The Rise of Confirmshaming: When Websites Insult You for Not Opting In

The “exit=intent pop-up” is becoming inescapable.

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Jun 7 2016, 11:00am

Image: Shutterstock

It's probably fair to suggest that most people using the internet want to save money, make healthy choices, and keep abreast of current events. What they don't want, is to give companies their email addresses to prove it.

Much of the online marketing world, however, seeks to change this. Growing numbers of websites, from magazines to clothing stores, have adopted "exit-intent pop-ups," rectangular modals that blanket a webpage, prompting a user to join a mailing list. Beyond their visual intrusiveness, these ads prey on the uncertain user, foregoing the neutral simplicity of a "yes/no" option in favor of charged, shame-inducing language.

For the uninitiated, an example scenario. A user navigates to an article on Popular Mechanics. If she moves her cursor outside of the page (say, toward her browser tabs), an in-page pop-up appears, prompting her to enter her email address to sign up for the magazine's newsletter. It's framed as an opportunity to learn the 8 Ways Magnetic Levitation Could Shape the Future. The confirm button reads "See the Future."

An example of confirmshaming by Food & Wine.

(This is documented on confirmshaming, a tumblr displaying screenshots of the exit-intent pop-ups different users have encountered. "PopMech accuses me of being a Luddite," the caption reads.)

For years, companies have been experimenting with strategies to complicate the opt-out process: altering the interfaces of their promotional messages, relegating the "Unsubscribe" option to the bottom border, changing the copy to a more insidious "Change Preferences."

The subversive-modal tactic, however, has ushered in the era of preemptive opt-ins. As technology grows more sophisticated and consumers (particularly those who use adblocking software) become increasingly wary of online marketing tactics, advertisers must find ways to capture users' attention, and thus their data, swiftly. Presenting ostensibly funny copy ("No, thanks. I don't want to see cool cars." "No, thanks. My business is already perfect.") and equating declination of an offer with inadequacy or mendacity, then—such as the aforementioned Luddite accusation—translate some of advertising's most fundamental strategies into the language of modern digital marketing.

"I think it's partly that internet advertising is such a shitshow," said confirmshaming's creator, Dan Bruno. "People need to do whatever they can to get users to pay attention to their ads."

Another confirmshaming example.

It would be laughable if it weren't so inherently predatory. On the commercial Web, data is a form of currency and often considered a portal into profitability, and, as rampant blog posts and case studies have demonstrated, aggressive, shame-inducing exit pop-ups are the en vogue strategy for pressuring people into providing it.

What's more, according to digital marketing consultant Matthew Barby, companies' valuations, particularly at the time of acquisition, are based on metrics such as the size of their subscriber lists; this encourages them to prioritize the bulk of their lists above more sustainable measures of success, such as newsletter open rates.

"The size of an email list plays a huge part in the valuation of a company. Data, particularly for online retailers, is probably one of their biggest assets," Barby said. "Even in big acquisitions, it's very much a quantity-over-quality valuation. If it's new, and it's X amount of subscribers that opt in, then you've got an instant increase in valuation."

Eventually, exit pop-ups' shaming nature will be their demise. Like all forms of online ads, exit pop-ups are subject to the vagaries and evolution of the internet, and their time is likely limited. As the tug-of-war between savvy consumer and anticipatory marketer persists, will the exit pop-up's successor be quite so grating? The short answer: probably.