Popup notifications are extremely popular because they force website visitors to engage with them. They are particularly useful in ecommerce, in countering exit intent or cart abandonment. Yet they can become annoying if overused, and Google has said that it will penalise sites using “intrusive interstitials”. In this article, we examine when to use popups and when not to.

What Is A Popup Notification?

A popup notification is a message that pops up on your browser when you visit some websites, either as soon as the website loads, when you browse over a certain part of the website or when you show the intention to perform a specific action (like leaving). 

example of exit intent popup notification
Exit Intent Popup

A popup prevents you from further interaction with the website until you respond to what the popup is asking (sometimes there is an “X” in the corner that allows you to close the popup). A popup might overlay the web page, greying it out in the background  – lightbox style – or it might cover the entire web page.

The most common popup is the ubiquitous “we use cookies” notice, which you will have seen on many websites – like this one

While similar, a popup is different from a notification bar, which is also a boxed message that stands out on a website – but usually at the top, bottom or side of the browser, and usually without disrupting the browsing experience. (Here’s an example of a countdown notification bar at the top of the screen.)

example notification bar
Example of a Notification Bar

What Are The Advantages Of Using Popups?

Popup notifications have versatile uses, especially for ecommerce websites. They may be used to:

  • Offer first-time visitors a welcome discount to encourage a purchase.
  • Offer them a discount encouraging them not to leave the website before making a purchase. This is what is known as an exit intent or exit popup, which is set to appear when a website visitor’s cursor hovers over the “X” as they are about to leave the site. Here’s how OptinMonster does this:
optinmonster exit intent popup
  • Offer them a discount when they’re about to abandon their cart without completing their purchase.
  • Promote event-specific products or specials for things like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Black Friday and Christmas.
  • Grow a website’s email database, often by incentivising sign-up.
  • Prompt a website visitor to engage, if they are on the website but haven’t done anything for a while (this is called a time-based popup).
  • Request helpful feedback or product reviews from customers.

Do Popup Notifications Actually Work? 

They … can? It really depends on how strategically you use them. 

  • According to Optinmonster, one website more than doubled its sales conversation rate with an in-your-face exit popup. See it for yourself: Visit shockbyte, click to view one of its server options for a minute or so, then move to exit the website. A big “50% off” offer should appear. Might it prompt you to reconsider a purchase (if you were interested in renting servers)?
  • Australia’s MyDeal offers first time visitors a welcome discount the first time they log on – why would you turn it down?
  • Dipanddoze does a clever thing to both encourage purchase and grow its email database. When you are browsing a product page, a discount offer pops up, conditional on entering your email address. Since you have already shown active interest in a product, chances are good you will accept.
  • This London-based business coaching firm deploys a compelling exit popup when you attempt to leave – a free call with a monetary value attached it.
  • Cykelexperten captures your attention with an intriguing and relevant slide in popup for bike helmets (relevant since you are already viewing bicycles, which require helmets).

What Are The Downsides To Popups?

There are three potential pitfalls to using popups: lost prospects and customers, popup blocking and a negative impact on your SEO. To explain:

  • You probably get as irritated as we do by those intrusive cookie notification popups – but how frustrating is it when you visit a website and are bombarded by several popups at once? It’s quite likely you will log off. You’ll probably also log off if you have responded in the negative to a popup, only to see it reappear a while later.
  • Today, most Internet browsers are equipped with popup blocking options (if they aren’t, it’s easy to find free software extensions to load to browsers for the same purpose). Here’s how to block popups on Chrome (by the way, excuse the annoying exit popup on your way out).
    Imagine if you put loads of thought and care into your ecommerce website’s popup notifications – without knowing that prospects or customers will actually see them?
  • Google, the world’s biggest Internet browser, penalises certain types of popup notifications, most especially full-screen popups that appear the instant a visitor lands on the website (its good etiquette to set popups to only appear after a delay of at least 5-10 seconds); popups that you can only close after a period of time has passed, and popups in which the “X” functionality to close them is obscure, or too small. Popups like these can impact a website’s SEO success. 

Best Practices For Using Popups

Apart from avoiding the obvious no-no’s mentioned above, here are some best practices to note when using popups:

Keep popups simple and to the point – no one wants to read too much in a message they didn’t ask for. HubSpot keeps it simple with their subscription popup.

hupSpot subscribe popup

Make popups relevant – offering a welcome discount is fine to first-time visitors, but it should thereafter fall away. Looking to acquire email leads? Then set a popup “subscribe” invitation while visitors are browsing your blog articles, rather than when they’re shopping for products. If you add popups to products, match like for like; don’t run a popup for lipstick when someone adds running shoes to their cart. Want customer feedback? Save this popup for completed purchases. 

Avoid full screen popups – there is no reason to completely block a visitor’s website view; rather opt for small, neat popups that grey out the web page behind them but leave it visible.

Make it easy to respond or exit – any popup notification should have large, clear “yes”, “no” and X functionality. Avoid having more fields than a “yes” or “no” response, or you’ll test visitors’ patience.

Maintain brand integrity – design popups that complement, rather than clash with, the underlying website in terms of colours, fonts and imagery – otherwise you run the risk of cheapening your brand image.

Optimise popups for mobile – most popup software will offer instructions on how to adapt popup notifications for the mobile version of your website, where obviously screen size is a factor. For example, it’s important to make the X clearly visible and easy to use on mobile screens.

Gamify popups – gamification is when you turn a web action into something fun and interactive, like inviting visitors to spin a wheel to reveal their discount, entering their email to open a mystery present or completing a quiz to open the portal to a secret sale. Because it makes engagement fun, gamification can make popups more compelling. 

A Final Notification

Remember that you can consider using a less disruptive and contentious alternative to popup notifications, in the form of notification bars. As mentioned, notification bars are like popups in that they can be highly effective in catching visitors’ attention and encouraging different types of engagement – but without forcing visitors to engage before they continue browsing. Using notification bars will negate any of the irritation, popup blocking or SEO risk inherent in popup notifications.

If you have a WordPress website, our FooBar plugin lets you get creative with stylish notification bars that will delight and engage visitors. Take a look.