Email subscription and exit pop-ups - we need to talk

Ahhh, the early 2000s. Internet marketing was a fairly haphazard affair, filled with techniques that these days we'd commonly refer to as 'blackhat'. However, one scourge reached almost legendary status in that time, and is universally hated - the pop-up ad.

Yep, they were everywhere, and they were horrible. People had just discovered JavaScript and instead of trying to do awesome things with it, decided instead to just be as irritating as possible.

So pop-up ads became ubiquitous. Luckily, it wasn't too long before lovely developers started creating pop-up blockers, and the outright hatred for pop-ups led companies to start thinking about new approaches that were less intrusive and annoying. We've been, for the most part, pop-up free.

Until now.

The return of the pop-up

Yep, more and more frequently I'm seeing pop-ups appearing again. They aren't quite as ugly, and some of them even transition onto the page in an interesting way, but all that's to be expected with the rise of new internet technologies and design tools.

However, it begs the question, WHY??? Why are they back?

It seems there are two main uses for the new wave of pop-ups.

The timed pop-up

This is the one that, after about 20 seconds of viewing the site, appears in the middle of the article you're reading. It's the most infuriating. Usually it asks for your email address in exchange for an e-book or some other goodies.

I've seen this used on ecommerce stores, promising free shipping or a discount. At least there's an element of sense if the user is already in the buying process.

However, they're being used all over blogs and articles too. And you know who the worst culprits are? Marketers!

These are all over marketing blogs. It doesn't take long to stumble across one. One example is the Marketo blog. It's got great content, but recently a massive great email subscription pop-up blocks out everything within seconds of landing on a piece. To be fair to Marketo, they've avoided adding this on mobile. Many other blogs (who I won't name and shame here) haven't been so courteous.


  • You are interrupting any 'flow state' that the user is in and throwing them way out of it
  • Some of these are bloody awful to try and close on mobile
  • The user has barely had a chance to interact with you before you start demanding their valuable email address
  • This is even worse if they've been linked from elsewhere - they probably know nothing about your company or brand and you're trying to get them to sign up for life
  • It just sucks for user experience 

The exit pop-up

A more recent phenomenon and a largely useless one is the exit pop-up. This is triggered to appear as the user hovers their cursor over the browser's tool bar, which is taken as a sign they're either going to hit 'back' or close the window.

Just as they do that, BAM! A pop-up appears designed to re-grab attention. 'Oh but won't you put your email in and grab our ebook before you go???' is the copy... or something along those lines.

Exit pop-ups are a pretty common sight at the moment

Exit pop-ups are a pretty common sight at the moment

An example is Social Media Examiner. Another great blog, but another example of poor UX. Try it out - head to a post on their blog and just hover over your browser's toolbar.


  • This last ditch attempt won't have much success
  • You need to convince your users to sign up before they plan on exiting
  • It's irritating - people may unintentionally hover over their toolbar when reading an article
  • It doesn't work on mobile anyway (as there's no 'hovering' as such)

How to do a pop-up, if you have to...

There are examples of how to do pop-ups in a way that don't wreck your user's journey on your site.

Ideally, these need to be non-intrusive and simplistic. And they have to work on mobile. The best method is to keep them to the side of the screen, where they won't impact on the user experience, but they're still noticeable enough for the user to maybe hover over once they've read your content and drop an email address in.

Credit where credit's due then, here's a couple of great examples.

Ryan Gum - Ryan has one of the most brilliant collections of start-up marketing materials and guides out there. It's just brilliant. He's also got an awesome way of doing pop-ups. It's modest, it's non-intrusive, and it gives you some time to actually realise where you are before appearing. His pop-up is powered by SumoMe and is referred to as a 'scroll box' (SumoMe, ironically, use the same bulls**t timed pop-ups we mention above on their site though...)

Convince and Convert - after about half a minute of browsing the Convince and Convert website, a little email subscription box slides in at the bottom of the page. Again, it's pleasantly subtle and doesn't detract from the experience of using their site. Lovely.

I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed

So, that's where we are with pop-ups in 2015. I thought we'd moved on, but apparently they're back with a vengeance. They have always been and continue to be bad for user experience, and the payback you get is minimal. Sure, you might collect a few email addresses. But at what cost? How many people left your website feeling frustrated and annoyed? Especially when using a mobile device, where pop-ups are often badly displayed.

Let's remember the core marketing concept of brand equity here. Keep feelings towards your brand positive and the pay-off in the long run will be far higher. Build an experience that people want to subscribe and engage with. If you have to beg people to stay at your party, then your party probably needs some work.

Remember: Let the user interact with you, don't interact with the user.

Speaking of email subscription, if you dig this piece then you can subscribe to my emails below the comment box. Let me know if you disagree with me on pop-ups too - I'd love to hear your thoughts.