Why Content Marketers Are Overcoming Their Fears and Learning to Love the Pop-Up

My childhood dog Cody was not a brave creature. An 85-pound golden retriever, he’d roll over for the 12-pound terriers across the street, cower during the most subdued of storms, and generally walk around like the entire world was a jack-in-the-box just waiting to spring out at any point.

One day when he was just a puppy, I accidentally dropped the metal tin containing his dog treats onto the tile floor. As you can imagine, he freaked out more than a little bit. From that point forward, any time he so much as saw the tin, he’d bolt in the opposite direction. It was so bad that I could literally put a treat on top of the tin and place it on the floor, and he’d refuse to approach it. You could see the agony in his eyes as he struggled, instinct pitted against learned behavior.

To me, this perfectly sums up content marketers and blog-subscriber pop-ups. Many of us remember the early days of the web, when pop-up messages were just about the worst thing around. So we’re understandably skittish around them.

But marketers also instinctively want to ask people for their information. We want the newsletter subscriber who may one day turn into a lead, opportunity, and sale. We want to grow the audience for our content, and we want the credit. And this inherent marketer trait—like a dog craving a treat—causes us an unusual amount of internal angst when we eye our version of the tin: pop-ups. Like Cody, we feel that conflict. “I really want that delicious subscriber, but I’m scared to approach that tactic.”

And while I, like you, hate the experience of pop-ups personally, I’m seeing them re-emerge everywhere, along with rabid defense of their use. And I have to say it: Pop-ups, when used correctly, might be a good thing.

(Cringe! Cower! Shudder! Dry heave!)

Don’t misunderstand: I’m a writer at heart. I run a newsletter called The Daily Content and my firm’s blog at NextView. I agonize over providing a great experience in both cases. But pop-ups are experiencing a renaissance that it seems finally, mercifully, aligns them with a good reader experience.

Take the site Wait But Why, a blog that publishes high-quality weekly essays on deep topics. Their style is witty, well-researched, and thoughtful. They’re the definition of doing things “the right way.”

Here’s what a recent pop-up on their site looked like:

This site boasts hundreds of thousands of subscribers and followers. Yet rather than place their cards on the table and say, “Subscribe, and here’s why,” they insert a little humor to soften the perceived blow of a bad experience.

Here’s another example along the same lines—self-referencing, self-deprecating humor. This comes from SaaS company Price Intelligently (note the first line of body copy below the headline):

What the heck is going on?

Well, again, pop-ups feel icky, so it’s hard to adopt them without feeling that internal conflict. In a smart move, many blogs are openly addressing that to help inch subscribers back towards the pop-up.

In the case of Price Intelligently above, they were able to boost their subscriber conversion rate from 3 to 4 percent. That may not seem like a lot, but as a startup, that could make or break their entire company’s trajectory.

Another example is this very blog, The Content Strategist, which also uses blog subscriber pop-ups with the right level of care and the right experience in mind. Contently’s editor-in-chief, Joe Lazauskas, says he was initially skittish about popups too, but as he admits, “Once we started using Sumo.me, we couldn’t ignore the results. Our email list growth went from about 175 new subscribers per week to about 1,000 per week, with over 5 percent of new visitors subscribing. It also led us to a new paid Facebook strategy.”

(That’s an ominous increase of 666 percent, for those keeping track at home.)

The key, according to Joe and hopefully confirmed by you, the readers of this blog, is that Contently has strict rules to ensure a good reader experience. They control the frequency, triggering a pop-up rarely to each visitor and watching conversions carefully to ensure it’s not an unnecessary or annoying prompt.

In Joe’s words, “Email conversion is a great sign of content health.” If people aren’t subscribing, then it’s a lousy experience, and the effect of your content suffers. But when content companies like Contently to thought leaders like GE emphasize email above all else, we’d all be wise to take note.

Across the industry, you’ll find the blogs of growth hackers and content marketers lauding the results gained through pop-ups—a boost of over 500 percent here, a little 200 percent spike there, and so forth.

So… was I wrong to dislike pop-ups? What’s happening? My marketer tendencies and my memory of past pop-ups are starting to clash, and I don’t like it one bit.

Well, just as Joe at Contently stated, it’s all about carefully watching and tracking the reader experience.

The marketers behind HubSpot’s new product, Sidekick, agreed with that assessment. I talked to HubSpot VP of Growth Brian Balfour and marketer Anum Hussain, who both pointed to their slow but steady adoption of pop-ups.

“We make it a point not to surface these [pop-ups] for people who are already subscribed,” said Hussain. “That is a flaw in how some scrappy blogs get these pop-ups running and end up pissing people off.”

So, like both Contently and my dog Cody, they’re very careful to creep slowly back towards this stuff. They’ve focused on providing a good experience while also converting more subscribers, which is more than can be said of many blogs that blast multiple popups at you the moment you arrive and regardless of how often you visit them.

In Sidekick’s case, it’s still early, and they admitted they’ve yet to optimize the approach, but it’s already starting to pay off. Their pop-up calls to action perform at an average of 3 percent view-to-subscriber conversion rate, which is double their average on other CTAs placed near the end of each blog post (those average 1.2 percent). Additionally, their pop-up and slide-in messages are also double the conversion rate of their blog’s home page.

Here’s a look at their main pop-up CTA:

Again, they credit their success to their hawk-like attention to frequency, placement, and messaging. That’ s important to remember, especially when CMOs start to apply pressure to build subscribers faster. Let’s be careful. This isn’t the tactic we want to triple down on without careful testing. Ultimately, we should toe the water, gather some data, learn, and iterate, keeping our relationships with our readers top of mind.

So like the late, great Cody, my dear old pup, perhaps we’ve been extremists in our fears. After all, while I do despise and sometimes audibly grunt at pop-ups, I can’t remember the last time I threw up my arms and refused to visit a site ever again thanks to their pop-up. Maybe, just maybe, they’re not that bad.

My fellow marketers: We’ve been staring at a delicious marketing treat for years, too afraid to even approach it. It’s time to take a bite.

(Did I really just write this article? I’m so damn conflicted. Cody, I feel you, dog…)

Jay Acunzo is irrationally obsessed with one mission: Help marketers master the craft of content creation. He’s currently trying to fulfill that through The Daily Content, a bite-sized newsletter sharing one example of great content each weekday. Jay is also the director of platform at NextView Ventures, a VC in Boston. He’s the co-founder of Boston Content and former head of content at HubSpot. Jay started his career in digital marketing strategy at Google.

Image by StudioSmart/Shutterstock

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