On newsletter signups: To pop up or not to pop up?

Or: The artful seduction of getting someone to sign up to your newsletter.

Newsletter popups. You know those irritating things that pop up on a website the minute you land, or obstruct your screen while you’re trying to read? The variation is endless and yet the message is essentially the same (“Sign up to our newsletter”) with the intent generally also being the same (“We want your email address to market at you”). Maybe it’s to sell things to you, maybe it’s to get you to read articles to get advertisers to sell to you… you get the drift.

As cynical as I am about this little device that’s so popular with online marketers, I still find myself signing up on said annoying popups from time to time, often in spite of my better judgement.

So what’s the deal? Why is it that sometimes we immediately close the browser tab (for me, often) but other times… something different happens? We eagerly type out our full names and email addresses, sometimes even share our birthdays and locations, our hopes and our dreams, hit subscribe, and then obediently follow the process of clicking the confirmation link that lands up in our email inbox. What is the difference?

What motivates us to subscribe to newsletters

As far as I can reasonably tell without more than Psychology 1B, we subscribe to newsletters that we perceive are going to be useful to us, interesting or entertaining. Essentially, we believe they are going to fulfil a need. But before we can make this decision we need a level of trust or understanding about the brand or platform whose website we are on. To put it one way, there needs to be a level of “getting to know you” happening before you lunge in for the kiss – or ask for some kind of commitment. Why would I want regular communication from you if I know nothing about you? And if I don’t know you particularly well, you are definitely going to have to work even harder upfront to seal the deal. Which leads us to:

What works in a newsletter popup (and what NOT to do)

Copy is King of the Castle

For me, it’s all about well-crafted copy. Words work wonders. If you are funny or smart or interesting enough to get my attention, you’re well on your way. If you offer me something that I even momentarily believe I cannot get anywhere else, that also works. (I’ve yet to see a newsletter popup that makes you feel good about yourself or really takes charming to the next level, but I’m always open to being corrected!)

Vice.com newsletter signup

Vice.com newsletter signup – quirky copy does the job here, and we TOTALLY agree, newsletters ARE the new newsletters. Right?


Nieman.Org newsletter popup

Nieman.org newsletter popup – it’s all about promising to fulfil a need, with a simple solution (one email!) while satisfying my massive FOMO (everyone is doing it!). Bam. Signed up.


Timing is everything

Don’t activate a popup the minute someone lands on your site. They came to your site for a reason and I can tell you now it wasn’t to give away their email address. Give them time. It’s possible to set a popup to trigger only after someone has scrolled a certain way down a page, for example, or on the second or third page of their visit. Say I’m reading a long article and I’ve spent some time engaging with your content. Now you know I’m interested. Now’s when you drop the line.


Don’t keep trying (on the first visit)

Don’t re-activate said popup on every subsequent page I visit once I’ve closed the first one. This is a sure way to annoy your website visitors enough to make them leave and not come back. Ever again. Something like a bad rash.

In the unlikely case that they are still browsing through your site despite playing pingpong with your popups page after page they’re obviously pretty interested in your content for now – but haven’t decided they want to make it official just yet. So take it easy. Wait for them to leave, come back a few days later, and then try again. Just once per visit.

Remember, your audience’s attention is worth more than their clicks.

You don’t want to scare them away by being forceful. (Not to name names, but here’s an example of someone that did that to me just today. Take a gander and you’ll see in action how annoying it becomes. I really like yoga else I would have left ages ago!)


Location, location, location

This is not the most obvious consideration when placing your popup as opposed to your property, but a recent article on Contently makes a good point. The article features the humble “About” page found on virtually every website and suggests this could be a good page to trigger that popup.

It’s easy to hate pop-ups, but in this case, the choice makes sense. If you’re already putting in the effort to learn about the company, then this is another chance to build a long-term relationship with the user,” says author Mat Zucker. (Smart guy.)


Remember who I am

Don’t ask me to subscribe to your newsletter when I’ve landed on your website via a link in your newsletter. OMG that’s like forgetting my name on the second, third, fourth, fifth … time we meet. You know those people. (There is ONE publication that does this that drives me dilly on a weekly basis and it’s so damn good I keep going back for more, damn them!)

Wired.com newsletter popup

Wired.com newsletter popup – that keeps popping up and we keep coming back for more!

So, the artful seduction of newsletter popups

Should you pop it or not?

It’s not a simple yes or no question. The answer is in how you do it. Be artful in your seduction!

If you haven’t already seen it, my partner in crime put together some of her favourite popups in this blog last year. Pop on over and have a peek – there are some truly great examples out there.

Of those that do opt to pop, I believe it’s most suited to sales or ecommerce-led sites. Offer a special, a voucher, whatever it takes, because that email address will be your bread and butter. Your visitors are more than likely already there with the intention to shop, so no need to be coy about it. Loyalty systems have been proved to work and there’s no reason online is any different.

But what are the alternatives?

A better question perhaps is if not, what else? As much as there are great versions of popups out there, it doesn’t mean that’s the best solution for every scenario. There’s the signup in the sidebar option, common to many news publications and blogs – like ours for example. As web design moves away from the sidebar with more fluid forms of design, so too there are more sexy and subtle ways of introducing your newsletter signup. One way is in between one article and the next. It’s less intrusive but it’s right there waiting for the engaged reader. Quartz is a news site that does that – it’s there on the home page in between the first and second content listing, as well as between every article that autoloads after the previous one.

Quartz daily newsletter signup

Quartz daily newsletter signup on the home page. Great copy without the intrusion of the popup factor!


There’s also the option of including it right in the navigation. A newsletter I subscribe to, the Ann Friedman Weekly, does just that.

Ann Friedman Weekly

Ann Friedman Weekly – the newsletter is in the main menu and she even offers a paid-for version.

These make perfect sense. If you’re at a site that’s all about thought-leadership (as Ann’s is) or curated content (as Quartz is) then people are there for exactly that service you provide. So they’ll opt in of their own accord – you don’t have to interrupt your visitors to prove your worth. As a very wise man once said:

“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu

So there again we have the point about copy being king. Choose your words wisely and your audience is yours.

Need more reading?

Once you’ve perfected your newsletter signup and it’s time to create your first newsletter, you may want some advice. You’ll find that here.

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