “We had absolutely zero user complaints” said the team from WPBeginner.

Businessportraits Brian

“NO ONE cared about the nano-second interruption. I’ve had the form on my site for almost a month now and no one has said a word about it.” added Brian from Backlinko.

And when you think about it, it actually makes sense. Yes, it is  frustrating to see something like this when I click through from Facebook to Mashable.com:

mashable popup

If I’m really smart I can actually use popups to enhance UX like Vero does. When you stay for longer than 30 seconds on their landing page and don’t take action a popup in the right corner of your browser window will appear asking “What is the main thing preventing you from signing up to Vero at this point?”

Popups can even be used to give the user an even deeper experience than they could have on their own. In this study, Garret Moon of Todaymade.com talks about how he created even more in-depth material for the high traffic/high bounce pages on his site.


Having this in place allowed Garret to have even more alignment with the user’s intent & resulted in him doubling the conversion rates.

Imagining this from the user’s perspective, this would actually be a pleasant experience, because this guide could very easily say “your search for this information is over.” especially if the quality of other information out there is lacking.

How to ruin your UX with popups

Still, you can’t just put any old popup over a page and think it will convert. When you don’t make the popup clearly visibly from the rest of the page, it will ruin the user experience:

I was about to leave their site and BAM! Can anyone tell me what just happened? It looks like their devs properly messed up their site—a CTA button in the middle of the page. What’s going on here?

Aaa, it’s actually a popup overlayed on a page that is not dimmed out. Not good.

Funny thing about EverGage is that that popup appeared on an article that is talking about making popups clearly visible. Funny people those EverGage guys…

When you don’t make the popup clearly visibly from the rest of the page, it will ruin the user experience—as simple as that.

I Was Wrong, And It’s Ok

It turns out, I was wrong about popups. As annoying as they sometimes can be, they turn out to be damn effective. There’s no denying that if something makes you more successful and brings in more money with little to no negative effects you probably should be using it.

How to make popups work for you

Before we go into the inner workings of popups, let’s first see what are the different types of popups one can run.

In general there are two bigger groups of them:

  • Big overlays
  • User scrolling triggered popups

Big overlays

These look like the above one—they take over the whole screen, dimming the background and making the popup the only clearly visible element on the page.

The trend has been to use as big as possible popups and they are the ones that you see most often. Still, Dan Zarrella uses one that dims the background but is not as big as one might expect:

User scrolling triggered popups

User scrolling triggered popups are the ones you see on blogs most often. They show up when the user has scrolled down on the page to a certain extent. They’re ridiculously effective.

Thinking behind that is that the user has had the opportunity to see the quality of your work and then it appears on the left hand side.

We use them on CXL. About half the subscribers join our list this way.


When you have gone through about half the article it will appear like this:

Depending on the software and/or plugin you’re using to display it, it’s possible to experiment with the scroll depth – e.g. how far or long the user must reach for it to appear.

Another way for triggering popups is by time on site. But instead of triggering on some random, arbitrary time interval, check your average time on site for “non-bounce” traffic, and trigger the popup at the “sweet spot” in the data.

Engagement Google Analytics

For us, this would be be somewhere right around the 6o second mark.

This is where most people make the decision whether or not they’ll leave or stay, so by triggering the popup right at the moment of truth, where people are either engaged or disinterested, we can capture the attention of those who might want to build a relationship with us, and not even bother with those who wouldn’t sign up anyways.

What should the button copy say?

Data from AppSumo (makers of SumoMe) and eConsultancy show that benefit driven headlines and button copy do the best in terms of getting people to take action on your popups:

Everything we wrote in the Mastering The CTA article applies here since, well, all an popup really is an CTA to get more leads/subscribers/customers. So do yourself a favour and read that one before you go into testing your own popups.

Is there A best time to display popups?

In this section will cover mainly timings for big ass overlays as they have more options and possibilities to play with the timing. With user scrolling triggered popups it’s pretty straight forward – you simply choose the time and that’s that.


When it comes to testing timing of big ass overlays— data from SumoMe shows that with their users find that the best time by far is 5 seconds. Meaning the overlay appears after visitors have been in the site for 5 seconds.

When WhichTestWon started experimenting with overlays they tested showing it 15, 30 and 45 seconds after the visitor had landed. In their testing the winner was 15 seconds which beat 30 seconds by 11% which beat 45 seconds by 50%.

And if they would had tested showing it even earlier they would have seen ever better results – right???

No “Best” Time For Popups. Test It, Stupid

As with pretty much EVERYTHING in CRO – there is no substitute for testing it out on your product/service on your visitors.

