Do You Need a Website Pop-up? Nonprofit Best Practices in 2020

We’ve recently seen a sharp uptick in requests to add pop-ups and alert bars to nonprofit websites—and for good reasons. Organizations want to make sure that their online visitors don’t miss important announcements and changes to service. But what about other types of website pop-ups? Are they right for your goals? And are you using them effectively?

Pop-up windows tend to be loved and hated for the same reason: they are, literally, in your face. When done well, pop-ups can achieve your goals to direct people to urgent news or recruit new email subscribers. But we also see that many nonprofits struggle to implement them in a way that gets great results without annoying your supporters or the people you’re trying to serve.

Learn how to use pop-ups strategically on your website by considering the most important factors of success and the user experience.

Determine Your Website Pop-up Strategy

If you’re gung-ho about using pop-ups, or even if you’re on the fence, the first step is to nail down a website pop-up strategy with a specific goal for each pop-up it includes. There are many situations where a pop-up can be the right fit for what you’re looking to accomplish:

  1. You want to direct website visitors to a page with urgent information about their health, safety or other critical news as part of a crisis communication plan.
  2. You want to grow your newsletter list by asking people to submit their email address via a form in the pop-up window.
  3. You want to collect feedback from website users by asking them to complete a survey or simple online poll.
  4. You want advocates to take a specific action, like sign an online pledge or contact their elected representative.

Chances are you’ve also seen pop-ups on nonprofit websites to promote a fundraising campaign or upcoming event. We tend to see that these types of pop-ups aren’t hugely impactful unless you’ve been thoughtful about several key considerations, like where you show the pop-up and who you’re targeting on the site. Very rarely do you need to blast out your pop-up to every visitor.

Website Pop-up Considerations

Once you’ve decided on a strategy, it’s time to think about how the website pop-up will be implemented on your site. Each pop-up service or plugin is a little different, so I won’t dive into technical specifics. (For what it’s worth, we tend to recommend and use OptinMonster with our clients.) But these general considerations will help you plan how the pop-up will be set-up according to best practices, no matter which tool you end up using.

Pop-up design options

It might seem obvious, but choose a pop-up style that matches your strategy. Depending on the service you use to deploy your pop-up, you should have a range of options:

  • Floating bar, which shows across the top or bottom of your pages. This is most commonly used for alerts or announcements.
  • Slide-in/sidebar, which displays in the left- or right-hand margins on your pages. This is often used for less intrusive calls-to-action, like to see other related content on your website or fill out a basic form.
  • Lightbox, which is the standard pop-up window that displays in the middle of the page. This is the typical format for an email sign-up popup (like you might see while visiting our website).
  • Full screen, which blocks out all other website content to display the pop-up. This is the most intrusive design and should be used sparingly.

Where to display the pop-up

In an emergency, your first instinct might be to show the pop-up on all pages on your website. But truthfully, I can’t think of any circumstance where this should be the case. 

A standard exclusion would be a page with a donation form or another key form, where you want to keep visitors focused on the task at hand. Believe it or not, another exclusion to strongly consider is your homepage. Unless your pop-up is directed at everyone (like in an emergency), don’t ask people to do something before they’ve even started to get any value out of your website.

To help determine the pages where a pop-up should be displayed, consider the journey that your target personas are taking when visiting your site. (Bonus points if you’ve already mapped out a marketing funnel.) Based on your goal, where does it make sense to give them an extra push to act?

When to show a pop-up

This is definitely a case where timing is everything. Showing a pop-up too soon can come across as aggressive or inconsiderate. Why not let someone read a little bit of your page first before interrupting? As a general rule, default to more conservative timing and give visitors a chance to absorb information before showing them something new.

If you’re able to control timing settings, keep these options in mind:

  • Set the pop-up to display once someone has spent enough time to at least skim the page they’re on, like 20-seconds. Or the time they’ve spent on the site during this session, like 1 minute or more.
  • Set it to display after a visitor has scrolled down a certain percentage of the page they are on, like 60% or more for engaged users.
  • Consider using exit-intent settings, if available. This prompts the pop-up to display if it looks like their cursor is moving to leave your website.

Who to display it to

A great website pop-up tool will give you a lot of control over who sees your pop-up. Instead of just focusing on the specific pages where it shows up, you can fine tune your pop-up to only show to specific types of visitors, like:

  • New or returning website users, especially if you’re asking them to take a step that isn’t really appropriate for someone that’s new to your organization.
  • Visitors using desktop or mobile devices, which is handy if you know that the pop-up design is more user-friendly depending on screen size.
  • People who have not clicked or converted on the pop-up before, like someone who’d already opted-in to your email newsletter in a previous website visit.

Download the Website Pop-up Worksheet

Planning to add a pop-up to your nonprofit’s website? Keep track of all the details to make sure you’re following best practices. Plus, measure the performance to know if it’s working property.

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What to avoid

If you’re still unsure about using a pop-up on your website—or need some back-up to explain to higher-ups why it might not be a good idea—there are a few additional considerations that may be important to your organization:

  • Multiple, conflicting pop-ups. This is one of the most common mistakes we see on nonprofit sites. If you want to run more than one pop-up on your site, be sure that they don’t show on the same pages to avoid irritating your users even more.
  • Ad blindness. Similar to above, adding a pop-up on top of a page that already has multiple calls-to-actions in the copy and/or sidebar can make people completely tune out.
  • Accessibility issues. Visitors with visual impairments or using screen readers often report that pop-ups are difficult for them to use.
  • Google penalties. If you care about the sweet, sweet benefits of search engine optimization (SEO), it’s best to avoid pop-up formats that limit access to your website content, which can impact how Google ranks your site in search results.

Learn more about the pros and cons of website pop-ups and when they aren’t effective:

Website Pop-up Alternatives

If you decide that a pop-up isn’t right for your goals, or if you don’t have the capacity or tools to implement one right now, there are some easy alternatives you can consider for your website.

Homepage update

Update a place on your homepage with a brief description of the announcement or call-to-action and link to a page or blog post to read more. You can also share this page or post through other channels like email and social media to help reach more people.

Inline calls-to-action

Another option is to use inline calls-to-action (CTAs) on relevant pages. This means using text, buttons or other visual formatting within your page content to highlight the next step that you want people to take. For example, you could add an inline CTA to all blog posts about an advocacy issue that directs people to sign a related petition.

To Pop-up… Or Not?

A website pop-up can be a great tool if you’re clear about its purpose and intended results. To get a feel for whether or not it works for your organization, be sure to collect data about pop-up performance and the end results. (Our downloadable worksheet can help!) You can also test the effectiveness of an alternative like inline CTAs by using a free testing tool such as Google Optimize. It is very possible to make a data-driven decision.

If you keep these key considerations in mind for every pop-up, you’ll be on the right track to getting more out of your website without compromising the sense of trust and value you want to build with each visitor.

What concerns do you have about using website pop-ups? Or have you used a pop-up for your nonprofit with great results? Let’s chat in the comments section below.