by Mark Hayes

Hold on a second; let me close this opt-in form that just popped up…There. Now, where were we?

Oh, that’s right: Pop-ups. Opt-ins. Overlays. Lightboxes. Exit-intent technology. Digital marketing Venus Flytrap!

Whatever you choose to call them, the reality is that you’ll come across one of these pesky critters at least several times during a typical web surfing session. Slightly less if, you access the Internet primarily from your mobile phone. (Lucky you…for now)

Popup overlays have become as ubiquitous as those annoying pop-up ads were back in the 90s. Which is actually an accurate comparison to draw, as some people believe this “new” digital gimmick is just a reincarnation of that crude marketing tactic.

The difference between the two is that exit-intent popups are allegedly a smarter technology. Supposedly. And some individuals will be quick to debate this point. What isn’t debatable is that popup overlays help to increase leads and conversions. And for most marketers, this is where the argument starts and ends.

So, who’s to blame?

It’s interesting to note that Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Centre for Civic Media and the guy who contributed to the invention of the original ‘popup ad’ actually apologized for his invention. So, who’s going to repent for bringing the modern-day version of this old-school monstrosity to market?

While we may not know who invented them, we definitely know who holds the intellectual rights. The patent for ‘exit intent detection technology’ is owned by none other than the 3995-pound hippo of the popup world – BounceExchange. And, as a company, they are quite active about enforcing their intellectual property rights.

So if, after reading this post, you decide to create the next killer popup app, make sure to familiarize yourself with the law before announcing it to the world at large (Otherwise, your amazing twist on the popup theme may meet a quick commercial demise.

Always Start With Strategy

There’s no need to dwell on negatives when there are so many positives that come with implementing exit-intent technology on your website. Namely, a significantly higher number of leads and conversions.

When deciding whether to implement exit intent pop-ups, or any other type of new form of marketing, the key is to start with a sound plan. Using any marketing tactic willy-nilly is no guarantee of success, especially when it comes to unproven or new approaches. Of course, such approaches make up the majority of a growth hacker’s toolkit but as Warren Buffet famously said, “Risk only comes from not knowing what you’re doing.”

Exit-intent pop-ups are still an emerging marketing technology and, while their results speak for themselves, you need to be sure they will fit into your overall marketing strategy. Not every website may want to have them as there are definitely downsides to implementing popups (which we’ll talk about later).

This guide aims to provide a balanced overview of exit-intent technology, advise on how to implement and optimise them and try to offer a comparison of the most popular solutions around.

Now let’s close down a few more popups and see how you can make them work for your site.

How do I close this F#$%G thing?

Exit-intent pop-ups are truly a double-edged sword.

Unless the copy and design of a popup is really good (and, let’s face it, most are average at best), there’s a high chance that all your users want to do is close the damn thing as soon as possible. The other thing they (most likely) want to do is leave your website, never to return.

This last point is what puts off a lot off marketers from trialling popups. Yet, if implemented correctly, popups can be an effective conversion booster for most any campaign that you incorporate them into.

To use our own example, implementing exit intent technology on the Rocketshp website has helped us grow our email list by 3000%. That’s an additional 300 subscribers per month!

(Note: We are currently testing the popup again by removing it at this time to prove how much of an impact that pop-ups have on building your email list)

So, What’s the Secret?

If pop-ups are so annoying and potentially even damaging, why are they also so darn effective?

It’s because of a cool little psychological hack known as a ‘pattern interrupt’ made famous by the father of hypnotherapy, Milton Erickson. A pattern interrupt’s effectiveness lies in its ability to do exactly as the name suggest: interrupt a certain pre-established behaviour. When Milton used this on his patients, they would fall into a trance after which he could do with them as he pleased.

As you may have guessed, a popup acts in a similar way, interrupting your visitors’ usual pattern of browsing behaviour. And while a popup won’t necessarily put your visitor into a trance, it definitely gets them to sit up and take notice.

Bam! You’ve hacked their attention span and have increased the likelihood of a conversion. Crude? Potentially. Effective? You betcha!

A Cattle Prod and Horse Blinders for Your Marketing Toolset

As well as being the equivalent of a behavioural cattle prod, an exit overlay also does one other important thing. It focuses your website visitor’s attention on ‘that-one-and-only-thing’, even if for a brief moment. The importance of this cannot be overstated because even a purpose-built landing page has a range of visual stimuli, which distracts your visitor from reaching your intended conversion goal.

Imagine what that says about any other page on your site with its multiplicity of navigational elements and competing CTAs?