Unbounce says that best time is 60 seconds so I should use the same? No.

Mashable shows popups right away when I click through from Facebook but not when I land from other sources so I should do the same? Wrong again.

Their data might work for you, it most likely will not. Test it.

And while we are on the subject of testing, one obvious thing to test to start off is if the damn popups even work for you or not.

Dan Zarrella did that and found that not running the overlay cost him half of his email subscriptions:

How many times A day/month should I show popups?

Everything I said about when to display popups also applies to the how many times question.

Data from SumoMe might tell you that there is no significant difference between showing it all the time and showing it once per month. But in reality, it again depends on too many variables to say for certain.

At best those “best times” for anything are a good starting point for running your own tests.


Almost The End—Software Options For Running Your On Popups

So far we have covered everything from types of popups that exist down to timing after visitors land and how many times to show it during a session.

So now, finally, let’s list sumo of the most notable providers of software that make it all possible.

When it comes to free options SumoMe is great.

On the paid side you have a bit more choice:


Pop-ups can work, very well. For us at CXL they account for 30% more subscribers each month. That’s ridiculously huge amount of additional subscribers every 30 days. Open rates, CTR rates are the same for people who joined through a static form design.

Another interesting tidbit—the more email capture mechanisms, the better. We already had static forms and scroll triggered boxes. When we added popups to the mix, we got +30%. It’s insane, I know.

Do they work on every site? Of course not. Do your own testing.

Related Posts

Join the conversation Add your comment

  1. Hey Ott Niggulis,

    There’s another alternative I’d like to suggest: holdonstranger.com
    We’re in beta right now, but we’re just about to launch.

    We’ve got our own data that seems to go right in line with the data you shared here. I’ll definitely share this article with our current subscribers.

    Great article!

    1. Let me know when you guys launch, we might just add you to the list ;)

  2. Crazy question… I’ve noticed you guys publish duplicate stories with different headlines in different locations(e.g, this story https://cxl.com/popup-defense/?hvid=2wHc7q and https://cxl.com/popup-defense/?hvid=2EcGFw#.) but they all rel=canonical to themselves, not a centralized URL story (I’m assuming that would be https://cxl.com/popup-defense/ ?) for it. Obviously the A/B testing is valuable, but how to do not lost search engine ranking for duplicate content? This is something we’d love to do, but my understanding is that without the rel=canonical being set to a master story, it would hurt the search ranking for our site/article.

    Thanks for any info!


    1. Portrait of Tommy Walker

      Urm… thanks for pointing that out Alden… something I need to fix manually O_0

    2. That is from plugin KingSumo.com headlines which optimizes your blog title headlines.

      We block Google search bots to not appear as we are gaming their system.

      It defaults to the original url and title when Google sees it.

      If you have any suggestions, feel free to email me: kingsumo [at ] appsumo [dotzzz] com

  3. Good post mate found it through your email

    1. Good to hear you found value in it!

  4. Thanks a lot for mentioning WPBeginner. Yes the exit-popups work like magic :)

    1. No problem. And thank You for sharing the case-study in the first place :D

  5. Hello Ott Niggulis,

    The problem with popups initially is that a lot of the solutions out there only allows you to create and deploy a popup solution without gathering feedback from your users. Example, we had a customer that surveyed their customers and found out that their pain points from finishing their checkout was their shipping cost. With this info, they designed a popup catering to offering shipping savings. Their conversion rates skyrocketed. Our solution allows you to discover your customers pain points by surveying them. With this data, you can create laser targeted relevant popups. Add CartRescuer.com to your list if you find it helpful. Thanks.

  6. Thanks, nice article. I usually close pop-ups right away. I don’t like them but don’t really hate them either. Two exceptions though:

    1) Some pop-ups have a delayed close button. So you can’t close them right away, but if I want to close and not subscribe then I am not going to change my mind in those 1-2 seconds before I can close. I am actually more inclined to leave the site if I can’t read whatever it is the pop-up covers up. I’d like to see some statistics to see what that delayed close button does to subscribe and bounce rate.

    2) I am subscribed to many lists and usually when I receive an email of that list and click through to the website I get that annoying pop-up again asking me to subscribe. That doesn’t make sense to me. If I visit your website from an email you sent of your mailing list there must be away to suppress that popup.

    1. We would LOVE to see some data on the delayed close button and it’s effect – would be an interesting read.

  7. add some simple logic please

    if I came to your site from a link you sent by email don’t pop on me I’m already subscribed… oh but maybe I shared the email to someone? ? good question, try finding a good answer but meanwhile it’s nerve wracking


  8. Love the post. It’s great to hear people excited about an effective marketing strategy that’s traditionally had a black mark on it.

