The No B.S. Truth About Popups
Publication: RidiculouslyExtraordinary.
Posted by Ryan Neal
The No B.S. Truth About Popups
Publication: RidiculouslyExtraordinary. Posted by Ryan Neal

"Silence means death." - Max Cavalera
If we're being honest then honestly I don't want to publish this article. It's likely either going to spread and become a catalyst for positive change or blow up in my face and make people I like hate me. By a quick mental count there are exactly 13 things I'd rather do more than publish this article.

But I'm seeing far too many of my friends/acquaintances, good people who mean well, fall into the black hole of internet marketing. What I mean by that is, once you start putting money over your customers it turns into a slippery slope aimed directly into the darkest pits of marketing and business. I know because I've been there.

You won't even see it happen. You'll deny. You'll lie to yourself. You'll scream from the rooftops that you are an honest, ethical, business person. Like a junkie having "just one bump" you'll hit rock bottom and wonder how you got there.

Back in the days I used to use popups, popunders, popovers, and every single other method available to get more leads into my funnel and squeeze every percentage point of cash out of those leads.

See what happened there? Leads. Funnel. Percentage. Cash. I've dehumanized the whole process of creating a business that actually helps people. Now you're just a lead in my funnel pouring bills into my pocket. A blip on my macbook. Faceless. Soul-less. With a credit card and a paypal account, hopefully both at the ready. You are John Doe. You are Jane Doe. You are nobody. You're more nobody if you don't buy from me.

Before I go on, let me state in simple terms: I'm no saint. I'm a recovering "money-grubbing sleazy marketer." (Which is the category of business owner popup use puts you in.) I wrote about the depression that resulted from those times in the Luxury of Less.

Money Is OK

There is nothing wrong with building a business.

There is nothing wrong with making a lot of money.

There is even nothing inherently wrong with caring more about money than your customers.

And contrary to what I've stated in the past I don't think everybody who uses popups cares more about money than their customers.

What I think has happened is that most people who use popovers (the "sexy new popup") don't realize what they're conveying to their audiences because they've simply followed the herd (their popup-using mentors). Ignorance is bliss, right?

Which is why I needed to publish this article. Once you've read it you can no longer claim ignorance. If I can save one person from the black hole of internet marketing my work here is done. Everything else is gravy. (Vegan gravy, of course.)

I've heard all the excuses about why popups are supposedly OK and they're all very telling about the business owner.

"If you don't like them don't read my site."

Very true and very condescending. You've consciously put yourself in the realm of sleazy, money-grubbing, marketer. (That may very well be what you want, of course.) There are absolutely no two-ways about it. A sleazy, money-grubbing, marketer doesn't care what their customers think, because the bottom line trumps all: "Does it make money? Yes? Do it." It's unfortunate, but true.

This is also a very short-sighted approach. Sure, you will probably generate more leads and more sales in the short term, but at what cost? A loss of trust. Over the long term that loss of trust will result in a business that isn't sustainable. Business today is dependent on trust more than ever. That trend will only continue.

"Trust is the scarcest resource we've got left." - Seth Godin in All Marketers Are Liars

"If people didn't like them they wouldn't work."

Delusional. It's OK, I was delusional once as well. I told myself the very same thing.

"I'm getting more subscribers. And people e-mail me thanking me for my content! I'm doing good work." The truth is I was not. I didn't care. It was cool that I was helping people and all, but I didn't care. I wanted more money, more subscribers, more leads ... get in my funnel!

I used to spam Google search results with pages upon pages of fake (aka "spun") content. (Do some searches on "content spinner" or "article spinner" and you'll see the "quality" content these things create.) Did anybody (particularly Google or the end-user) like my websites? Not one bit. I didn't even like them.

"They work like gangbusters, so everybody must like them," I lied to myself.

Popups are on the same sleazy realm as spam.

"Look, if you have something fundamentally shitty, you can't do much with it, can you?" - A man named Geoffrey, from the book The Geography of Bliss.

"It's free. I'm being altruistic."

A dude offered me a hit of cocaine once. Even drug dealers have free lead generators. He wanted me in his funnel and was willing to give me something that had actual cash value for free. Does that mean he cared about me?

First, as we know, free isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

Second, this is another delusion. You may very well be giving something good away for free. And you may very well care about your customers. But the mere fact you're giving something away for free doesn't mean you care about your customers. There's far more to it than that.

Unwillingly forcing your customers into an action they weren't expecting insinuates something entirely different than a sense of altruism.

"They only show up once."

No, they don't, and you very well know that. Quit lying to yourself.

They only show up once if the person reading your site never clears their cookies. Guess what? People clear their cookies. According to one study, 63% of people clear their cookies at least once per month. With increasing use of anti-spyware, anti-malware, and anti-virus software this number will rise. People aren't technological idiots anymore.

In case that wasn't clear, if this is your argument then you think your customers are idiots.

"They only show up if the reader gets to the end of the article."

I really want to use another drug analogy here, but that's been done. So let me change tactics.

Is it good business strategy to annoy people who actually like your content? If somebody is reading to the end of your article they probably like you. You reward them by smacking them in the face with an ad? (Figuratively speaking of course.) Is that what someone who cares does to their audience?