It is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that, when presented with too many options, our brain shuts down and decides that it is better off making no decision at all. We’ve all experienced the feeling of utter helplessness when you just don’t know which flavour of ice cream to pick from the supermarket freezer or the particular episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ to re-watch this evening.

This effect is known as ‘analysis paralysis’ and, for growth hackers, it is a conversion killer. A popup, on the other hand, helps our brain by taking away the tyranny of choice and giving it one simple thing to act upon. To an extent, a popup acts in the same way as blinders on a horse, helping with focus.

Combine the mental jolt of having your usual site browsing behaviour hijacked with a good CTA and you can pretty much seal the deal on whatever it is that you’re asking a visitor to do.

Right. Now with the psychological mumbo-jumbo behind us, let’s move on to the practical applications of this useful technology.

Popup Types

Referring to popups as ‘exit-intent technology’ is slightly misleading because they’re not just triggered when someone navigates away from a page. Popups can be configured to appear based on a number of criteria.

As part of your strategic planning, you need to think through and then test the different ways in which your popups are presented to a visitor. Make your overlays too annoying and, instead of converting visitors, you’ll be watching your bounce rate rocket across the board. Make them trigger based on some esoteric criteria and your visitors may never seem them in the first place.

Getting your popups to appear at just the right time and in the right kind of way is a delicate balance to strike. But let’s be clear, it can be done. So, without further ado, let’s dig into the many ways to trigger a popup, without severely cheesing off your viewer:

  • Exit / entry intent – This popup type can be considered the ‘originator’ of the craze and it is a pretty straightforward piece of tech. An exit intent popup tells when a visitor is trying to navigate away from the page and activates at that particular moment. Think of an exit intent popup as your trusty ‘super-salesperson’: as soon as they see your visitor headed out the door of your website, they jump out in front of them and go “but wait, there’s more.” An entry intent popup acts the same way but in reverse – by appearing as soon as someone enters a page.
  • Scroll-activated – This type of popup will allow your visitor to read the particular piece of content they came for but, as soon they reach a certain point, the popup activates. Think of it as a tripwire that goes off after your unsuspecting visitor ‘trips’ over a certain part of the page.
  • Time-activated – While a scroll-activated popup acts like a tripwire, a time-activated overlay is more like a ticking time bomb. As soon as the countdown timer reaches zero -kaboom! – Your popup is right there in your visitor’s face egging them to download your freshly minted eBook.
  • Pageview-activated – This is the more riskier, yet potentially more rewarding type of popup. The overlay is triggered after a visitor has browsed a certain number of pages on your site. It is riskier, because there’s a chance that some of your visitors will never go past the first landing page they end up on. However, it is more rewarding because those visitors who eventually see the popup have shown interest in your website and are more likely lo sign up for whatever offer you put in front of them.

Different types of popups can be used for achieving different marketing goals and this is where your strategy comes into play. It should consist of having a clear understanding of what action you want your visitors to take and then thinking through the type of popup that can best help you achieve that aim.

A Popup is a Popup is a Popup. Or Is It?

Saying there’s only one good (or effective) type of popup, is like saying there’s only one way to carry out marketing well. Basically, there are dozens of ways to use a popup  – from bolstering the number of your email subscribers to running contests and promotions. Or increasing the number of Likes on your Facebook page – the only limitation is the scope of your marketing plan.

The good news is that exit overlays can act as a great companion to most marketing campaigns.  They can also stand on their own two legs by acting as a visitor ‘flytrap’ that you can configure for various purposes. Here are some examples of how overlays can help your marketing:

Email List Building

Fancy new digital marketing channels come and go but email remains the undisputed ‘killer app.’ After all of these years, email is still the best channel for maintaining an on-going dialogue with your audience as well as converting this audience into paying customers. Building an engaged email list should be a priority for most marketers and a popup overlay can become your best ally in terms of achieving this.

One way to increase email subscribers is by offering bait in the form of an eBook, report or anything else that your visitors will find enticing. However, even just using a ‘no-frills’ popup that directly asks your visitors to subscribe will still help to build your list much quicker than without it.

As mentioned earlier, we have grown our own subscription list by a whopping 3000% in less than 4 months so we truly know that it works!

Special Offers or Promotions

Regardless of whether you run an ecommerce store or a service business, a good promotion can often help boost sales. Usually, these offers are shown on your homepage and, if a visitor ends up on any other page of your site, they may never find out about your great promotion (amazing deal).

A popup can help communicate your offer to any visitor, regardless of how they entered your site or whether they’ve visited your homepage. You can also increase the granularity of your targeting by providing different special offers to visitors who land on specific pages. The world is your oyster here.