    What I’ve found to be key with popups/overlays is focusing on ensuring you are brining value to users. Popups that 1) provide an incentive and/or 2) offer users valuable content seem to be the most effective at getting results.

    We (Rooster Exit Overlays) recently saw fantastic numbers with one of our clients that sells stoves online. Using an opt-in overlay / email campaign with information on the stove installation process, the client saw a 48.5% sales lift for items in this category. The numbers even surprised us, but they show that when you offer users value, you can get great results. A case study for this client can be seen in this blog post: http://blog.kissmetrics.com/convert-abandoned-visitors/.

    Full disclosure, I’m the co-founder of Rooster (www.getrooster.com), an exit-intent tool that helps marketers engage abandoning visitors.

    Thanks again for the post, especially the part about how overlays don’t have to compromise the user experience!

    – Jeremy

    1. Absolutely, whatever you offer on the overlay/popup has to bring value. Otherwise what’s the point? :D

  9. This post came at just the right time with my company implementing a pop up, thanks for the post!

  10. Thank you for mentioning Marketizator, Ott. This article is a great, educational piece of content. Congrats! :)

  11. I think the “3% increase” is slightly misleading in this context. If you are going to say it’s measly compared to a 1300% increase, it should be described in the same terms e.g a 184% increase, as the conversion rate could never be 1302%.

    1. Portrait of Tommy Walker

      Hey Steven!

      Long time no see mate. Thanks for chiming in & sharing the case study. Really great stuff there & very cool to read. I’ll have to be sure we include it in another article if/when we revisit the popup conversation.

    2. Hey Tommy, hope you’re well. Sounds great, thanks!

  12. Thanks Ott Niggulis for this great insight whether to use popups or not and if you decide to use it what is the best way around it, I am launching a new hotel meta search website and this article has really helped me to make some informed decisions.

  13. Seeing as you even used your own nifty popup once someone scrolls down the page as one of the examples in the article, could you please tell me which software is the one that does that?

  14. Thanks guys, very interesting article. Will have to test those popups on my own site as well.

    1. Thank You for reading and happy testing ;)

  15. Ott. Great article man. It’s great to see someone disprove their own bias. Everyone hates pop ups but they work! Thx for the great article. Cheers. John

  16. Dude, great case study, I did something a bit similar on my blog not long ago.

    I’d love to know, have you tested single step opt in pop ups (optinmonster style) vs 2 step opt in pop ups (bounce exchange style) and noticed a big difference ? That’s the one thing I have not yet tested.

    One thing I recommend as well is to pick a solution that allows intensive a/b test and to actually spend time on it. I’ve had some of my sites jump from 2% to 10% optin rate running a dozen tests over a few months.

    This really DOES make a massive difference on growth. One thing that has worked really well for us as well is to create a free giveaway and unique opt in pop up for different categories on our sites so the offer is more targeted.

    This is how you get the 2 digits optin rates.

    Looking forward to see what you do with your pop ups ;).


    1. That would be an interesting test indeed, and no we haven’t done it – if you do let’s us know of the results ;)

      As for testing, yes, that’s a given. You really need to spend time on it to get the best possible result out of it ;)

  17. Large email lists are to CRO what high search engine rankings are to SEO – valueless for your clients, but fantastic fodder for your agency blog.

    In the same way sweaty SEOs did anything for rankings, I see articles like this advocating annoying tactics for the sake of a percentage increase in email signup conversions.

    Popups aren’t new. It’s just that the 1.0 version is blocked by default by every major web browser. Now we’ve found a way to launch modal popups that can’t be blocked.

    Did online commerce collapse between the time of the window popup and the modal? Nope.

    Businesses had to do marketing to win. No WordPress marketing can help you with weak differentiation, a poor offer, or targeting the wrong customer. Get those things right and your business will grow by 10x, not 10% like with a popup

    1. I meant WordPress plugin, not wordpress marketing

    2. Portrait of Tommy Walker

      Hey Hashim, I absolutely agree with you, for the most part anyways, and I think just like with SEO, when the Popup provides little value (and this is more often than not) it is a nuisance at best & downright maddening at worst.

      However, there have been a handful of occasions where I find them very useful.

      There was one that offered me a discount code on a print that I was looking at & another that – depending on how frequently I visited the site – would offer a free credit, asked me to connect to them on social, or a relevant decorating guide.

