People over numbers (and why I’ll never have pop-ups on my website)

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Marketing

People over numbers (and why I'll never have pop-ups on my website)

The online marketing community is obsessed with A/B testing and maximizing conversion rates. It may seem a no brainer that if more people do X than Y, then X is clearly better than Y for any business – but what if that’s not true?

What if “better for your business” is not something you can answer with a spreadsheet?

What if “better for your business” means you need to include the “soft” stuff that’s impossible to measure with numbers and percentages?

Just because something is difficult to measure, it doesn’t mean it’s not making an impact. [Tweet this!]

It may as well be making the biggest impact on your long-term success.

Emotional experiences our clients have with our business are a huge component of your brand. Yes, it’s important that we provide a high quality service. Yes, it’s important that we’re clearly communicating the unique value we offer. But it’s also important that we do all of that in a way that makes both us, and our ideal client feel great.

You must’ve heard this quote a thousand times, so forgive me for bringing it up once again:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

Having empathy for your clients is the key to building a sustainable creative business.

If you manage to get inside their head and make sure that your words, images, videos and other media are evoking the emotions you want them to feel while interacting with you, you’ll build a loyal fanbase that no competitor will be able to lure away.

About those pop-ups

I’m picking on pop-us as an example, because everyone has seen them and interacted with them in some way, so you’re all familiar with it. (If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky.)

Whenever people implement pop-ups on their website, they see a huge increase in newsletter subscribers. It’s been tested so many times, and the result is always the same.

Pop-ups = more people on your e-mail list

The math is simple. Clearly, you should all be putting pop-ups on your website, and if you’re not, you’re leaving money on the table.

But are statistics all that matters?

A/B testing gives us the numbers, but it doesn’t explain why the numbers are the way they are.

We can only observe what people do, but we have no way of knowing what is going on in their heads (unless you’re doing user testing, which is an entirely different thing from A/B testing).

So, why are people responding so well to pop-ups? Here are some possible reasons:

  1. The offer is in their face. Maybe they haven’t noticed it before when it was just sitting on the page, and now they simply can’t miss it.
  2. The pop-up surprised them, and they don’t know how to keep using the website without entering their e-mail. (This especially happens on mobile sites when pop-ups stretch outside the screen, so the “X” button isn’t visible. Very annoying.)

There may be more, I don’t know. These are the first that come to my mind.

The second reason is clearly negative. People sign up because they’re clueless, and they probably don’t even know what they’re doing. They may be thinking that they have to sign up in order to keep reading the article they were reading. Not everyone on the Internet knows how pop-ups work.

The first reason can be interpreted in various ways, but the bottom line is – it’s in your face. You can’t ignore it. You can love the offer or hate the offer, but in any case you’re pressured into making an action – whether that’s entering your e-mail, or clicking “X”.

The results of this practice are mixed

Sure, you’ll get many sign-ups, but there will be a lot of people who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, and some who don’t mind being pushed around. Bear in mind that having more subscribers also increases your costs, so having a ton of people who won’t even open your e-mails can get expensive.

If you were to get me on your list with a pop-up, your offer has to be something I’d be willing to pay for. To me personally, pop-ups, especially those that show up while I’m still reading an article, are a mood killer. When I encounter them, I not only close the pop-up, but the entire tab, and usually never come back.

I may not be your ideal client. You don’t need to listen to me. You need to listen to your own audience, and think about how they may be feeling. I’m just trying to demonstrate on this example that people respond to pop-ups in many different ways, and just because stats say they’re better, it may actually be counter-productive for your audience.

How your core values play into your business decisions

Earlier, I wrote what an impact your personal core values have on your business, and how you can find out what yours are.

One of my core values is freedom. If I want to connect with an audience of creative entrepreneurs who also highly value freedom, I need to make sure that I respect their freedom at all times. I don’t want to impose anything on them, coerce them, or make them feel powerless to making their own decision in any way.

I want to do exactly the opposite: to show them that they have the freedom of choice, and that I trust them to make the right decision for themselves – whether that means signing up or not, hiring me or not, reading this blog or not, following me on social media or not.

If a business practice goes against your core values, then it’s not the right business practice for you. [Tweet this!]

It doesn’t matter what the results of A/B tests say – this option is not even on the table.

If a business practice goes against your core values, then it’s not the right business practice for you. #business

Luckily, there are many different ways you can achieve your goals.

