Or put another way, are you telling your precious visitors that you think they’re a bunch of bubble-headed morons? Read on to see…

There is a disturbing trend we’re noticing on the slippery slope of pop-up marketing. Pop-up marketing… you know, the new breed of pop-up window that overlays the underlying site with an important message, typically via a Javascript lightbox? The kind of pop-up that many sites now use to push email opt-ins.

Opinions on this type of marketing are polarized. The people who focus on the outcomes of displaying pop-ups (e.g., conversion rate, opt-in rate) tend to stand firmly in the for camp. The against contingent is dubious of interruptive marketing… believing that the in-your-face messaging is off-putting for its target audience. [Tell us what you think in the comments!]

No matter where you stand on the debate, it’s clear to us that when done well, pop-ups can drive conversions without pissing people off. But as usual, the devil’s in the details.

Some of the design decisions that will make or break how visitors feel about your pop-up (and your brand!) include:

  • The elapsed time between when a visitor shows up on your site and when a pop-up appears… set the timer too low and you may surprise people (not in a good way)
  • How easy it is to close the pop-up… make the little “X” too hard to find and visitors may close their tab or browser window altogether
  • How often the pop-up (or combination of pop-ups) appears to a single visitor… do you think something good can come from multiple interruptions?
  • How you label the button choices / calls to action… which is what this post is about

Many pop-ups you’ll encounter ask for an email address in exchange for a newsletter, email/video course, or whitepaper. You either enter your email address and submit the form… or close the pop-up. Simple:


Graham Jones, “Internet Psychologist” does it right. 🙂

UPDATE: We’ve just discovered Mojowheel, which is a very cool way to gamify opt-ins. Check it out here

The Dark Side Of Pop-up Messaging

The type of pop-up that gives us Copy Hackers heartburn lately includes two clickable options… a ‘yes’ and an explicit ‘no’ (more explicit than the “X” to close the pop-up).

This layout itself isn’t new; in fact, it was common to see the ‘no’ option worded politely as a “No thanks”… clear, friendly, and nothing remotely offensive.

But more recently, we’re seeing the opt-out button worded in a way that tries to make visitors feel badly about declining the offer.

Here’s an example:


How do you feel about that grey button?

How do you think your visitors would feel after reading that button… if it were on your site?

At Copy Hackers, we’re all about using the powers of persuasion to help sell products or services. Back in 2009, way before Copy Hackers came to life, Joanna and I wrote a month-long series of posts about persuasion, titled – not surprisingly – The 30 Days of Persuasion

When it comes to persuasion, there are techniques that push the boundaries of ethical behavior… not unlike SEO. If you let yourself fall to the dark side – which is basically outright trickery – you may see some positive initial results, but you’ll be found out eventually, and in the end, your newfound customers will be pissed. Nobody likes to feel like they’ve been tricked.

When done correctly, persuasion doesn’t involve tricking your prospective customers. It taps into the evolutionary mechanisms that have allowed humans to make decisions and survive. And while there are no wooly mammoths to worry about on our weekly trips to the mall, these mechanisms still guide our decisions just like they did 50,000 years ago.

In our opinion, the grey button above sits arrogantly on the dark side of persuasion. It’s not subtle or cute. When you read it, you feel something… but it’s not a positive feeling. It’s ugly.

Do the site owners believe that visitors, when faced with the two options, will click the orange button to avoid the sheer embarrassment of admitting that they don’t care about their bounce rate? Oh, the shame.

No, if visitors are genuinely not interested in the offer, I suspect they’ll still click the grey button, but leave the site feeling dirty about it and its scuzzy sales tactics.

This isn’t persuasion and it isn’t growth hacking. Don’t do it. There are so many better ways to persuade than to risk eroding all the hard work you put into building your brand. [If you’re still reading, it’s likely you care about your brand.]

To us, the downside of this approach far exceeds any upside. And sites that use this technique aren’t operating in a vacuum, either. In fact, they make it more difficult for the rest of us to use pop-ups in an effective way.

Step Into The Light

Are there ways to persuade visitors from declining an offer or leaving your site without feeling icky? Absolutely, and the savvy team at Get Response shows us the way on a pop-up that fires if your cursor starts heading for the exit door:


The team has clearly put some thought into how to get visitors to feel something about leaving, but without the scuzzy tactics.

If you use pop-ups, think about how your messaging makes people feel. For the opt-out, give people a reason to rethink their decision, sure, but don’t try to make them feel badly. In the end, they’ll only feel badly about your brand.