Listen, if I'm buying an apple at the farmer's market and before I leave the farmer grabs me by the arm, pulls me back, and tries to sell me another apple I ain't gonna shop with that farmer anymore. It would make him an asshole. Who wants to do business with an asshole?

Authority Figures Perpetuating Popups

The problem that's happening these days is that a lot of authority figures are using popups. When a newbie sees an authority use a popup they will likely think they should - maybe even have to - use a popup to build a successful business.

This turns into a never-ending cycle.

Newbie becomes authority while using popups --> Other newbies see newly crowned authority become successful while using popups --> More newbies use popups --> Newbie becomes authority while using popups

Positive User Experience

Do you agree it's a good idea to model the truly successful?

Look at almost any successful business. Your favorite businesses, for example. More precisely, look at businesses that aren't blog-based. Do they use popups on their websites? Probably not. Why? Because it screams sleaze and diminishes user experience.

A few of my favorite businesses are,, and No popups, no sleazy marketing tactics, just a great user experience. Truly successful companies focus on profits, yes, but they focus on a positive user experience to achieve those profits.

Popups do not promote positive user experience no matter what anybody deludes themselves into believing.

Google Hates Popups

Google is a public corporation and bottom line is very important to them. It's so important that they don't support popups:

We do not allow pop-up ads of any kind to appear on our site. Not only are they annoying, they run counter to our belief that searching on should be fast, simple and straightforward.

Here is a company that needs to turn huge profits or investors get upset and still they publicly denounce popups. Why? A positive user experience results in more trust, more goodwill, and more profit.

Get New Mentors

My business mentors don't use popups. That's on purpose. I don't want to take advice from people who do stuff I don't agree with. Of course, just because I don't agree with them doesn't mean they're not smart. They may be smart. They may even be genius. But I know they might also inadvertently lead me astray.

You could argue that I should take the good and discard the bad. And I do. I don't completely discount someone simply because they use popups or other sleazy tactics. But when it comes to my core business and life principles I feel more comfortable aligning them with people who don't use any spammy tactics.

In other words, if your mentors are using popups you need new mentors.

Suggested Mentors

Blogging/Life/Philosophy: Leo Babuta

Business/Life/Philosophy: Derek Sivers

Business: Seth Godin

You don't need any more than those 3 guys. No joke. Read everything they've written, use it to create your own core principles, and unsubscribe from everybody else.

What Two Of The Most Successful People Online Have To Say About Popups

As if you need more prompting I asked all 3 of these mentors the question, "What does it convey to you when a business owner uses a popup on their website?"

Leo said:

Popups are a sign that the business cares more about its goals (subscribers, sales, conversions) than the reader's goals (reading, solving their problems). This is a damage to a business' reputation that cannot be undone.
Leo went more in-depth on his business practices in The Quiet Theory of Influence.

Derek said:

When a site uses popups, it screams, "I'M DOING WHAT'S BEST FOR ME, NOT WHAT'S BEST FOR YOU."
  • It's inconsiderate.
  • It's trying to force a relationship instead of letting one happen.
  • It makes their site more inconvenient.
  • It builds resentment as someone who was reading now has to move their mouse into the tiny little [x] to make the huge popup go away.
  • It makes the user less apt to want to engage, as it's clear the site-owner tends to act out of self-interest, not doing what's best for the user.
More from Derek, including how he built a business with $100 million in revenues without trying to, is available in Anything You Want. It's one of my favorite business books and I recommend every budding entrepreneur read it.

Seth respectfully declined to comment (aka didn't respond to my 5 sentence e-mail).

How To Block Popups

Unfortunately, sleazy marketing seems to be a dominant form of online marketing right now. You can change that!
  • Resolve not to use tactics that make your stomach tighten and your skin crawl.
  • Tell your favorite bloggers and business owners how you feel about their popups.
  • Send anybody you respect who uses a popup a link to this article.
In spite of whatever else you do, sometimes it comes to this: You've got to install popup blockers so you can browse the internet in peace.

Randy has created free extensions for Firefox and Chrome that will block popover style (formerly unblockable) popups. He's created these completely on his own time and doesn't charge for them.

You can download them here: Lightboxes are for assholes

How To Block Popups Part 2 (No Linking Policy)

I'm officially instituting a "no linking to sites with popups" policy. The web works because of links. If you and I stop linking to sites with popups we can change this abhorrent behavior. It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen without you, but it will happen.

I don't just mean links on your website either. I'm instituting a sweeping no linking to sites with popups policy. No twitter links. No facebook likes or links. No Google+ shares. It's over. I'm done. I can't - won't - support this behavior anymore.

If I link out to a site that provides a subpar user experience then I'm responsible for your subpar experience. That diminishes your trust in me and I can't have that. If you find a link on this site that links to a site with a popup please let me know so I can remove the link. E-mail karol AT or tweet me @KarolGajda.

In Closing

You may currently be using popups. If so, I simply ask you to take a look at your core principles to determine if using popups aligns with them. If not, stop using them and spread the word. We'll forgive you and accept you with open arms back to the clean, ethical side of the marketing world.

This is everything I have to say on this topic, but I've heard it's good to close speeches with a quote. I'm going to use that idea here. It's a quote and a question. Take it as you will.

"Can you be genuine and a fraud at the same time?" - Eric Weiner
Image sources: Truth - Money - Lies


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