How annoyed do you get with those pop-ups that appear on websites? The chances are, when used badly, you get angry. Indeed, there are dozens of ways you can block pop-up windows from appearing and much online security software blocks these annoyances by default anyway. Of course, the pesky marketers try to find out ways to get round these things – and you can find plenty of advice online and a wide range of products on creating unblockable popups.
Clearly these things work – in spite of their annoyance. After all, many well-known online marketers use them and if their claims are to be believed and those images of them in front of their sports cars or on the beach are true, the popups can’t annoy that much.
But new research on a psychological phenomenon known as “attentional blink” might provide an answer as to why these things work – and why you might therefore consider them in specific circumstances. Attentional blink happens when you are asked to do two things in quick succession; you often fail to notice the second thing. For instance, online you might be asked to tick two boxes in a form – the first for saying whether or not you want to hear from the company again and the second whether or not you want to hear from their “partners”. When the boxes are in close proximity, you could easily miss the second box, resulting in several unwanted emails in the future.
However, this new research shows that if you are distracted from the second item you are more likely to see it. Strange but true. The distraction appears to help us re-focus our attention on the second task.
So, imagine you have a web form which you use to sign up people to your email newsletter. But on that form you have two things you want people to focus on – a choice to receive your newsletter and a second choice to subscribe to your RSS feed. People could miss that second choice. But distract them briefly with a pop-up, or an advert that folds down from the corner of the page and when they return to the form, they’ll refocus, seeing the second option and thereby increasing your RSS subscribers, in this example.
It may well be that those popups that most of us dismiss do not produce much in themselves – but they cause us to refocus our attention on the page underneath, seeing something we had previously not noticed. And it is this which may bring in the increased results for some websites.
Of course, you don’t have to use pop-ups. You could distract people in other ways – for instance, some timed operation that starts a video playing after a visitor has been on a page for a certain number of seconds, or a change in the form itself as people fill it in – new options appearing, for instance. In other words, distractions appear to have a value in helping people focus on a second item you really want them to pay attention to. So, don’t dismiss annoying distractions on web pages as something you want to avoid on your own site – there does appear to be a potential value in them.