How to Create Effective Email Sign-up Forms

Zoe Ward

Think of the last time you subscribed to a brand newsletter through an online email sign-up form. Now think of all the forms you ignored and the brands you did not sign up for. Can you remember why you provided your email address to one brand and not the other?

In all likelihood, you signed up for a brand newsletter because there was a discount or offer involved. At least that’s what most people do. A 2019 Statista report says that 51% of subscribers in the UK signed up for brand emails to get discounts and offers (Reasons for Subscribing to emails from Brands in the UK, 2019).

Or, maybe you really liked the brand and wanted to receive updates from them.

However, it is also quite possible that the brand used effective email sign-up forms that encouraged you to sign up.

Why it’s important to get the email sign-up form right

Making email sign-up forms effective is critical because email marketing can give you a whopping ROI of £42 per pound spent (DMA Marketer Email Tracker 2019).

Now, there are a few ways to show email sign-up forms to users: banners in the header or footer, static sidebar form, static inline forms, CTA buttons on header, various kinds of pop-ups, and asking marketing consent at checkout.

Of these, pop-ups seem to work the best. A 2019 study by Sumo found that pop-ups gave an average conversion rate of 3.09%, with the top 10% pop-ups converting at an average of 9.28% (Pop-up Statistics by Sumo). Now that’s the kind of conversion rate you don’t want to miss out on!

Yes, we all want to avoid pop-ups (and other ads), which is why 527 million people have adblockers installed on their mobile browsers and 236 million people are blocking ads on desktop (2020 Adblock Report).

Yes, pop-ups are annoying and distracting. In fact, 73% of participants of a 2016 HubSpot survey said they dislike pop-ups (HubSpot Adblock Plus Research Study, Q2 2016).

But these are exactly the reasons it’s crucial to create pop-ups that are both effective and just right for your audience.

So, how do I build an effective email sign-up pop-up?

Yes, let’s get down to business. I suggest you reconsider the following factors of email form pop-ups to create one that encourages people to sign up:

  1. Timing
  2. The number of form fields
  3. The number of steps in signing up
  4. Non-intrusive, minimal pop-ups
  5. CTAs: buttons and copy
  6. Copy: length, style, and value
  7. Social Proof
  8. Image usage
  9. Design

Read till the end and I also have some experimentation ideas around email sign-up forms that you can use!

Let’s look in detail at 13 ways to make email sign-up pop-ups more effective.

1. Show your email form pop-ups at the right time

Displaying an email form pop-up immediately after landing on a page may increase users’ desire to exit. Delaying the pop-up activation, on the other hand, can dramatically increase the chances of users acting on an offer, as they would have received more value from the content on the site by then. ​This tactic is also approved by Google for mobile sites (Helping Users Easily Access Content on Mobile, Google Webmasters Blog).

Research suggests that the longer users stay on a page, the less likely they are to bounce off it (How Long Do Users Stay on Webpage, Nielsen Norman Group). The difficulty is finding the right balance between interrupting the user in their journey and risk causing annoyance and waiting too long and risk losing the user. ​

Therefore, the key to pop-up timings is to review the average time on page and show at around 50% of this. For example, if the average time on page is 30 seconds, show the pop-up after 15 seconds of a user landing on the page.

Another strategy is to show pop-ups after the user has interacted more with the site, such as when they enter the second or third page in their journey or click on something on a page.

A third one that also seems to work well, is to show pop-ups when the user shows exit intent.

However, bear this in mind: though delayed pop-ups tend to have a higher rate of subscription, because they reach fewer users, fewer emails get captured. ​

2. Reduce the number of form fields

The simplest forms have just one or two fields: either an email ID or an email ID and name, as you can see in our email newsletter subscription form below.

The psychological principle of Cognitive Ease states that the easier it is for our brain to process information, the faster we would take an action or make a decision. Having just two fields means that the form won’t be too tedious for users to fill out.

So retailers and companies commonly use single-field or dual-field forms to reduce friction, resulting in users being more likely to complete the form and submit. Remember, every additional field in a form can contribute to a loss of sign-ups.

