Email address collecting popups indicate failure

You are probably familiar with this situation: you search for something on the web, click a link to some website, the website loads... and just then a popup appears right in the middle that wants you to enter your name and email address for some irrelevant to you reason.

In my time as a web developer I've had to implement a few of such popups. On projects where I was a stakeholder, I objected to them, but the marketing people win in the end. I did not have useful arguments beyond "popups suck" - until now.

Just recently I was searching for some trailer parts, and the parts in question were heavy which meant shipping was expensive. I was trying to find a local place selling them for less than Internet price plus shipping. Eventually I checked which an especially obnoxious version of the email address collection popup (more on the obnoxiousness below). When I managed to get rid of the popup I saw the price for the part - $100. My usual trailer supply site,, had this part for $50 plus $20 shipping. Guess where I would buy it?

This got me thinking though. NAPA sells auto parts, but it is not exactly people's first choice in this market:

  • It has fewer physical locations than, say, Advance Auto Parts or Autozone.
  • It is significantly more expensive than Internet retailers.
  • I don't shop at NAPA much because I do not have any NAPA stores close by, but from the price checks I have done I get the impression that NAPA is at least as expensive as Advance Auto/Autozone, and likely visibly more expensive on average.

Who shops at NAPA? Maybe some areas have NAPA stores and no othe retailers. Maybe NAPA carry truck parts as their logo is popular on truck mudflaps. But in the market of car parts, they don't seem to be getting much business.

Here is the other thing: NAPA seems to be uncompetitive in their core business, which is selling parts that other companies manufacture. It's not like NAPA cannot sell whatever parts Autozone sells - in both cases the parts are manufactured by a third party so I would assume both NAPA and Autozone can get identical pricing on them. NAPA either buys expensive parts, has high overhead, prices wrongly or something like that - the problem is internal rather than external.

Now when I saw that email address collecting popup, I noted that no such popups exist on Autozone or Advance Auto web sites. Those sites just need to have the store locators working. They have catalogs in there somewhere, I'm sure, but UIs tend to suck and I always just call my local stores to check prices.

What are NAPA marketing people thinking? "Let's get some email addresses in order to send our prospective customers some promotional emails to hopefully get them to buy something at our stores." Compare this to Advance Auto and Autozone who instead sell parts to those exact people at that exact same time. NAPA wants to make money in the future; its competitors are making money right now.

How often do you visit a web site that asks you to sign up for their newsletter or whatever and actually sign up? How often do you end up buying from that site? How many products do you buy due to reading a newsletter versus because you need them right now and you search for them and buy something among the search results? I would guess newsletter sales account for less than 5% of expenditures of an average person. If your company relies on newsletter sales, that indicates to me a very sad state of affairs.

Similar reasoning applies to sites that don't directly sell anything but try to monetize their visitors in some other way, be that affiliate linking/sales, advertising, etc. If you are trying to acquire users by virtue of sending an email newsletter, you are way behind the sites that have content which makes people read them.

Subscription popups are common at lesser known IT sites. Have you ever seen them on slashdot or The Register? I have not. Some of these IT sites are probably not going to fail anytime soon but I'm guessing their popularity is in decline.

So, next time I am a stakeholder in a project where someone suggests that we absolutely must have a popup collecting email addresses, I am going to assume the project is failing if not already failed and act accordingly.

And now for a technical note: how to make the popups less annoying. Heed it if you care about your users. Popups should be dismissable by:

  • Pressing the escape key
  • Clicking the mouse anywhere outside of the popup

Requiring people to click on a relatively tiny X to dismiss the popup is annoying, and will undoubtedly cost you power users.

Another way to easily get rid of a popup is to reload the page. Some sites only show the popup once. Other sites show the popup until the user either submits it or dismisses it. Consider carefully if annoying the users with the popup repeatedly is the right thing to do.