By Contributing Editor Janet Roberts
Pop-ups are one of the Web's most hated ad formats, but they actually help shopping gateway Ebates convert between 20 percent and 40 percent of first-time visitors into signing up for regular email newsletters and targeted mailings.
"Conversion rates are everything in our business," Co-founder and CEO Alessandro Isolani says. "We operate on a small margin. We offer a free service. We pass along our sales commissions to the user at a discount, so we need to convert effectively and get users at a low cost."
Using pop-ups and pop-unders on its own site, Ebates has gathered a permission-based house list with more than 6 million names since the company launched in 1999.
However, relying so heavily on pop-ups to collect emails is risky these days because blocking software can kill 10 percent to 20 percent of those pops. (Note: you can't rely on your Web metrics to show how many pops were viewed, because much blocking software stops the viewer from seeing your ad after it's served. This makes tracking accurate conversion data very hard.)
So, if you have to make your remaining viewed pops work harder for you if you want to duplicate Ebates' results. Their key best practices:
o Keep pops relevant and easy to use,
o define your customer benefit clearly,
o and, cookie users so that registered members don't see opt-in requests anymore.How Ebates Uses a Succession of Pops to Raise Results
The first time you visit Ebates.com, you land on a simple page that asks you to give your email address and choose a password.
"The landing page is a simple one-two-three of what we do. If the user signs up at the landing page, then there's no more need for pop-ups or pop-unders."
If you bypass it and go right to the homepage, you'll see a floating pop-up that asks again for your email address and password but explains the company's benefit in more detail.
You can close that pop-up to browse the site, but when you click a link, such as one leading to a merchant partner's site, another pop-up launches, asking you again to register before going farther.
If you leave the site without registering, an Ebates pop-under gives you one last chance to register.
"The exit pop is a freebie, your one last chance at them. It doesn't pose a whole lot of risk, and you might gain a lead," Isolani says. "Any damage it might do is very diffuse."
It sounds like a lot of windows launch during a single session, but once you register, you won't see more pop-ups unless they match your shopping interests.
Visitors also can sign up on any Web page, but the pops deliver the best results, Isolani says.Simple Pop Design is (Usually) Better
Ebates changes its pop-up and pop-under repertoire constantly, tweaking the copy inside the window as well as the window size and placement, sometimes even suppressing them to see how it affects registrations.
Testing shows that simple formats pull better than more complex ones, although sometimes visitors will respond more to just a graphic change.
The simple-is-better logic also applies to the registration process, which users can complete right in the pop-up rather than being shipped to an interior registration page
"Back when we launched the site in early 1999, I don't think people had fleshed out the proper way to get people to register," Isolani said. " My view was from a consumer-centric one. Ask for as little as possible and don't ask for anything that isn't absolutely necessary."
That's until an Ebates visitor turns into a shopper.
"Once a user signs up and shops and buys, then we get more information, including a home address and demographic data, but we didn't want to hit users with all of that right away," Isolani says. "It sends the wrong message. If a user comes and signs up on the landing page, we're done. If they close the window, we serve an exit pop with more urgent phrasing, asking them not to leave without signing up."Getting Past the Pop-Up Stoppers
So why don't more people use pop-ups to collect opt-ins or site registrations? Because people hate them.
A PlanetFeedback survey in 2003 found pop-ups scored higher on annoyance and lower on trust than all other ad formats, even including telemarketing, spam and banner ads.
More people are using software to stop pop-ups, too, now that ISPs and other online services bundle blocking software in with their programs.
More than 1 million of EarthLink's 5.1 million customers are using its proprietary PopUpBlocker software, and "millions," according to a Google representative, have downloaded that search engine's toolbar, which includes a pop-up blocker.
Pop-ups can also cause problems if you market through paid search.
Tom Barnes, founder and CEO of MediaThink, an Atlanta, Ga. marketing consulting firm, which uses Google's Adwords, says his company is getting rid of the pop-up it uses to collect opt-ins to its company newsletter, and using pop-ups for any reason violates Google's Adwords terms of service.
Our recommendation - set up a special landing page or microsite for your AdWords clicks that's pop-free, but keep pops on your main site if they are working.
Blocking software also doesn't distinguish between pop-ups and pop-under windows, which don't generate quite as much hatred, or between third-party advertising pop-ups and in-house pops, such as Ebates' subscription solicitations or windows explaining terms of service or privacy policies.
Instead, they block a site's attempt to spawn a new window, what Fastclick Chief Revenue Officer Jeff Hirsch calls a "non-user-initiated" window. (Fastclick is a Web-based ad network offering only pop-unders.)
"That's based on our impression that it's a less-intrusive ad format which delivers a better response for the advertisers," Hirsch says.
Although earlier research studies lumped pop-us and pop-unders together, "it makes common sense to say that they different," Hirsch says. "A pop-up interferes with what you see, where a pop-under does not appear until you're done with what you're doing and you close your browser."
If you're going to use pop-ups or pop-unders, you have to watch how often you launch them and at which points during a user session.
Pop-up blockers also present challenges that their email counterparts don't. You can't change wording or formats to evade a blocker, although most give users the option to whitelist sites whose pop-ups they do want.
"We've had zero customer complaints about our pop-ups," Ebates' Isolani says. "They know we're not spamming them, we're not serving ads and not trying to distract them.
"What we do get are emails from customers saying, 'What happened to all those great coupons? I'm not getting them anymore.' When we investigate, we usually find out they're using pop-up blockers, so we give them directions on how to let our pop-ups get through."Useful links related to this article:
Sample creative for an Ebates pop-up:
Information on pop-unders: