Updated January 2019

Growing your mailing list is a hot topic. With social media networks changing their algorithms constantly and organic reach dropping extremely low (i.e. you have to pay to get your content seen by your fans/followers), there’s plenty of attention on good old email still being a reliable way to reach people.

Two popular popup tools people are Sumome and OptinMonster. A separate tool isn’t necessary as premium and custom WordPress themes can come with them built in.

Pop-ups are everywhere. I used to really dislike them, but I’ve come around to tolerate and even really like them in certain circumstances.  It all comes down to how to choose the right pop-up and how and when it’s displayed.

We get clients regularly asking us to add a pop-up to their site when we’re developing their custom WordPress theme and this guide will help you decide the type of pop-up options you need: when, how and the frequency it should appear.

But first, I wanted to point out some ways in which pop-ups aren’t so great.

6 bad pop-ups:

    1. Appear immediately. This feels forceful. I haven’t had a chance to check out your site and what you offer first.
    2. Appear too often – e.g. every. single. page. This feels annoying.
    3. Appear right when I’m enjoying reading something. The worst is when I’m cooking a recipe and I close the box, only to have to swipe down to the right part of the page again. This makes me feel mad.
    4. Can’t be closed. This feels frustrating.
    5. Force me to click something lame to close the pop-up. This feels insulting to have to agree to something like “No, I don’t want to feel better about my body” in order to close the pop-up and read the fitness article I came to the site for.
    6. Simply saying subscribe to the newsletter. This feels boring. I’d prefer an offer of something enticing, useful, practical and relevant.

Ok, onto the important decisions you need to help you choose the right pop-up to your site:

How to choose the right pop-up

When should the pop-up appear?


This provides maximum visibility, but it is annoying and could easily put people off your site instantly. New visitors would want to find out what your site is about before subscribing, so seemingly doesn’t serve many purposes – especially if, when they do want to subscribe shortly afterward, you haven’t provided all of the same information that was in the popup in an easy place to locate elsewhere.

After being on the page for a certain number of seconds

If this number is too big, it may not be seen. If this number is too small, you have the same issues as above; plus it is annoying if it pops up while you’re in the middle of reading something.

After you’ve scrolled past a certain point on the page, e.g. the end of an article

This means it doesn’t interfere with your reading of the article and allows subscribing afterward. In saying that, this probably doesn’t make sense on pages like a homepage which isn’t read from top to bottom; and after an article is normally where a subscribe box appears anyway without a need for a pop-up.

Exit intent

This means as the user attempts to leave the site by moving their mouse to the top of the browser. It doesn’t interfere with the reading of the website and is not too intrusive as the user is not prevented from leaving (unlike other methods like showing a countdown after you’ve clicked an external link).

However, this can only be detected when there is a mouse, and so it can’t be achieved on a touch screen device like a mobile or tablet.

How should the pop-up appear?

Lightbox over the top of the content

This allows more detailed content, but blocks access to the site until closed (though for exit-intent, the user no longer needs access to the site; it does not block access to leaving).

Fixed bar at the top which remains while you scroll until closed (probably only applicable to appearing instantly)

Since this takes up prime screen space, especially on mobile, it needs to be very minimal wording/design. While this does allow the website to continue to be accessed in the normal way, it can still be distracting having it continually on screen unless manually closed.

Slides in from the bottom corner and fixes in place there as you scroll until closed

This is possibly less intrusive on desktop when there is a natural sidebar space to appear in, though not on mobile.

How often should the pop-up appear?

Information on how the pop-up has been seen in the past can be stored in a cookie. This happens at the point the pop-up is shown (e.g. if you’ve set the pop-up to display after 30 seconds and the user leaves before then, that doesn’t count as a ‘view’).

In all circumstances, a permanent cookie gets set if you click the subscribe button, so the following apply only to users who don’t subscribe (but note this doesn’t prevent it from showing if the user has subscribed in the past, or via an alternate method, or in a different browser, etc).

There are many options that can be used in various combinations, and depend on which of the above methods are used. Some are:

  • show the popup on every visit
  • show the popup on the first visit only
  • show the popup every certain number of days
  • show the popup on the first visit, then after a certain number of days, then never again
  • show the popup after viewing a certain number of pages

If the popup is set to reappear regularly, and your site has regular repeat visitors who you don’t wish to frustrate, you may want to click the close button (or a separate ‘Don’t show me this again’ link) to permanently disable the popup.

What’s the best approach?

The best approach to how you choose the right pop-up depends on the types of people that will be accessing your site and when you think a targeted popup would best suit them. Our current preference, if you must have a popup, is:

  • on exit-intent on desktop
  • a lightbox over the top of the content on desktop
  • show on the first visit, once more a week later, and never again

On a desktop, this ensures first-time visitors will be prompted to subscribe after having their first read through your site; they’ll have a chance to resubscribe if they find themselves coming back after a week, and regular visitors won’t be continually distracted.

Google penalizes sites with pop-ups opt-ins on mobile, so we no longer recommend placing them there.

In all situations, the pop-up should not contain any information that isn’t easily accessible elsewhere on your site for visitors who decide in their own time that they want to subscribe.

Get actionable tips to grow your website

Thoughtful weekly insights (no hype!) on improving your website