You can also provide special offers aimed exclusively at your existing customers or subscribers. There’s no better way to increase customer loyalty than by showing them you appreciate their business if they engage with you more than once.

Saving Abandoned Shopping Carts

There’s nothing worse than seeing an analytics report that shows your abandoned shopping cart statistics – especially, if that number is particularly high. But shopping cart abandonment is a typical occurrence and nothing to be ashamed of.

An exit overlay can help you in the fight for reclaiming abandoned shopping carts by giving your runaway customer an incentive to complete their purchase. Such an incentive can come in the form of a discount, free shipping or any other type of deal that you may concoct.

Pop. Test. Repeat.

Ah, A/B testing, where would digital marketing be without it?

And there’s no reason why your exit-intent overlays shouldn’t be subjected to the same analytical rigour as the rest of your marketing. If you’re showing popups on your site but not running a testing program alongside these then you’re willingly abandoning conversions in the process.

Actually, if you’re not A/B testing your popups then you may as well abandon using popups altogether. Due to the double-edged nature of popups, you may actually end up hurting your metrics and alienating visitors without even knowing it. The only way to know for sure is to test.

But A/B testing is just the start of your optimization program. Think of it as the foundation upon which your other optimization tactics will rest.

Optimization Tips

While a popup may seem simple enough as a concept, there are so many things that can be done to squeeze every last bit of effectiveness (CRO-goodness) out of it.

Good Copywriting

As with any type of marketing collateral, copywriting rules the roost when it comes to variables that can really impact your conversions.

For popups specifically, testing different copy on an on-going basis is the best way to increase your conversions. The best way to think of your popup is that of a mini landing page or, even more specifically, the form on your landing page. As with a landing page, the most important copy elements to test include your headline, body text, form fields and your CTA.

Playing around with these elements in a controlled manner will help you to figure out what words are converting better.

As with all good copywriting, brevity is your friend so make sure to keep your copy crisp (sell the sizzle, not the steak)

The Need for Speed

When your popup flashes across the screen, you’re literally under more pressure than James Bond in a death trap. Remember this is not the first website your visitor has checked today. Which means, they have probably already swatted away half a dozen annoying popups with a vengeance! Which means the moment your popup appears, it had better do one hell of a job getting to the point (and being interesting along the way) or otherwise…BAM! It gets karate chopped into oblivion.

Also, when we say fast…we’re also talking about loading times. Literally milliseconds. Right now, you have less than 200 milliseconds to show the visitors your message before they actually click on the X button. In fact, we think 200 is too slow too. If you really want to grab that last sliver of attention, you should decrease loading lag to under 50 milliseconds.

Now if you’re thinking “How can your popup respond so quickly?” and shaking your head in disbelief, let us explain. First, it is important to preload the popup content. Preloading takes technical know how, but the best exit-intent popup software has already solved this issue.

Stay well away from special effects on these types of popups. Such displays may look cool, but they increase the amount of time required to display the popup, as well as the time needed for visitors to understand your message.

Always Have a Plan B 

Sometimes, no matter how much you try to get people to fall in love with your website, they might just “friendzone” it and decide to move on. But that’s when you have to get a bit creative. You can use an exit-intent popup to redirect them, almost as if saying, “Oh, you don’t find this content interesting? Is it boring you? No sweat…check this hot page instead”

This works just as well on landing pages, where you can get visitors to give you that “second chance” and maybe convert them on the rebound.

This clever ploy is already working wonders for ecommerce sites who display alternate offers when a visitor stops showing interest in the current offer. Content sites also use it well to promote other content people might prefer to read.

Even though this may seem slightly desperate…. being just a wee bit clingy helps. And how! Research shows content redirection popups can convert as high as 25 percent. In fact, one test has recorded even 26 percent conversion rate, although the average is around 10 percent.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Just because your website has a relatively fixed focus, doesn’t mean everyone who visits your site does too. In fact, you’ll be surprised how wildly different visitors are in their interests and even their personalities.

Think of it this way, the people who follow the PGA aren’t the same as those who swear by the MMA. Even if they come to the same sports website.

The best pop up plugins allow you to target specific visitors with tailored pop ups. You can configure which pop ups are displayed per section across your website. This allows you to get cracking on buzzwords, which your different audiences will respond to.

In short, if you speak their language, they relate faster. And a visitor who relates is usually one who subscribes!

Make it Responsive

Here’s the rub…despite websites being fragmented to be responsive across more and more sizes of screen, popups are still these large, unmoving monoliths that just end up looking like a squashed bug on a windscreen when not properly scaled down to fit mobile devices.