3. Add multiple steps if you really want more information at the time of sign-ups

If you do not want to remove fields, you can try Progressive Disclosure of steps. This kind of pop-up involves asking for a small bit of information at a time: say, the visitor’s name and/or email address in the first step. Then, in the follow-up step, you can request for further information.

One way to do this is to show a part of the pop-up with one or two fields, and then show more fields when the user interacts with it. See an example below.

This uses the Foot-in-the-Door Technique or Commitment and Consistency Principle of consumer psychology. When people show a little commitment to doing something, they are more likely to show consistent behaviour and therefore carry on and complete the task. ​

4.  Establish which type of pop-up works best

You can present email opt-ins in several ways: from a traditional full-page take over pop-up to a more minimalist approach. Whichever pop-up type you use, it’s also worth considering what happens to the rest of the page when the pop-up is triggered.

For example, can the user still interact with the background content or is the user forced to interact with the pop-up? Is the background dim or greyed out?

Skechers has a mobile site pop-up that is somewhat hidden to evoke curiosity, encouraging users to click the tab to discover what it is.

Curiosity can be used to motivate users to take action by getting their attention and then “nudge” their behaviours. When we realise there’s some gap in our knowledge, curiosity drives us to close this gap. ​

A call to action such as this can appear on every page on the site, giving the user the opportunity to act on it when they are ready for it. The Mere Exposure Effect/Familiarity ​Principle could also come into play here as humans tend to react more favourably to certain stimuli the more they are exposed to it. ​

After implementing this strategy, Skechers generated 48% more sign-ups than any other pop-up type.

Another way to use the Mere Exposure Effect is to show users a less intrusive banner at the bottom of the page. This allows users to continue to use the site, but they would likely continue to notice the pop-up until they close it. ​

Here is another example of a minimal pop-up. Again, users can continue to shop but they will still be drawn to the pop-up.

​5. Have clear CTA buttons

CTA buttons are one of the most crucial elements on a website. Generally, humans crave the familiar and will automatically look for something that resembles a CTA button, according to Jacob’s Law (users expect a website to work the same way as all the other websites they already know).

When we see a button, we know that’s how we take action towards the goal that’s listed on the page, following the Mere Exposure Effect. So basically, buttons make it easy for users to identify where they should click to achieve a result.

Buttons also need to follow two key design principles:

  1. They should be attractive. Making CTA buttons in a colour that contrasts with the background is one of the easiest, most effective ways to get users to notice it. Like the example below that has a contrasting CTA button (black on white background).
  2. They should big enough to be noticed (but not so big that it looks obtrusive) and close enough for users to be able to move their mouse or finger and click on it (Fitt’s Law).

6. Try two-step opt-ins

Conversion rates have been seen to more than double by simply splitting up a single call to action into two options. Two-step opt-ins add another step to the sign-up process. So instead of initially including a form within the pop-up, an offer or benefit is shown to users.

The two-step opt-in technique is especially useful when a call to action refers to a single action that can be taken directly, such as subscribing to a newsletter. ​

This kind of pop-up uses the Foot-in-the-Door technique. The form is launched after a user-driven request. The click demonstrates the reaction to a modest request, creating a level of commitment that makes the user more likely to complete the form (the larger request) when it’s presented.

Secondly, because there is no visible form, the idea of filling out a form is not really on top of their mind. This reduces the amount of effort required in a user’s mind.

7. Use ​Yes/No copy in CTA

In a two-step opt-in form, try using CTA copy with Yes/No options, as in the image below.

This is likely to work very well because humans are natural people-pleasers and regret-averse, so it’s hard for them to directly say they have no interest in what is being offered.

