Oli Gardner knows what you’re thinking. Hear him out.

The co-founder of Vancouver-based marketing service provider Unbounce believes that when used properly, the much-maligned pop-up can be of equal or greater benefit to online marketers than some of its more popular counterparts, such as the carousel, lightbox, or video link.

Considering his company has racked up more than 14,000 customers, including such luminaries as Thomson Reuters, Shopify, and Hootsuite, since its August 2009 founding, he might be onto something.

Unbounce co-founder Oli Gardner believes the much-maligned pop-up ad can be just as useful, if not more so, than its more well-regarded counterparts.

“Pop-ups, or overlays, are just another method of displaying information in a manner that invites visitors to interact with them,” Gardner tells ITBusiness.ca. “Why do we hate them? Because they’ve been used for years by the great unwashed – disrespectful marketers, or coders, or designers, who try and use them to control browser behaviour.”

Those who used the World Wide Web in its formative years (including this author) are especially likely to remember pop-ups with resentment: Back when JavaScript was the dominant programming language and many user experiences remained text-based, the programmers who were still experimenting with their websites’ visual design would often employ them to keep users from leaving their sites, Gardner says – or later, as a trick to force them into viewing unwanted ads.

That isn’t their primary purpose anymore, he says.

While poorly implemented popups – or overlays, as Gardner likes to call them, and since that’s his preferred term it’s the one we’ll use moving forward – can still feel like they’re interrupting the user experience, today’s websites are more likely to use them as an informational tool, delivering tips designed to enhance a user’s experience before they begin browsing.

“Interrupting doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” he says. “‘Excuse me sir, you have spinach in your teeth.’ Or, ‘Slow down, there’s a bus coming.’”

The key, he says, is user control. Lightbox ads, for example, are designed to draw a user’s attention to an image gallery or video and often expand to fill the screen, but are typically considered less annoying than popups because, in theory, users choose to hover over them, and it’s easy for users to close or move away from such ads and return to their previous browsing state.

Equally important, he says, is timing: Some of the most effective overlays don’t appear until a user exits a website, at which point depending on the user’s apparent interest in the site’s content they might receive an offer that encourages them to keep browsing. Others appear only when a user has scrolled below a certain depth, or clicked an image, demonstrating interest.

“For instance, every year we organize something called Digital Agency Day, and when people leave the event’s landing page we go, ‘hey, if you can’t make it, we’re recording everything and would be happy to send you the e-mails,’” he says. “That’s massively useful – we had a conversion rate 29 per cent from that, because it’s exactly what people wanted. It’s not interrupting. We were doing them a favour.”

Individuality also key

Another factor important to Unbounce, Gardner says, is uniqueness: The company prides itself on designing individualized overlays for each of its clients.

“Another problem with popups – I’ll call the competition popups and ours overlays – is they often create a disjointed experience,” he says. “You’ll see the exact same popup on 20 different websites and be like, ‘what’s going on?’ With ours, everything is completely on-brand and feels like part of the experience you’re in.”

To an extent, he acknowledges, overlays can still be used to guide browser behaviour, but in a more subtle way than their predecessors: Unbounce, for example, has designed algorithms that will specifically target users based on interest shown in a product, website, or content.

“You can target a specific URL, or frequency – reaching out every fifth visit – or react based on where it came from, like whether it’s from a Facebook ad, and show them something highly relevant based on that,” Gardner says. “It’s highly customizable, helping you control the experience, but in a responsible manner.”

It’s hard to argue with the results: Some of Unbounce’s customers have seen conversion rates as high as 19 per cent – in an industry where a conversion rate of between two and four per cent is considered average, and eight per cent exceptional.

Not that Gardner is surprised: Unbounce’s goal isn’t to frustrate the user, he says, but to ultimately deliver the product or information they want, while their clients, in return, receive a new customer.

“One of our company’s core values is delight,” he says, “If you send an email and it’s not delightful you shouldn’t hit send. If you experience an overlay that’s not delightful, then you shouldn’t implement it.”

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