3 Scientific Reasons Why Popups Are So Freaking Effective

Fact: Popups increase conversion rates.

Why? Because science.

But before we dig into the science, let’s take a look at why popups are a marketer’s best friend.

Image via Giphy.

A second (and often last) chance to convert

Here’s something no one in ecommerce wants to hear: Prospects abandon websites in droves, and most will never return.

There are many reasons why visitors leave: they’re not swayed by your offer, they’re not the right fit (or they just don’t know it yet), they’re distracted, they’re rushed.

Regardless of why, it doesn’t take a scientist to point out that re-engaging abandoning visitors could dramatically improve your conversion rates.

This is where popups (a.k.a. your new “bestie”) come to the rescue.

Website popups provide a second chance for your audience to convert. And by focusing the visitor’s attention on just one timely, relevant and valuable offer (the trifecta of effective popups), your chances of conversion go through the roof.

Here’s an example…

Upon seeing the shipping costs associated with their order, a potential customer may decide to abandon the sale. Implementing a popup offering a deal on shipping could prevent cart abandonment and close the sale.

But why do abandoning users change their minds?

Back to the science.

#1: Popups counteract the paradox of choice

Think about the toothpaste aisle of your drugstore. There are whitening toothpastes, natural toothpastes, cinnamon flavored toothpastes… spearmint, peppermint, bubblegum!

Are you overwhelmed yet? Image via Giphy.

With an online store, customers face a similar overload of options. They come in the form of multiple buttons, links and messages calling out for the visitor’s attention.

When they can’t decide, they flee. It seems that while humans are empowered by a little bit of choice, too much choice can result in analysis paralysis.

Author Barry Schwartz further illustrates this in his oldie-but-goodie book, The Paradox of Choice. In it he discusses the negative psychological impact an abundance of choice can have on our well being, and how eliminating choices can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Alleviating anxiety by way of eliminating options, then, is critical to making a sale.

It’s for this reason that landing pages are so effective in converting targeted traffic. By keeping the Attention Ratio at 1:1, landing pages focus a visitor’s attention on a single conversion goal, thus resulting in higher conversion rates than a page on your website.

But what about those web pages — shouldn’t they be optimized, too?

Yes, absolutely.

Popups take on the role of a helpful salesperson, tapping your prospect on the shoulder and asking if they can be of assistance. They narrow the visitor’s attention on a single, enticing offer, and simplify the decision-making process for potential customers.

SImply put, popups are effective for the same reason landing pages are effective: they eliminate distractions, provide the user with a last-chance offer and distill the choice down to a simple yes-or-no answer.

Psst. Already an Unbounce customer? Log in now and build an popup with Unbounce at no extra cost. You can use the same drag-and-drop Unbounce Builder to drive conversions on both your campaign landing pages and your website

#2: Popups re-engage prospects by using a neuro-linguistic programming technique called pattern interrupt

Neuro what? Sorry, let me explain.

Pattern interrupt is a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) technique that has been used by salespeople for years. The concept is pretty straightforward: do or say something unexpected to disrupt a person from their normal patterns.

By interrupting patterns we create moments for change, which is why some people use the technique for breaking bad habits. Even something as simple as slapping an elastic band against your wrist can help interrupt a regular pattern

Popups are driven by a similar logic. Unexpectedly, they show the visitor an offer that sweetens the pot, convincing them to think twice about their predictable path toward the ‘Back’ button.

In essence, you’re using the popup much like you would the rubber band, to get your visitor’s attention and then focus it on something else, like an unexpected deal related to what they were looking at initially.

#3: Popups leverage effective frequency by repeating and reinforcing your message

Several years ago I began seeing ads for a three-step skin clearing system that shall remain nameless.

At first I didn’t pay much attention to them, but after seeing ad after ad I started to wonder whether their claims had any validity; I was intrigued.

A few months later, I had a nasty breakout. I’d already warmed up to the idea of testing the product out, so I keyed in my credit card info and placed my order. A week later, a package arrived at my home with my first month’s supply.

Image via Giphy.

That — what happened there — was the result of effective frequency.

Effective frequency is the number of times a prospect must be shown a particular message before taking the desired action.

