Technology isn’t the Problem, We Are. An Essay on Popups.

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Today I want to talk a bit about what it’s like, as a marketer, to be marketing something that’s difficult to market.

You see, there’s a common problem that many marketers face, and it’s also one of the most asked questions I hear when I’m on the road, as a speaker:

“How do I great marketing for a boring product or service?”

That’s a tough challenge for sure, although the good news is that if you can inject some originality you’ll be a clear winner, as all of your competitors are also boring. However, I think I can one-up that problem:

“How do I do great marketing for something that’s universally hated, like popups?”

We knew we had a big challenge ahead of us when we decided to release the popups product because of the long legacy of manipulative abuse it carries with it.

In fact, as the discussion about product direction began in the office, there were some visceral (negative) reactions from some folks on the engineering team. They feared that we were switching over to the dark side.

It makes sense to me that this sentiment would come from developers. In my experience, really good software developers have one thing in common. They want to make a difference in the world. Developers are makers by design, and part of building something is wanting it to have a positive impact on those who use it.

To quell those types of fears requires a few things;

  • Education about the positive use cases for the technology,
  • Evidence in the form of good popup examples, showcasing how to use them in a delightful and responsible manner,
  • Features such as advanced triggers & targeting to empower marketers to deliver greater relevance to visitors,
  • And most important of all – it requires us to take a stance. We can’t change the past unless we lead by example.

It’s been my goal since we started down this path, to make it clear that we are drawing a line in the sand between the negative past, and a positive future.

Which is why we initially launched with the name “Overlays” instead of popups.

Overlays vs. Popups – The End of an Era

It made a lot of sense at the time, from a branding perspective. Through podcast interviews and public speaking gigs, I was trying to change the narrative around popups. Whenever I was talking about a bad experience, I would call it a popup. When it was a positive (and additive) experience, I’d call it an overlay. It was a really good way to create a clear separation.

I even started to notice more and more people calling them overlays. Progress.

Unfortunately, it would still require a lot of continued education to make a dent in the global perception of the terminology, that with the search volume for “overlays” being tiny compared to popups, factored heavily into our decision to pivot back to calling a popup a popup.

Positioning is part of a product marketer’s job – our VP of Product Marketing, Ryan Engley recently completed our most recent positioning document for the new products. Just as the umbrella term “Convertables” we had been using to include popups and sticky bars had created confusion, “Overlays” was again making the job harder than it should have been. You can tell, just from reading this paragraph alone that it’s a complex problem, and we’re moving in the right direction by re-simplifying.

The biggest challenge developing our positioning was the number of important strategic questions that we needed to answer first. The market problems we solve, for who, how our product fits today with our vision for the future, who we see ourselves competing with, whether we position ourselves as a comprehensive platform that solves a unique problem, or whether we go to market with individual products and tools etc. It’s a beast of an undertaking.

My biggest lightbulb moment was working with April Dunford who pushed me to get away from competing tool-to-tool with other products. She said in order to win that way, you’d have to be market leading in every tool, and that won’t happen. So what’s the unique value that only you offer and why is it important?

— Ryan Engley, VP Product Marketing at Unbounce

You can read more about our initial product adoption woes, and how our naming conventions hurt us, in the first post in the series – Product Marketing Month: Why I’m Writing 30 Blog Posts in 30 Days.

Let’s get back to the subject of popups. I think it’s important to look back at the history of this device to better understand how they came about, and why they have always caused such a stir.

Browser Interaction Models & the History of the Popup

The talk I was doing much of last year was called Data-Driven Design. As part of the talk, I get into interaction design trends. I’ve included the “Trendline” slide below.

You can see that the first occurrence of a popup was back in 1998. Also, note that I included Overlays in late 2016 when we first started that discussion.

Like many bad trends, popups began as web developers started trying to hack browser behavior to create different interruptive interaction modes. I know I made a lot of them back in the day, but I was always doing it to try to create a cool experience. For example, I was building a company Intranet and wanted to open up content in a new window, resize it, and stick it to the side of the screen as a sidebar navigation for the main window. That was all good stuff.

Tabbed browsers have done a lot to help clean up the mess of multiple windows, and if you couple that with popup blockers, there’s a clear evolution in how this type of behavior is being dealt with.

Then came the pop-under, often connected to Malware virus schemes where malicious scripts could be running in the background and you wouldn’t even know.

And then the always fun “Are you sure you want to do that?” Inception-like looping exit dialogs.

Developers/hackers took the simple Javascript modal “Ok” “Cancel” and abused it to the point where there was no real way out of the page. If you tried to leave the page one modal would lead to another, and another, and you couldn’t actually close the browser window/tab unless you could do it within the split second between one dialog closing and the next opening. It was awful.

So we have a legacy of abuse that’s killed the perception of popups.

What if Popups Had Been Built Into Browsers?

Imagine for a moment that a popup was simply one of many available interaction models available in the browsing experience. They could have had a specification from the W3C, with a set of acceptable criteria for display modes. It would be an entirely different experience. Sure, there would still be abuse, but it’s an interesting thought.

This is why it’s important that we (Unbounce and other like-minded marketers and Martech software providers) take a stance, and build the right functionality into this type of tool so that it can be used responsibly.

Furthermore, we need to keep the dialog going, to educate the current and future generations of marketers that to be original, be delightful, be a business that represents themselves as professionals, means taking responsibility for our actions and doing everything we can to take the high road in our marketing.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

Technology is NOT the problem, We Are.

It’s the disrespectful and irresponsible marketers who use manipulative pop-psychology tactics for the sake of a few more leads, who are the problem. We need to stop blaming popups for bad experiences, and instead, call out the malicious marketers who are ruining it for those trying to do good work.

It’s a tough challenge to reverse years of negative perception, but that’s okay. It’s okay because we know the value the product brings to our customers, how much extra success they’re having, and because we’ve built a solution that can be configured in precise ways that make it simple to use in a responsible manner (if you’re a good person).


Get your butt back here tomorrow to see 20+ delightful website popup examples. More importantly, I’ll also be sharing “The Delight Equation”, my latest formula for measuring quantifying how good your popups really are.

See you then!

Cheers
Oli

p.s. Don’t forget to subscribe to the weekly updates.

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