Creative Juices

A blog by Matt Korostoff

Popup ads are back

It's easy to forget now, but there was a time when any web page could pop open as many windows as it wanted without your consent. In the early 2000s popup blockers became so ubiquitous and effective that now advertisers hardly bother with them anymore. In fact, the popup problem had been so thoroughly solved that I had hardly even thought about them until recently—when they reemerged in a new form.

There's an irritating trend on a growing number of sites to use modal in-page light frame style popups (or "hover ads" if you prefer) not to display third party marketing messages, but to beg for "conversions." The thinking goes something like this: if we harass and beg every person who comes to this site, some small fraction of them will give us an email address, which we can use to market to them more later. Some people won't like it, and some might even leave the page all together, but that value will be outweighed by the increased number of conversions.

What's most disheartening is that, from what limited evidence I can gather, that reasoning appears to be correct.

Take a look at just a few samples I've gathered casually browsing the past few days. All of these met the following criteria: 1) they showed up the first time I ever visited the site, 2) they showed up immediately on the first (and only) page I viewed, and 3) they blocked access to the content I arrived looking for:

Guys, guys, I know your marketing team is laser focused on conversions, and that this seems like an effective conversion formula—but I'm here on your site for the first time, I know nothing whatsoever about it. You want me to supply an email address within the first 3 seconds of having visited your page? I am never going to do that. At a minimum, I want to click around and grasp what I'm signing up for, so I have some basis to decide whether I want it. When a site fails to afford this opportunity, as often as not, I just close the tab.

A common reply to this line of reasoning is "hey, if it works, it works," but I'm here to say: just because it works, doesn't mean you should do it. Yeah, maybe every 1000 impressions for your modal signup form garners 1 conversion, but what about the 999 people who you just frustrated? The frustration may be small in each case, but spread out across thousands of websites, the frustration starts to look not so small after all. If we all acted this way—willingly inconveniencing huge swaths of people in order to gain any small personal advantage—I think the world would be a much drearier place.

Let us not forget, old-style popups weren't originally invented to display ads. They've been largely eliminated, not because they stopped being a useful, but simply because advertisers used them with such abandon that the rest of the web was becoming unusable. We broke that feature of the web because we couldn't be trusted to use it responsibly. Now do we need to break another?

Matt Korostoff is a web developer and cartoonist from New Brunswick, NJ. He works for Blink Reaction and you should too.