Lightbox Pop-Overs: A Love-Hate Relationship

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lightbox popovers a love hate relationship

There's a really funny piece in The Onion about Internet users wanting less interactivity on websites. Although the post was meant to be a parody, it made some very good points about the ways people are interrupted by the websites they visit. Is all this forced interactivity really necessary? And more importantly from my perspective, does it really help move the visitor to conversion?

The Pop-Over: Friend or Foe?

For those of you who aren't familiar with the terms lightbox or pop-over (or modal window, as others call it), they refer to a box of content that appears over an active web page, requiring the user to interact with it in some way in order to make it go away. I've long been an advocate of lightboxes for many situations. For example, instead of using a lot of page real estate to play a video, a web designer could instead show a small thumbnail of the video that, when clicked, would play a larger-format video over the top of the existing page. I also think modal windows are excellent for small forms and as "help" dialogues.

But over the years, this technique has gained popularity as a form of interstitial messaging, and is now among the most annoying forms of interruption marketing. I'm sure this has happened to you: you're halfway through the first paragraph of an interesting blog post when all of a sudden the page is obscured with a giant message reading "Like this article? Subscribe to our newsletter for more!" Or one of my least favorites: you're shopping for something online when a "I'm here to help!" live chat window starts floating across the screen.

So is a lightbox friend or foe? The answer depends on whether the user asks for it. From a usability perspective, if your website visitor requests content and it's presented in the form of a lightbox, there is no negative impact. In fact, it's often an optimal solution because it allows the visitor to consume additional content without navigating away from the current page. But when a lightbox/pop-over/modal opens up on its own, surprising users and distracting them from what they came to do, well that's just evil.

Please Take a Moment to Answer Our Survey

Unwanted pop-overs can be especially lethal to e-commerce sites, where online visitors often have very specific, time-sensitive tasks to accomplish. On an e-commerce site, the conversion goal is pretty clear, right? Then why do so many Internet retailers interrupt the shopping experience with a giant pop-over asking visitors for their feedback?

Imagine if you were picking up some groceries at the market, after a long day at work and fighting the afternoon commute. You'd probably want to get in, get out, and get on your way. So how would you feel about someone walking up to you as you hastily push your cart down the aisle, asking you questions about your shopping experience? My guess is you may not give the most glowing review. The point is, whether it's done online or in person, interrupting someone while they're in the middle of doing something else is usually going to make them unhappy. Maybe even angry. And that makes me wonder how valid the survey results will be anyway.

But let's play devil's advocate. Maybe your site draws a more relaxed audience who doesn't mind stopping in their tracks to give their opinion. You might argue that they even like it, and -who knows? - you might be right. But I'd have to ask: isn't the goal of your site to sell stuff? Is it really necessary to interrupt someone in the middle of her purchase just to get her feedback? If it is, then I'd suggest looking into Kampyle or one of the other non-intrusive, polite feedback collection tools. That way your shoppers can give you feedback on their own timeframe, not yours.

Subscribe for More

More and more sites these days are using a paywall-like interstitial message to interrupt their visitors and invite them to subscribe for more. While this is certainly an effective and even necessary tactic for a subscription-based site, I'm curious about other types of sites that are adopting this practice. Even a conversion consulting agency in the U.K. has gone down this path.

I have to wonder if the shock that the pop-over presents to the user is worth the extra emails the company is able to collect.

On the other hand, I've seen many daily deals sites evolve their pop-over strategy with great effectiveness. A year ago, many of these sites presented their login screen the moment a visitor arrived - forcing the user to guess whether it would be worth it to give up their email in order to see what deal was behind the magic curtain. These days, I am increasingly seeing these sites use their deals as a lure - even optimizing their search against them. Visitors can see the current deals when they arrive at the site, but are quickly presented a pop-over/subscription form in order to click through to or access the deals. Since most visitors understand that they have to give something (their email and postal code usually) in order to get something (the deals), this is an appropriate and effective use of an interstitial message.

A Careful Balance

For most digital marketers, it's natural to want to squeeze every bit of value possible out of each site visitor. But designing a website that serves only the needs of the company and not the user will quickly derail your conversion efforts. You have to find the right balance, and constantly question if the shock/frustration/distraction that the pop-over causes will be greater than any potential benefit you might derive from presenting it.

If you decide to incorporate a pop-over that disrupts the flow of your conversion path, be prepared to test, test, test. Presenting a pop-over on the wrong page, at the wrong time, or with the wrong message can take a huge bite out of your online revenues, and cost you visitor loyalty in the process.


This article originally appeared in Tim's ClickZ column February 19, 2013 


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