5 Scientific Reasons Exit Popups Are So Freaking Effective

by Jeremy Wallace on October 25, 2014
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Exit popups increase conversion rates.

We know this because the data proves it.

And behind that data, there are several scientific explanations for why they work so damn well.

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But why are exit popups even necessary? Because people abandon websites in droves, and most will never return.

Most people leave websites without purchasing or signing up for one of the following 5 reasons:

  1. Your site content wasn’t relevant to what they were looking for.
  2. They were interrupted or got distracted.
  3. Your site is poorly written, poorly designed and/or difficult to navigate.
  4. They were researching and weren’t yet ready to commit.
  5. They couldn’t afford (or didn’t want to pay for) your product/service.

These are umbrella reasons for why users leave, but regardless, they tell us 1 very important thing: there’s a huge opportunity to re-engage abandoning users, and dramatically improve the performance of your website.

Quick note: Since they’re not really “popups” anymore—most don’t open in a new window—they are technically called exit overlays or exit lightbox displays. I’ll go with the former for this post.

For those who aren’t familiar with exit overlays, they’re essentially popups (or lightbox displays) triggered by what’s known as exit-intent technology.

Exit-intent technology tracks visitor activities as they navigate your site, usually by monitoring visitor behaviour. When abandoning visitors are detected, an exit overlay is triggered with a targeted offer that entices users to sign up, opt-in, or purchase (depending on the business goal).

An exit overlay offering abandoning visitors a discount

To draw a metaphor, exit overlays are much like a firefighter charging into a burning warehouse filled with inventory. They perform a measure of damage control, recovering a percentage of the stock before everything goes up in flames.

With our exit-intent tool, Rooster, we’re seeing clients convert anywhere from 3 – 18% of abandoning users into sign-ups and/or paying customers.

What’s behind these numbers? Why do users who were previously abandoning a site change their minds?

Answer: Science

Before we get smart, let’s throw some balls around

First I want to paint a broad stroke on why this stuff works.

Exit overlays are effective for the same reason landing pages are effective: they eliminate distractions, provide user with a last chance offer, and distill the choice of whether to move forward into a simple decision.


If you were to stand up from your desk right now and throw a tennis ball to a colleague, she would probably catch it.

But throw her 5 tennis balls at once, and chances are she wouldn’t catch any.

The same logic applies to your marketing efforts. When you overwhelm prospects with too many messages, they often miss all of them.

It’s the same reason we have trouble walking and answering a complicated question at the same time.

It’s the same reason restaurants that simplify their menus usually increase profit margins.

And it’s the same reason 25% of abandoning web users cite complicated web design as their main reason for leaving.

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So with this in mind, let’s tuck into the science behind what’s driving the results.

Reason #1: Exit overlays counteract the phenomenon known as The Paradox of Choice

In conversion optimization, anxiety is one of the primary factors that inhibits website performance.

Since it’s common for 70% of visitors to ecommerce sites to be new users who aren’t familiar with a brand, allaying these feelings of anxiety—fears, uncertainties, doubts and dealbreakers—is of critical importance.

But as we’ve come to learn, there’s more to anxiety than not trusting a website with your information, or questioning a return policy.

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, author Barry Schwartz asserts that the abundance of choice consumers face when making purchasing decisions also causes anxiety.

He compares these choices to the huge selection of options customers face in a grocery store.

All this just to pick up toothpaste for $3.49. Imagine what a big decision might look like?  Image Source

With an online store, customers face a similar overload of options. They come in the form of multiple links, options, pathways and messages calling out for attention.

This abundance of choice contributes to web stress, and it contributes to anxiety.

Image Source. Where to click? (Seriously you should check out this site, it’s amazing).

It’s commonly accepted that in today’s marketplace, we’re dealing with a breed of user that’s more informed and savvy than ever before.

When it comes time to buy, they’ve already had multiple interactions with the vendor. With all this information, we’d think the choices would be clear, right?

In a survey of over 1,000 retail consumers, at least half said they go shopping before making up their minds on what to purchase.

In the same survey, 85% of these shoppers claimed to buy more than intended when going to a store before making up their mind. And 85% also buy more when helped by a knowledgeable sales associate.

Overwhelmed by the Paradox of Choice, both online and offline shoppers are leaving stores without making a purchase.

But by acting like a helpful salesperson—albeit in an online format— an exit overlay counteracts this problem. It’s that helper who taps your prospect on the shoulder, asks if they can assist with anything, and simplifies the decision process for customers.

Simply put, our brains don’t like complicated scenarios, and given how many we already face in daily life, the last thing we want are complicated consumer decisions.

Speaking of which…

Reason #2: Exit overlays reduce the effects of analysis paralysis

Closely related to the paradox of choice is analysis paralysis, which is the state of over-analyzing situations to the point where no decision is taken at all.

Analysis paralysis occurs when consumers perceive their options to be overwhelmingly difficult. It doesn’t mean the decision is actually, complicated, but that doesn’t really matter.

Analysis paralysis makes simple decisions feel difficult

Analysis paralysis can also make consumers feel pressured to make the perfect decision, and they often experience a deep fear of making the wrong decision.

This paralyzed state of inaction can affect people in many scenarios, including relationships and professional decisions.

But it’s most prevalent in consumer choices, where social pressure, budgetary constraints, and an abundance of choice can freeze us in our tracks.

A well-known analysis paralysis study was conducted in a supermarket in 2000. A jam tasting kiosk was set up to offer different flavours to customers. The test compared the impact of varying the number of choices between 24 and 6.


