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Website pop ups – don’t you just love them?

Using pop ups on your website may result in more newsletter sign ups but it’s engagement that brings business, says internet psychologist Graham Jones 

You cannot move online for pop-ups. These little windows appear on thousands of websites and are part of the web ‘furniture’. They are so commonplace, we almost come to expect them. However, this week one of my clients questioned whether they ought to start using pop-ups because they had heard that such devices were excellent at increasing sign-up rates for newsletters and the like.

It is true that websites which use pop-ups to get sign-ups for mailing lists tend to get more people signing up than sites that do not use such devices. It might make sense, therefore, to include pop-ups on your own website

Indeed, various studies show dramatic shifts in sign-up rates when websites start to use pop-ups. On average a 400% increase in the numbers of people signing up. And some websites that were getting one or two people a day to sign up are now getting several hundred a day by using pop-ups. So, at first sight, pop-ups seem a great idea.

Yet, at the same time, study after study shows how annoyed we are by pop-ups. According to one piece of research, pop-ups are the most hated of all kinds of advertising. Some 95% of people react negatively to pop-up windows.

So, how come people hate them, but also use them in their millions, signing up to newsletters and so on? Surely if people hated them, they wouldn’t use them?

Engagement rate

The answer to this question is to look beyond the staggering sign-up rates. What the pop-up software manufacturers focus on is the raw numbers of people who sign-up to something using a pop-up. However, key to any business is the engagement rate, not the sign-up rate. Think of it like the retail industry standard measure of ‘footfall’. This is the number of people who venture into a store. It actually tells you nothing very much as a shop owner. After all, you could get 1,000 people into your shop each day, but if no-one actually buys anything you are not doing as well as it seems.

The same is true with pop-up numbers. You may be able to get hundreds of additional sign-ups to your newsletter, for instance, but if none of them actually read it, what is the point? There are studies which suggest that people who sign-up via pop-ups are less engaged and also unsubscribe more readily. In other words, many people are signing up simply to get rid of the pop-up.

What this ultimately means is they value the item for which they have signed up much less than if they signed up without the pop-up. As I explain in my book Click.ology this is accounted for by a psychological phenomenon known as the “overjustification effect”. Essentially, what this means is that people become less motivated to engage with something that they are forced to do in order to get the “reward”.

So, are pop-ups a good idea? If you want to increase numbers of sign-ups and impress your friends with how many people you have on your list, they are hard to beat. But if you want to engage people in your business activities, they are not a good idea at all. Far better to have lower numbers and more engagement, I reckon.

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