Why Pop-Ups Work


Why Pop-ups Work So Damn Well

Why do pop-ups work so damn well? Let’s face it, you hate them, I hate them, we all hate them, yet they are everywhere. Damn those POP-UPS. You can’t read an article on a website without getting at least one, sometimes more than one pop-up asking you to join a newsletter or download a free report! EVEN MINE!

Why-Do-Popups-Work-So-Damn-Well-UsefulUsabilityBut have you asked yourself, WHY are they everywhere?

My friends, it’s because those damn pop-ups WORK, and they work damn well.

I didn’t truly realize how well they work until I tried one on this very website to generate sign-ups for my monthly eNewsletter.

Prior to enabling this pop-up, I was lucky if I received one or two new members a week. I was “doing the right thing” by placing my offer to join the newsletter on the right sidebar or down at the bottom of the article. But guess what? I didn’t realize it until later, they didn’t work then, and they don’t work now!

So I turned on the pop-up (feeling just a tad that I was signing a pact with the Devil), and voila! I was getting two or three or six sign-ups a day! Wow!

The UX guy in me felt bad about the user experience. The marketer in me LOVED being able to finally reach my audience with a message they paid attention to.

Here’s the numbers just to prove it…


So WHY do pop-ups work?

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Because size, interruption, and something I call “Cognitive Concordance” (opposite of Cognitive Dissonance) matter! I’m simplifying this heavily, so all you HCI PhDs don’t judge me, thanks.

Sorry, but size matters.

As humans, we tend to notice larger things before smaller things. The larger the thing, the greater the amount of awareness we tend to focus on it, at least momentarily.

For example: A very large mommy Mastodon is charging straight at you with her small baby at her side. You’re typically going to notice the very large mommy Mastodon first. That’s because if it were the other way around you’re less likely to be around to share your DNA with future generations.

This is a pre-wired function in all of us.

So, a very large pop-up that takes over a very large area of your display WILL attract much more of your attention, at least momentarily, than the relatively smaller sidebar or bottom sign up forms.

Interruptions are great for attracting attention.

That’s why when you’re watching TV (until the birth of Tivo that is) you are forced to sit through a [Squirrel!] whole bunch of commercials that interrupt your favorite show (unless you are watching HBO – hi all you Game of Thrones fans – Red Wedding! Holy cow! Right?).

Interruptive marketing forces you to at least momentarily notice the thing marketers want you to notice, like their commercial.

So if a big ‘ol pop-up pops-up 10 seconds after you start consuming content on a site, you’re going to notice it, at least momentarily. And you noticed that Squirrel! too, didn’t you?

Cognitive Concordance is another reason pop-ups work (my term, don’t bother looking it up in Wikipedia, it doesn’t exist).

By placing the offer for you to get even MORE valuable information from my emails while you are already consuming valuable content on my website, the offer is more likely to be in cognitive concordance or harmony with your feelings that this information is good, and so you are more inclined to sign up for more.

So you signed up.

And for the naysayers of you who don’t think pop-ups can improve your sign-up and conversion rates?

Well, I suggest you test one for a month or two and judge for yourself if you think they work.

So what about the future? Will pop-ups someday get worse?

Sadly (at least for non-marketers), this is now happening.

Pop-up firms are rolling out even more “in your face” pop-ups such as the one called the “Welcome Mat.” The Welcome Mat is a complete take-over of your website (i.e., an entire page of a pop-up) and forces visitors to either agree or decline an offer before they ever get to the page they wanted to visit!

Oy Vey!

Unlike you, I’m old(er).

And I remember the “dark times” of the early internet waaaaay back in the 1990s when all designers thought that a “Tunnel” was a really great thing.

They thought…

“Hey, why not force my visitors through a tunnel of stuff I want them to see before actually letting them get to the stuff they want to see?”

Friends, Tunnels were a really bad idea then, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say their cousins the Welcome Mats will be a really bad idea now (if not done in very precise behaviorally targeted ways).

There IS a right way to properly use a full page Pop-up (or even the dreaded Tunnel). But it requires knowing much more data about your visitor and triggering the pop-up and its content based on well-specified business rules and behavioral triggers. I won’t go into the details now, but it does work IF implemented the proper way. And that is MUCH harder to do than most designers and marketers realize.

But I’ll warn you right now, you’re more than likely going to see a LOT more full page Pop-ups in your near future.

Brace yourself!

Conclusion: Why do pop-ups work

Pop-ups, even though we all say we hate them, actually work very effectively to attract our attention and cause us to take action. The primary reasons why pop-ups work so well is because they use large size, interruption and cognitive concordance to hyper-focus our attention and take action. In the future, variations of pop-ups will make the design rounds, including full page pop-ups such as the “Welcome Mat” and others.

And just like commercials, pop-ups won’t be leaving anytime soon.


  1. Hello Craig

    I totally agree with your article that popups really work. Do you have information about types of popups?
    In my experience working with clients and popups, it’s very easy to show damn results very fast. (collect email addresses, clicks and so on).

    For example we show users some widgets/popups with messages like (your cart is about to expire, bounced visitors and so on).

    Those work great, do you use them for your clients?

  2. Hi Alex,

    Thank you for your comments. Yes, the cart expiring, visitor behavior and related proactive popups can work very well in an eCommerce environment. What works best is to use both personalization and behavioral targeting to customize the popup for the behavior you’re trying to influence. For example, triggering a popup to offer a 10% off code to the user if the user starts to abandon a full shopping cart (or one that has a monetary value over a certain range) can be very helpful for reducing cart abandonment plus saving larger-sized orders. Likewise, offering a free download of a whitepaper to a prospective B2B website visitor, but only on select product pages where that whitepaper is highly related, is a great way to increase leads coming from high-value calls to action.

    Thanks again for bringing this up, it’s a good subject to consider when optimizing the user experience of a website or app.

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