      Yes, 10% is a minimal gain with poor differentiation & a weak offer, however the site’s I’m talking about used the technology in a way that enhanced the experience, rather than blocked it.

      The truth is, even if you shove a weak offer in someone’s face, that’s not going to make them go “oh, I should sign up” if anything, it may prevent them from ever coming back.

      Hopefully in the broader context of this blog, it’s not misinterpreted that we’re trying to advocate putting shitty pop-ups in peoples faces in order to get minimal gains.

  18. Great post Ott! Do you have any information about the best way to go about collecting email addresses when someone visits your site on a phone or tablet?

  19. Sigh… I hate those popups.

    If users sign up via popups do they stay subscribe or do they unsubscribe faster? If they stay subscribed do they read the email newsletters?

    1. Portrait of Tommy Walker

      I think that has more to do with the email onboarding sequence than the method that they signed up.

      Could be wrong, but that’s what I would guess.

  20. “Everybody hates pop-ups but they work!”
    Yup. Probably everybody hates getting mugged, but it works.

    1. Portrait of Tommy Walker

      Hey James,

      Did you see the examples in the article? We’re not talking about the irrelevant popups, but those that actually do add something.

      Like a discount, contextually relevant guide, or something else that could be useful for the end-user based on the pages they’re on.

      There’s a lot of garbage out there & it gives the technology a bad name, however, there are some instances where it’s very useful, but it has to be used tactfully.

  21. Have the same question as @Tyler. Over 50% of my traffic is from mobile / tablet. Curious how pop ups have performed on mobile and which ones you would recommend. More articles in general about converting mobile traffic into leads / sales would be much appreciated.

    1. Portrait of Tommy Walker

      Hey Marc,

      Noted! I’ve been engaging with a handful of potential contributors who are better versed in mobile than I am, so keep an eye out for that.

      I don’t have any performance stats handy, however I do know that Qualaroo’s nudge supports mobile & can be quite effective from those who have used it.

      You can get more on that here: http://blog.qualaroo.com/introducing-qualaroo-mobile-web/

  22. Didn’t expect statistic to be that good. Pretty useful piece! Can’t say I like popups now, but thank you anyway!

  23. Hi Ott,

    Really nice article with good content and data. You should take a look at Sleeknote.com – it’s a new danish startup with focus on pop-up’s and slide-in products. With a really clean dashboard you can generate your own pop-up to generate more e-mail subscribers or social follows. You don’t mention mobile trafic? Sleeknote also provide a responsive pop-up for mobile and tablets.

  24. Great post, Ott!

    I’m glad to have have found it – some interesting stats here ;)

    MaxTraffic (http://maxtraffic.com) is also offering a tool to convert abandoning visitors into customers. We offer a selfserved platform with a variety of options.

    It would be great if you could add us to the paid app list!

  25. Nice post with great examples, Ott!
    I noticed that you had an Evergage example in here that isn’t so favorable. In our defense, this popup was actually a test from our old blog and it was triggered on page exit – so basically a bounce prevention tactic. To our surprise, it had a decent conversion rate, increasing our eBook downloads. We have since killed that version because we thought it was aggressive and interfered with the visitor experience. Our goal is to make our messages cohesive to our website, testing light boxes, exit buttons, page location, timing, sizes, shapes and placement of messages. Testing is key for effective popups! We plan to write about our popup/message tests on our own site and there are some posts there already… check out the new Evergage blog for more: http://www.evergage.com/blog/

  26. Hey ott!
    Great list and thank you for sharing.

  27. Awesome post defense of popup mail.

  28. Hey,

    Great post, initially I thought it would be at the cost of the user experience and that forcing people to subscribe would be a bad thing.

    This blog has opened my eyes.


  29. Ah controversial pop ups! Very interesting post. Recently, my live chat provider, Visitlead, started offering an exit intent widget so I decided to give it a try and I have to say that they are very effective. But again, timing is everything when it comes to pop ups.

  30. Collecting the emails is one part of it and the other part beung – how do we ensure that the mail lands in the Inbox and not in the Spam/Promotions Tab?

    Any advice would be highly appreciated.

  31. I’m running a popup on my site which shows up after 30 seconds. Worked fine so far (used it since 2007), but lately, I get a lot of hate comments about it, yet, I sell nothing, just offer a newsletter with updates of the site.
    I begin to wonder whether it is actually good to keep running it. You hear a lot of people saying that it can destroy your reputation as it is regarded as slimy marketing.
    I’m really concerned about this, because I spend years getting a successful site together and I wouldn’t like to see my reputation going into the drain for this.
    What’s your opinion on this?

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In Defense Of The Popup