We are always reluctant to say ‘no’, either for social reasons or our aversion to forego an option forever (Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and Loss Aversion). ​When engaged in face-to-face communications, our preference for hearing someone out before throwing the door in his face is especially evident. ​

In the online realm, despite users being shielded in anonymity, this psychological principle still holds. Not clicking on ‘yes’ is psychologically less taxing than actively clicking on ‘no’. It’s here where the effectiveness of the forced choice paradigm lies—it injects the pain of saying ‘no’ into the choice equation, thereby prompting more people to say yes.

And while you’re at it, try making the Yes/No copy negative

You can boost the effectiveness of the forced choice structure even further if you emphasise what each option means to users, by underlining the negative consequences of choosing ‘no’. For a user who is obviously in search of offers, for example, it doesn’t feel right to say no.

Research (“Yes/No/Not Right Now”: Yes/No Response Formats Can Increase Response Rates Even in Non-Forced-Choice Settings, E. Putnam-Farr & J. Riis, 2016) shows this extra information further increases clicks and conversions, as it forces users to regard the positive aspects of the request even more. If a user selects no, they’ll have to “internalise a message that [they] don’t agree with, such as ‘No, I don’t want to save money’.”​

The intent of a negative CTA is to appeal to people’s aversion to loss or FOMO. It is unlikely that anyone would prefer spending full price when they could spend less.

The goal is to create an offer that visitors feel compelled to say yes to, so that they’ll take action.

This example highlights the money-saving angle, albeit quite brutally. Notice the colours of the two buttons as well. The Yes button is more eye-catching than the No button. ​

8. CTA copy should be just the right length

Pop-up copy should catch a user’s attention and then engage them emotionally to evoke action. Users are busy and do not have the time to read overly elaborate copy.

While the only way to find out the optimal information needed to present to users is to conduct user research and test the copy length, generally the shorter the better.

Shorter copy means that users require less time to process the information and decide to act​.

The goal of a pop-up isn’t to sell something but rather to encourage a user to take a simple action. So users need less information to make that decision than, say, to buy a product. Shorter copy allows brands to drive a user to subscription quickly, without getting them to analyse and ponder on it for too long.​

Heuristically and without seeing the data to support this, I’d ask the question whether the text in this example below is too much. Is it read? Is it understood? Does it add value? Does it encourage the user to subscribe?

9. Make the CTA copy persuasive and the value clear

The call to action should be persuasive; users need to be provided with an incentive for taking action on a pop-up.

Users should be able to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” when they complete a form. An email address is a valuable commodity and it should be worth their while to sign up. Include messaging that describes the value of the content and what users will get in return for signing up.

In persuasive CTA copy, the benefit is highlighted in the CTA copy, responding to the question, “Why should users care?”​. Using a benefit-oriented CTA implies a reward or the end of a problem for the user.

A benefit-driven CTA doesn’t simply say “Click here” or “Subscribe now”. It spotlights the reward, saying something like “Click here to receive free delivery” or “Subscribe now for the latest offers.” ​

Affirmative CTAs like this work because they plant a seed. Users might not know they want the offer, but reading that phrase creates a positive connection between the offer and the consumer. ​

For example, instead of saying, “Sign up for our weekly newsletter”, try “Sign up for our newsletter and receive exclusive deals and offers”. If users are being offered a choice to know about the latest arrivals, the benefit-driven call-to-action could be “Update me on latest arrivals”.

A strong incentive means users are more likely to convert.

Here are two examples.

10. Try out bold headlines

Less copy is an opportunity to make the text, more specifically, the headline, bigger.

The headline plays a powerful role in pop-up conversions because of the following reasons:

  • It attracts a user’s attention​.
  • It states the offer or makes a bold promise of a benefit that a user shouldn’t want to miss. ​
  • The user is convinced that the offer is for them​.
  • It convinces the user to read the rest of the copy if there is any.

Frame CTA headlines in ways users would find more alluring. If you are offering 10% discount for new sign-ups, then it is better to say “Get your 10% discount coupon now” than “Want to save money?”.

Crazy Egg tested two distinct ways to communicate the same offer (see images below): one with a very bold offer ($2,000 worth of watches) and the other uses a less striking one (20 free watches). The bold headline (of $2,000 worth of watches) achieved twice the subscription rate (5 Real-life Pop-up A/B Tests, Crazy Egg).

