Jeremy Smith Oct 9, 2014 9:57:57 AM 29 min read

Using Psychology Hacks to Enhance your Pop Up Conversions

This article is like no other pop-up article you’ve ever read.

Most articles will give you a few tips on making your pop-up bigger, better, catchier and more awesome. I’m going to do that but I’m also going to go a step beyond.

My goal in this article is to show you some really effective pop-ups, and then to tell you why they’re effective. A pop-up isn’t effective simply due to superficial elements like color and verbiage. Those are outward manifestations of an inner-psychology that drives human behavior.

In the examples below, you will be exposed to pop-ups that capitalize on the human psyche to drive certain behavior. Pop-ups work because they affect something in the mind.

Instead of just showing you some sweet pop-ups, I’m going to tell you why — based on human cognitive, psychological,  neuroscientific research — why these pop-ups are so insanely good.

For each topic, I use a single pop-up as a case study. However, the features explained in each topic apply to most of the other pop-ups.

1. Effective pop-ups are casual and disarming.

Let’s face it. Pop-ups can be really annoying.

Even "pop-up eager" industry mavens like Derek Halpern admit that pop-ups are annoying.

Should i sue those annoying pop-ups

But in spite of their apoplectic potential, they’re still effective.

Still, it’s important to mollify some of the potential rage by being as cheerful as possible about the pop-up. One characteristic of pop-ups that is effective is that they’re casual.

Check out this one from Kate Spade:

Kate spade pop-up

There are several reasons why this pop-up is sheer genius.

  • It’s yellow. Yellow is a happy color. How can you get ticked off at a yellow color like this one?
  • It’s round. According to cognitive neuroscientific psychological research, humans prefer curved visual objects. Researches from the Harvard Medical School discovered that, to put it in non-psychological terms, curved objects (like circles) make us happy. See that big yellow circle in the pop-up above? It’s a curved object. And it makes us happy. And come to think of it, it looks a little bit like the universal symbol for happiness.



(Image from Creative Commons)

  • It’s really casual. “Oh, hey!” is a common expression. You’ve probably used it yourself. It’s what two friends or acquaintances might say to each other if they bump into one another at the grocery store or coffee shop. When you read it on a pop-up, it makes you feel the same way — like a friend is greeting you. This isn’t the typical response we feel when we’re confronted with a pop-up. Most of the time, we feel a little bit annoyed. This type of greeting can prevent that attitude.
  • It’s disarming. One of the features that I like best about this pop-up is that it is disarming.  Let me tell you why. Most of the time when we see a pop-up, our psychological response goes something like this

○      Browsing website.

○      See pop-up.

○      Feel intruded upon.

○      Click away.

In the case of this pop-up, however, we as users almost feel as if we’re intruding upon the pop-up. The pop-up says, “Oh, hey!” as if we disturbed it. This is a complete reversal, because usually, we as users are the ones who feel as if we’re being disturbed. In an odd psychological twist, the pop-up reduces our sensation of being intruded upon, and makes us less likely to respond negatively.

  • It tells you that it’s fun. Kate Spade wants you to know that they’re  fun, so they tell you like it is:  “We send fun emails.” Why hide the fact? This entire pop-up is focused on making you feel happy and fun. Just say it. By admitting “we’re fun” they are helping you to feel happy, relieved, not angry.

Since pop-ups have the potential to make people upset, do what you can to appease them with your pop-up. Fun language, happy colors, nice shapes — these all go a long way in turning a keyboard-smashing response into something more ... “Hey, that’s a really nice pop-up and, by golly, I think I’ll convert!”

2. Effective pop-ups make you feel the pain.

Pain is one of the most powerful features in marketing. If you’re selling a product or service, and don’t know where customers are feeling pain, I suggest that you take a step back and figure out “Where are my customers feeling pain?”

What I’ve noticed in many effective pop-ups is that they introduce a little bit of pain into the equation. Here’s one of them.

Use of pain in a pop-up

There are several ways in which this pop-up from GrooveHQ makes you feel pain:

They use the expression “oh s--t.”

When do you use this expression? Chances are, it’s when you feel some level of pain. Your stupid computer crashes. You locked your keys in your car. You smash your thumb with a hammer. You let loose with a good ol’ “OH S--T!”

Even if you’re not prone to express your feelings in French, you at least understand that this expression is generally not used to express feelings of great pleasure and enjoyment. It is a pain signal.

Scientific American reports that we swear because we feel pain. And when we swear, it actually helps to alleviate that pain.

Scientific American reports that we swear because we feel pain

In one of the interviews conducted in the article, one doctor, Richard Stephens of Keele University in the U.K., says, "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”

The mild cussing in this pop-up, then, is a reminder of pain. As Reciprocate LLC writes, “Nothing motivates a person quite like pain.” By way of salty reminder, this pop-up makes us feel a little bit of pain.

The “s--t” is just one way they integrate pain into the equation. The second way is at the bottom: “No thanks, I don’t want to grow my business.”

This overt method of marketing — the “I’m stupid” method — is another way of making the customer feel a little bit of pain. In this case, it’s a shame technique. Shame is one of the most powerful human emotions. As Wong and Tsai demonstrated in their Stanford research monograph, shame reaches across cultures and demographics as a major influencer of thought and action.

Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt

Shame, as PsychologyToday reports, is a common method of controlling people. Parents use it to control their children. Barbaric bosses use it to control their employees.

The point is not that this pop-up is evil for using this technique. The point is, this pop-up uses some of the psychology of shame to help motivate behavior. The shame dosage is so mild that it’s almost negligible in terms of its impact. But the idea is still there.

Someone is far less inclined to click on “I don’t want to grow,” than they are to click on “Send me lessons on growth.”

They help to relieve the pain.

Pain has a flip side, an opposite — pleasure. As strongly as I advocate for pain in a strategic marketing approach, I advocate for pleasure. No good marketer turns up the pain without also offering the panacea of pleasure.

This pop-up helps to counter the pain with the pleasure. Here it is:

  • $100k in monthly revenue. That’s pleasure.
  • “Send me.” Me-focused language is pleasurable.
  • “Growth.” Everyone wants business growth.

This pop-up’s effectiveness has a lot to do with their introduction of pleasure, too. Harvard researchers have recently discovered (2012) that self-disclosure, especially online, provides a sense of pleasure.

Disclosing information about the self is intrinsicallly rewarding

Self-disclosure can extend to something like entering an email address. By surrounding that email input form with a sense of pleasure, the pop-up increases the likelihood of conversions.

3. Effective pop-ups are short and simple.

Simplicity is incredibly powerful. And the most simple pop-ups are the most effective.

This pop-up is simple:

short and simple pop-up.2

And so is this one:

short and simple pop-up

You might think that getting people to do something — to motivate a behavior — is very complex. In a sense, it is. However, as BJ Fogg has revealed in his extensive paper on persuasion, the key to motivating behavior change is simplicity. His entire behavior model for persuasive design is built on the keystone of simplicity.

behavior model for persuasive design

Fogg writes that “making the behavior simpler is the path for increasing behavior performance.” Even behavioral change depends upon the principle of simplicity.

The model looks like this, and the path proceeds on the axis of simplicity.

the principle of simplicity

The power of simplicity extends across industries and practices, because it’s a component of the human psychology. Psychologists at the University of Warwick report that simplicity is “a fundamental cognitive principle,” in a report published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Another psychological study from Trends in Cognitive Sciences reported that simplicity is “a unifying principle in cognitive science.”

In the report, psychologists Chater and Vitanyi write, “A long tradition in epistemology, philosophy of science, and mathematical and computational theories of learning argues that patterns ‘should’ be chosen according to how simply they explain the data ... simplicity drives a wide range of cognitive processes.”

Humans like simplicity. We are wired to gravitate toward things that are simple, uncomplicated and straightforward. In conversion optimization, anything that draws the user away from the simple goal of a conversion is called friction.

This pop-up has anything but friction.

Simplicity means taking apparent complexity and reducing it to its most fundamental components. That’s what’s going on in the pop-up featured above. There are a lot of things that could be said about how the guide is free, how there are seven tricks, how they are all advanced, how the user will discover some amazing techniques, how improving one’s conversion rates depends upon this guide, how all they need is an email address, how they’ll never spam you, how there is no obligation, and on and on ad nauseum.

But all of that can be distilled in fewer than 30 words in a single little box. Kapow! Bam! Conversion! Done!


(Image from Ken's Comics and Collectibles.

4. Effective pop-ups are all about free.

All of the pop-ups I’ve shown you so far have had something to do with “free.” This one is no different:

wordstream pop-up

"Free" is a killer word. Its power exceeds that of the most inflammatory and emotionally laden words in the English language.

Gregory Ciotti writes that "free" is one of the five “most persuasive words in the English language.”  According to a study he cited in his article, the simple word “free” caused people to prefer the taste of a chocolate that was considered qualitatively inferior. By reducing the pricing to free, the impressionable masses were trained to prefer something of lesser quality (depending on your tastes). 

using the word free in pop-up

Buffer also reports that “very simple words” — including free — are so important. In the very article in which they discuss the power of the word free, they offer this CTA:

Buffer pop-up

How can we pass up free? According to neuroscientists, it’s really hard. To deny free goes against our ingrained cognitive bias.

That’s why so many effective CTAs make use of free, one of the most powerful and effective methods of persuasion.

Social Triggers uses the free approach, too.

Social triggers pop-up

And so does Marketo.

Marketo pop-up

And so does AudienceBloom:

AudianceBloom pop-up

And so does, okay, almost everyone who ever uses a pop-up.

Yep, so do I:

jeremysaid pop-up


To conclude this article, I want to circle back to a question I brought up at the beginning of the article:  Should you use pop-ups on your website?

No. If you don’t use the power of psychology in your pop-ups, then it will be nothing more than an infuriating violation of user experience.

But ...

Yes. If you are committed to unleashing the power of these psychological principles, then you’ll see incredible effectiveness from using pop-ups on your website.

Pop-ups can be effective, but not on their own merits. Effective pop-ups depend upon the power of psychology to create the most compelling case for a change in human behavior.




Jeremy Smith

Digital marketer with a penchant for dance; helping clients see the light through the jungle of tweets since before Twitter was cool.