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Poorly designed website pop-ups discourage readers from staying on your website. Properly designed pop-ups deliver an effective call to action.

Have you ever played Whac-A-Mole, the game in which you try to anticipate where that annoying little critter is going to pop up next so you can smack it with a mallet?

Pop-ups are lots of fun in the arcade, but website pop-ups that are poorly designed risk enraging visitors. Rage is warranted when pop-ups block navigation, are impossible to close or chase the reader from page to page. Instead of following a call to action such as “download now” or “subscribe here,” the reader is tempted to whack the screen with a hammer or, in a saner moment, install a pop-up blocker.

But pop-ups don’t have to induce rage! If you design them well and implement them with specific intent, they can be great tools for your business or nonprofit.

Research shows that a call to action placed on a pop-up typically provides an extraordinary increase in the response rate when compared with calls to action placed elsewhere on a webpage. That’s because pop-ups force visitors to momentarily shift their attention. Some shift just long enough to close the pop-up window, but others read the message and answer the call to action.

Follow these tips for creating friendly pop-ups to invite a response that doesn’t involve a mallet:

  • DON’T annoy people. Wait until a visitor has been on your site for 10-30 seconds — don’t just bombard them right away. Give your pop-up a clean, simple design that is easy to read. Fade the page content behind the pop-up window to eliminate visual clutter.
  • DON’T trap people. Prominently display the exit X in the top right corner of the pop-up window and set up the window to close automatically when people click on the page behind it.
  • DON’T chase people. Utilize cookies and tracking software to suppress the pop-up when a returning visitor (a) has already taken the action being requested, (b) has been shown your pop-up within the last 30 days, or (c) has closed your pop-up window multiple times.
  • DO make it interactive. State a clear call to action that people can take immediately, such as entering an e-mail address.

If you’re a big fan of Whac-A-Mole, there’s a free version on MIT’s Scratch website — no hammer required.