To keep it simple, just follow the same responsive design principles you would follow for a website when designing popups, just make sure they fit on the screen, yet are still readable. (If they have to squint, take the hint…they’re leaving)

You’ll see a 10 -15 percent additional increase in conversions for your exit-intent popups when you switch to making them responsive.

Track Your Own Popups

You can’t fix what you don’t know. If you want to squeeze the most out of every second a popup appears and stays on screens, you have to optimise and track them. With the right settings, you can now track your popups directly through Google Analytics. Research shows it’s not ideal to show your exit intent popup in the first few seconds, even when your visitor appears to be leaving your site. Some people are simply switching between windows or tabs before they start browsing your site, and you might just irritate people with eager beaver appearances like this.

Using tracking, you can learn when the conversion peak happens and make sure you get your message across without bothering your visitors. You can look at statistics for tracking such as: after how many pages were visited, how much time was spent on site, etc. From this information, you can determine the best timing for your popups.

Be a Tease. Delay the Close Button.

This is slightly sneaky (hey, if it works…it works, right?) but you can nudge people into not closing your popup on autopilot simply by delaying the appearance of the close button. When you delay the appearance of the closing ‘X’ button for a few seconds, it gives your visitor a chance to experience the content of the popup and this can result in a 20-30% increase over showing the closing ‘X’ button immediately.

From Eyesore to Eye Candy

A popup is still largely a visual medium. And while the offer and timing can be tweaked to kingdom come, there is one more area where a little design Botox can really helps improve the interaction and response levels – the look and feel of the popup itself.

Ask for a ‘Yes’ but don’t leave out the ‘No’

This may sound counterintuitive but by giving the people the option to say ‘no’, you actually increase the likelihood of them saying yes. That’s because you have to remember that popups are still considered a pushy annoyance. And when you top that with only a ‘yes’ or ‘continue’ button, many visitors click away just to prove a point that they won’t be coerced into doing what you want.

Instead, when you give them a ‘no’ button, what you’re saying is “Hey, we’d like you to consider our offer. But if you don’t want to, that’s fine.” The sheer politeness of the ‘no’ button increases conversions by as much as 30-40% as compared to the pushier ‘opt-in only’ option.

Use reverse psychology on the exit button

It’s the nightmarish scenario dreaded by most people browsing the web – You come to a site. Your may not know what the site is all about. But before you can take a breath to start looking for answers, you’re bombarded with popups. BAM!

That’s not cool. Sure, I may want your ‘FREE Traffic Generation Guide’ or your ‘Free Infographic’ or hey, I might even want to sign up for your newsletter. But, could I please just take a minute to know what you’re all about before I commit to it?

And what’s worse is 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”. Really? You’re going to be that smug?

Not cool you guys, not cool. Or is it?

But instead of speculating, what do the test results say? Here’s a pure ‘no thanks’ test. The only difference in the creative was the copy.

Email Capture – No Thanks Copy Unique Impressions Email Captures Capture Rate
No Thanks; I prefer to pay full price for my clothing. 165,416 9,928 6.00%
I Am Not Interested. 165,625 7,961 4.81%
No Thank You. 165,021 7,616 4.62%
No Thanks! 166,072 7,433 4.48%


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. Who knew, that taking a few soft jibes at visitors’ egos would lead to higher conversions?

Leave the hoop jumps to the circus

If you want more visitors to subscribe, don’t make them jump through too many hoops. If you’re trying to grow your email list, you have no excuse for having more than two fields — and in most cases, just an email address is sufficient.

In addition, filling the form in should be as intuitive as possible. Make it clear what information goes where, and make the sign up button stand out. And while we’ve discussed a series of deft, sleight-of-hand tricks around the exit button, there will still be people who genuinely want to leave. And you have to respect that decision. If you really care about user experience, your popup should be easy to close too.

If you must incentivise, make it worthwhile

We’ve all done it – offered visitors something in exchange for their email address. But while this strategy has proven to attract more subscriptions, there is one caution that must be exercised. You need to ensure the incentive is actually worthwhile. Without this, you might end up with a ‘leaky list’ of email addresses i.e. people who sign up based on the incentive and promptly leave when they actually receive it in their inbox.

However, if you are confident that you will be able to match your incentive with visitor expectation, you must mention your incentive clearly in the pop up and place it in prominent eye-catching location in the design.

In closing, remember to never rest on your laurels. Even if your pop up is converting at superhuman levels, never assume it can’t do better. There might be minor tweaks that could lead to more success. A simple change of message, button copy even colour could be the deciding factor in driving more conversions. So, what are you waiting for? Go out there, build, test, launch and…(Oh sorry, just saw a popup I had to click).

Will your next popup be that compelling?

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