11. Do not add an image for the sake of having one

Gaining users’ attention with aesthetically pleasing images certainly has value, but it comes at the price of making other elements harder to see and use.

Usability tests (Deciding When Graphics Will Help) show that purely decorative photos rarely add value to the design and tend to harm instead of improving the user experience. Users usually overlook such images and might even get frustrated by them. Images should be used in web design to convey a message, and if they do not serve this purpose, then they should be deemed redundant.

When imagery is used, they should be compelling and alluring as well as being emotionally powerful. Images should have an emotional impact and reinforce the feelings a brand is trying to create. After all, emotion often overrides logic when it comes to decision-making.

Whilst we haven’t seen any studies showing whether it is better to have an image or not in a pop-up, I would say having a relevant image is always better than having a stock image.

Here are three examples of pop-up designs with and without images. Decide for yourself what might work better for your business.

12. Including social proof in CTA is a good idea

Social Proof or Consensus Effect is a powerful conversion motivator. It can be utilised in a CTA or pop-up by using a number to show just how many people have already opted in. ​Or to emphasise the trust factor.

The effect occurs when a person is unsure of the correct way to behave. In this situation, they will often look to others for clues about the correct behaviour. The same principle applies when someone is unsure whether to trust something or believe someone.

Social Proof can even shape our preferences and the choices we make. We often choose conformity rather than following our own logic and thought. This is exacerbated by the fact that we almost always assume that other people possess more knowledge of a given situation than we do. ​

Therefore, consumers see the number of people who have already subscribed or who trust the brand and think, “What am I missing?”. So, they join too.

​13. Go for an unusual design

Sometimes the biggest challenge with email pop-ups is getting users to notice the content in them.

Naturally, a person would spot a message appearing on screen in front of them. But whether they read it or dismiss without a glance is another story.

For one, many users are in a rush. They conduct research, looking for specific information or products, leaving them very little time for anything else.

And one strategy that truly stands out at overcoming this is using an unusual shape for a pop-up.

A surprising shape would make the user pay attention. True, it might be for a brief moment, but that’s often enough to get them to notice your offer.

For example, look how strange the pop-up below looks like. It’s certainly far from what we consider a typical opt-in form.

And because of that, it catches attention.

Thank you for reading so far. Here are some email sign-up pop-up experiment ideas!

In the end, what kind of email sign-up form works for your users is likely to be very different from what works for users of your competitor. The only way to know what works best for you is to conduct experiments.

Here are some A/B tests you can run to increase conversions of your email sign-up forms.

Disclaimer: Do not run a test without doing research and finding out what exactly is the problem you need to fix in your email sign-up form.


1. Shown after x seconds

2. Triggered on exit intent

3. Triggered on scroll​

4. Triggered after one (or more) interactions

5. Triggered on x page views

Minimal Fields:

6. Remove redundant or unnecessary fields such as confirm email and title

7. Combine first and last name into one field​

Progressive Disclosure:

8. Show email field first and then any other fields

9. Show email and name first and upon interacting show other fields​

Minimal Pop-up:

10. Show a sticky tab or icon on the side or at the bottom of the screen

11. Show a minimised pop-up on the side or at the bottom such as a lightbox or a banner


12. Ensure CTA buttons are visible

13. Look at CTA copy and use persuasive copy to propel users to take action

14. Provide a ‘yes’ & ‘no’ option

15. Providing a ‘negative’ no option​

16. Use a two-step opt-in

Image Usage:

17. Test removing the image

18. Use a different image while taking into account relevancy

Copy Usage:

19. Rethink the length of copy

20. Write persuasive copy

21. Create a bold headline

22. Clearly show the benefits of signing up

Social Proof:

23. Add the number of subscribers

24. Include the total number of users

25. Add an average rating of the brand

Unusual Design:

26. Test a differently shaped pop-up​ (circular, hexagonal, star-shaped, etc.)