There are varying theories on what the optimum number of times to show a message is — the law of seven, for example, suggests that it’s, well, seven. Whatever the case, it’s always more than once.

Popups leverage effective frequency by providing you with an additional opportunity to serve up and thus reinforce your message. By using an popup with similar messaging to your web page, you are in fact nudging your prospect toward becoming a customer.

Takeaways and learnings

Popups don’t work because they’re the shiny new thing. They work because scientific — and particularly psychological — principles are at play.

  • Our brains don’t like complicated scenarios, and given how many we already face in daily life, the last thing we want are complicated consumer decisions. Simplicity of product choice = higher chance of conversion.
  • People are habitual by nature. We have certain patterns that we subscribe to, often unconsciously, that allow us operate on “autopilot”. Disrupting this pattern creates a moment for change, and doing so with a popup may be just the thing to turn an unengaged visitor into a customer.
  • The more times we’re served up a message, the more likely we are to believe it to be true. By reinforcing the message on your web page with a similar supporting message on your popup, you are in fact nudging your prospect toward becoming a customer.

Have you experimented with popups? I’d love to hear about it the comments.

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About Amy Wood
Amy Wood is a former writer and editor at Unbounce. She previously worked as an editor at a nationally published health and wellness magazine, where she learned about the benefits of vitamin D and em-dashes. She enjoys eating tacos, reading graphic novels and binge-watching tv series on Netflix. But mostly eating tacos. Find her on Twitter: @phoenixorflame
» More blog posts by Amy Wood


  1. Ruchi Mahatre

    download latest government jobs syllabus at https://recruitment16.in/syllabus/

  2. Paul Thompson

    The five! huge animated gifs make this post pretty much unreadable, unfortunately. Dings the professionalism badly too, IMO.

    • Amy

      Thanks for the feedback, Paul! Really appreciate it :)

    • abajan

      They make the post unreadable? Seriously? They’re a minor distraction at most and don’t take away from the professionalism at all.

      It’s a very informative post, IMO. Although, like Amanda Carlson has stated, I’m wondering how the planned Google crackdown on popups early next year will affect pages which use them.

  3. Kenji

    I want to read this at work but I don’t want my co-workers to see the gifs!

  4. 三五营销


  5. Daniel Davidson

    Pffff… I love the gifs.

    But, boy do I hate those pesky little popups when they happen to me on mobile.

    Great article Amy!

  6. Amanda Carlson

    Oh the irony of this article! While a well timed, properly targeted overlay, as you call them, can be effective, they are a fine line to walk. In other articles on this site and in your own marketing conference you all discussed the downside of the pop-up. Even here you talk about frequency. The problem is that the frequency you talk about is not solely a pop-up, but you are inferring it to be. For that, someone who is not in the know, will think more is more and put pop-ups on everything, which ultimately deters traffic from engagement both in session duration and return session metrics. And yes, an overlay is a pop-up. It’s just driven by CSS and jQuery instead of physically opening a new window as if it were 1998. The question that comes to mind, though, is how is this all impacted by the pending crack down of Google on pop-ups and hidden/toggle content of all types, which is set to go into full effect by mid-January? It seems here you are promoting something that will be poo-poo’d by the Google Gods in short time and could impact search rankings. It’s hard to convert people who can’t find your website or landing page to begin with.

    • Amy

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Amanda. It’s my understanding that Google will mainly be cracking down on overlays on mobile, not desktop. And according to Google, not all overlays are created equal; the main thing they’ll be looking for are popups/overlays that cover the main content, either upon arrival or after a delay. We’re doing our best to provide our readers with content that will educate them about the benefits of overlays, but also about using them in ways that do not disrupt the user experience, including adhering to Google’s guidelines. Again, thanks for your comment, and for reading :)

  7. Alan Clarc

    Awesome post. I bookmarks this site to read it further.

  8. DUI_Maze

    I’m halfway through this article still wondering what an overlay is… Oh, you mean a popup? Good lord. That was frustrating.

  9. Grieg Jones

    Oh popups get peoples attention? Yeah thanks for the info scumbag.

  10. Liyanstech Com

    NIce article. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Jakeyb

    Well out of date now. Overalys and no longer unexpected and in fact have become annoying by their prevalence. So the NLP reference/theory is totally defunct.