1. In the kiosk with 24 flavours, 3% of customers went on to purchase.

2. When just 6 flavours were offered, 30% went on to purchase—a massive difference.


Exit overlays counteract analysis paralysis for the same reason they counteract the Paradox of Choice: by clearing away the background noise and making the decision a simple yes or no, red or black, in or out.

So at what time of day is analysis paralysis most prevalent? It turns out there’s a scientific explanation for that too.

Reason #3: Decision fatigue takes effect around the same time web traffic is peaking

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In 2011, the New York Times reported on a study of 1,100 legal decisions by judges over the course of a year.

The goal of the study was to find out whether there was any link between decision outcome and time of day.

There sure was.

The probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared before the judge in the early morning received parole 70% of the time.

Those who appeared in the late afternoon weren’t so lucky: they were paroled just 10% of the time.

Ignoring the utter absurdity of this injustice, it’s bizarre to see huge variance in decisions of such magnitude.

The study concludes that as the day wears on, our mental energy decreases. This decision fatigue routinely warps the judgment of everyone from quarterbacks, to taxi drivers, to CFOs, and all the way down the line.

According to the study, decision fatigue towards the very end of the day makes even simple decisions feel difficult. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve exhausted our mental energy.

But unlike analysis paralysis—where no decision is made—decision fatigue causes people to default to the path of least resistance. In the case of the judges, that default is keeping prisoners in jail.

It’s the same reason sweet snacks are featured at the checkout counter in grocery stores. Our will power has been reduced, and we’re more likely to yield to temptation.

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So why is this important to online marketers? Take a look at the graph below that shows the average number of pageviews by time of day (localized for various time zones).

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Between 4 and 5pm—right around the time our mental energy is wearing down—pageviews are peaking.

In short, it’s a really good time to make things dead simple for your web users. And that’s exactly what an exit overlay does: makes decisions abundantly easy for web users by clearing away the background noise.

Reason #4: Exit overlays use a neuro-linguistic programming technique called pattern interrupt

In one of our recent posts entitled the 7 Habits of highly Effective Popups, we discussed how effective popups are “proactive” by getting in front of the user before they abandon a website. This is a given.

But what we didn’t mention was that by activating when the user is on the path of abandonment, we’re using a form of what’s called pattern interrupt.

Pattern interrupt is a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) technique that has been used by salespeople for many years.

The concept is straightforward: do or say something unexpected that disrupts a prospect from their normal pattern.

On a traditional cold call, pattern interrupt is used to divert prospects away from the normal path of 1) answering the phone, 2) realizing they’re dealing with a salesperson, and 3) throwing up a defense to get off the phone as soon as possible.

To interrupt the prospect’s expected pattern, the salesperson may say something unexpected, such as “On a scale of 1-10, how much do you love being called by a salesperson?”

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Exit overlays are driven by similar logic. Unexpectedly, they make an offer that sweetens the pot, and convince the user to think twice about their predictable path towards the ‘Back’ button.

In both examples, the salesperson and the marketer have bought themselves a few extra valuable seconds in which they can engage the prospect.

It’s about changing the subject.

In essence, you’re making a play to focus the user’s attention on something else, since what they were looking at before clearly wasn’t engaging them.

Reason #5: Exit overlays take advantage of effective frequency by creating an additional page view

In my recent post on conversion-centered design, I discussed how exit overlays act as a useful sidekick to landing pages. The Robin to your Batman, if you will.

Since we’re assuming your exit overlay is very much relevant to the content on your landing page, it’s effectively providing you with an additional page view.

And another page view means another chance to reinforce your message, which ties in with a time-honored advertising technique known as effective frequency.

Effective frequency is the number of times a prospect must be shown a particular message before taking some kind of action, and before they become irritated with the message.

There are varying theories on what the optimum number of times to show a message is, but it’s always more than 1. For example, the rule of 7 states that it’s, well, 7.

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And since most of your users are first-time visitors, an exit overlay is a great opportunity to take advantage of effective frequency and reinforce your message.


  1. Exit overlays use pattern interrupt to refocus attention on your desired outcome.
  2. Exit overlays counteract the Paradox of Choice by simplifying the customer decision process.
  3. Exit overlays reduce analysis paralysis in consumers by simplifying the decision to yes or no, red or black, in or out.
  4. Decision fatigue and web traffic peak at the same time; exit overlays can help soften the blow.
  5. Exit overlays take advantage of effective frequency by creating an additional page view.

Using Rooster to launch and manage your exit overlay

Rooster began with a simple question:

“If our clients had only two hours to optimize their sites, what should they do?”

The answer for us is harnessing exit-intent technology to sweeten the pot for users before they abandon a site.

When Rooster detects an abandoning visitor, it triggers an exit overlay designed to capture an email sign-up, a purchase, or opt-in for a specific offer.

The early results have surprised even us.

So how many abandoning visitors can you convert to leads, sales & signups?

Rooster is available on a free 30-day trial.



2 responses to 5 Scientific Reasons Exit Popups Are So Freaking Effective

  1. Expert document on Exit Popups!

    It is an area I must implement on some of my sites.

    What a coincidence. This one site took it further and really annoyed the hell out of me.
    I’ve just been to a site and on entry to the page after couple of seconds, a modal popup that made you watch the popup for 20 seconds. Unfortunately, there was no way to escape the modal popup. Clicking outside the box did not work. It way verrrrrry annoying – took over my browser altogether. Mind you i did have adblock on Firefox turned off at the time.

    The thing is don’t force them to watch or waiting for a timer to end with a popup.

    Thanks for making this article available.

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