To businesses, pop-up ads are a viable form of advertising on the World Wide Web that are designed to increase traffic to a company website or capture email addresses for marketing purposes.

But to consumers, pop-ups ads are widely despised as annoying and intrusive. Everyone has a horror story about a pop-up ad gone wild -- one that was programmed to hijack a user's Internet session with never-ending cascading windows.

So does that mean a business should avoid using pop-up ads all together?

A glut of pop-up ads that emerged in the late '90s sparked a consumer rebellion that caused browser companies to integrate pop-up blocking software into their products and programmers to offer the same software online for free. Although industry statistics show that pop-ups have a higher click-through rate than any other type of online ad, a study by the Internet consulting firm Bunnyfoot Universality, located in the United Kingdom, found that many users click on the pop-up ads by mistake as they attempt to close the window.

Yet other research has found that consumers are receptive to pop-ups in limited situations, according to Internet marketing expert Corey Rudl, who runs the online site

"Using pop-up windows on your own site can be a great strategy for promoting your own products, boosting your opt-in rates and keeping your visitors informed," Rudl says.

Used on a company's website, the sometimes intrusive ads can actually end up enhancing a user's browsing experience -- and increase sales -- through offers for complimentary gifts, newsletters or information, he adds. But be wary about contracting to launch your pop-up ads from a third-party website: You have less control over whether your ad is effective or annoying.

Here's how to wage a successful pop-up advertising campaign that won't end up alienating the very customers you want to attract:

  • Be honest. The first wave of pop-up ads conned Internet users into clicking on them by disguising themselves as warnings about computer viruses or problems. Those ads didn't increase sales and companies wound up in court over them. To reduce the consumer-annoyance factor, be direct about what you're offering, Rudl advises.
  • Test drive a pop-up ad. Determine which type of pop-up ad would best work for your website by testing them to see which generates the most clicks, Rudl says. Entry pop-ups appear as a site loads and are a good way to alert visitors about special offers. Exit pop-ups appear as the site closes and are useful before-you-go prompts to get a customer to sign up for a newsletter or mailing list. Delayed pop-ups appear after the visitor has been on the site for some time and allow visitors to ease into a site without being overwhelmed by offers.
  • Customize. Pop-up windows are small, so it's crucial to choose the right image or text, Rudl says. Make sure the ad is related to the content on the specific page that the visitor is viewing. That means if a visitor is browsing for stereo systems, don't pitch them an ad for TVs. Use the pop-up to inform a customer of a special offer, such as a complimentary gift or free shipping that are applicable to the product they are viewing.
  • Consider rich media ads instead of plain text. Pop-up blockers are now so pervasive that many companies are turning to rich media -- video, audio or animation. These are just as eye-catching as pop-ups but aren't thwarted by blocking technologies. Floater ads -- also called popovers, overlay or hover ads -- use flash animation or JavaScript to serve an ad over an existing page rather than opening a new window. Some launch graphics or video when a cursor moves over them. Others play video in a static banner. According to DoubleClick, the Internet advertising firm, rich media generates greater brand recognition and sales than static online ads.
  • Don't rely solely on pop-ups. If visitors are using blocking software, they won't see your pop-up ads. Duplicate important offers in banner or text ads as well.

Pop-ups ads don't have to be annoying and invasive. With some forethought and strategy, a business can deploy these advertisements to ultimately increase customer satisfaction and sales.