For the example of building an e-mail list, here are some alternatives:

  • create a very compelling offer, something people would pay for
  • create “content upgrades” related to a popular post people are reading (this works like crazy – see my example)
  • you can politely ask your subscribers to forward your newsletter to a friend who would appreciate it
  • you can put opt-in forms on several places on your website (hint: the form in the footer of my website performs unexpectedly well. The footer. Who knew?)
  • you can learn how to write really good subject lines, so more people who already are on your list will actually read your e-mails
  • you can learn how to write better e-mails, so more people who care about what you have to offer will stay on your list
  • you can learn how to describe your offer in a more compelling way, so more people who are already on your list will buy your thing

If your goal is short sighted like “have as many people on my e-mail list as possible”, then having a pop-up might seem like a good idea. But if you trace your superficial goal to the actual goal, which may be to earn a certain amount of money, or to help a certain amount of people to create the transformation they want, there are other ways you can do that.

You could make sure that the people who are on your list are
a) people who want to buy the thing you offer, or
b) highly motivated to make the transformation you can help them achieve.

So instead of pushing the largest possible amount of people to your list, you can try to make sure that the few people who join your list, are the people that really matter. The people who are thirsty for your ideas, the people who’ve been waiting for someone just like you to show up in their lives.

And how do you do that? That’s kind of the point of all my posts on branding.

My answer to the question “how do we do business with integrity?” is: focus on your personal values, and focus on the value you provide to other people. Everything stems from that.

How to do business with integrity? Focus on your personal values, and focus on the value you provide to other people. #business

I know it sounds like a fluffy hippy non-answer, but I assure you, it’s far from it. You’re not the type of person who enjoys following the herd – so don’t. Here’s your permission slip to ditch all the business practices that make your yuck detector go wild. (If you’re still not convinced, read my post How to know when to quit a marketing practice.)

There’s another way: your way.

I’m not saying it’s the easiest way – but it’s certainly the best one for you.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

8 responses to “People over numbers (and why I’ll never have pop-ups on my website)”

  1. I’m actually really surprised how often I’m seeing mailing list popups on websites lately. Especially from a UX perspective, someone could get the same idea across by having an easily visible call to subscribe somewhere above the fold on their site. There are few things more annoying that being greeted by a pop up to subscribe (sometime when you’re already subscribed!) when you just want to read a blog post or something.

    Sorry for the mini-rant, it’s just nice to see someone else agreeing it’s more about people & experience than the numbers!

  2. Rants are welcome, Jen! :)
    I can’t help but be a little disappointed when a blogger I respect a lot (and I’d sign up to their list anyway) resorts to pop-ups. And even more annoying is when you’re asked to subscribe before you’ve even had a chance to read the content and decide if it’s something you want to get more of in your inbox.

  3. Great post Nela! You’re the first person I’ve seen who has intelligently articulated why popups might not be the best idea. They’ve always felt icky to me and now I have some legitimate reasons to continue not using them!

  4. Thank you, Stephanie! :)
    It took me a while to grasp why they felt icky to me, as well. If you want more reasons, check out this video/post by Sean McCabe: – he talks about this issue from a completely different angle.

  5. Good God, indeed, pop-ups are the worst! But the worst of the worst must be those that show up after you clicked on the newsletter, asking you to subscribe even though you are already subscribed. How greedy can people get???
    Sorry, rant over. Seriously, values all the way.

  6. Mary Tracy, that’s definitely a tricky one!
    Unfortunately most email marketing providers don’t have the option of only showing up to those who’re not subscribed yet. Doesn’t excuse them in my book, though :)

  7. I loved what you said about lining up what you choose to do or not do in your business with your values. {Sounds kind of obvious actually now I type it out, but something about the way you said it hit home for me.}

    Like many have said, I don’t like when I’ve JUST arrived at a site, and maybe have only just found the person, and a pop up arrives before I’ve had a chance to see if I’m even interested. Especially those ones with no apparent way to close them. I never sign up then, I just leave. Anyway, I am diverging at this point because I do use a slider that slides in at the bottom right when someone gets past a certain point on the page. It feels less intrusive, and I’ve worded it to say that I get that they might need time before possibly taking things further.

  8. Thank you, Tara :)
    Oh, I don’t consider that bottom-right-slide-in thingy a pop-up. On most sites, it doesn’t obscure the content and it’s easy enough to ignore if you don’t want to subscribe.
    I’ve thought about adding one of those too, but I want to try out a few different things before doing that one, because the thing with people is that they learn to just ignore things they see all over the place (like ads).

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