Busting the Exit-Intent Myth (+ Our Superior Solution)

"Exit intent technology" sounds really cool, a lot of fanfare has been made about it and there are entire businesses that are based on creating exit-intent opt-in forms for your site (in some cases at an extremely high price)​... and we're about to show you why it's completely overrated.

Exit intent is probably the most talked about and most widely used technique for list building right now. We've compiled some case studies that will change the way you think about it and give you more powerful tools to work with.


What Exactly is Exit Intent?

The basic idea is that you make an opt-in lightbox (sometimes wrongly called a 'popup') appear on your website the moment a visitor shows that they're about to leave. Here's what that could look like:​

In this way, the opt-in form attempts to recover a lost visitor. The visitor has already decided to leave and you present an offer that can turn them into an email subscriber.

Exit Intent vs. Exit Redirect

Note that there's an important difference between an exit-intent form and what's usually called an exit-redirect or exit-popup. An exit-popup is a browser warning message that is triggered when you try and close a tab. For example, if you make some changes in an online editor and try to close the tab, you'll probably see an exit-popup that warns you about losing all your unsaved changes if you leave now.

While exit-popups can be used for marketing purposes, they can't be used for lead generation directly. It's not possible to prevent the closing of a tab and show a lightbox opt-in form instead. You can only show browser warning messages like this one:​

Because of this, exit-intent is about tracking the movement of the mouse cursor to determine when a visitor is likely to leave, although there's no way of knowing for sure that they were about to leave.

Why Exit Intent?

Now that we know what it is, the next question is: why has exit intent become such a popular tool?

It mostly comes down to a very simple and very persistent idea, which is:

​"Lightbox opt-in forms are annoying!"

​A lightbox opt-in form that triggers after a few seconds interrupts your visitor and can indeed be perceived as annoying. As a website owner, you might be very concerned about annoying your visitors and you might even have a deeply held belief that lightbox opt-in forms must perform badly because of how annoying they are.

The logic usually goes: "I don't like lightboxes that interrupt me, therefore no one likes them, therefore they must be ineffective."​

On the other hand, marketers keep telling you that lightbox forms perform great and that you should use them.

Exit intent appears as the solution to this dilemma: you get to use lightbox forms, but in a way that doesn't interrupt or annoy your visitors!​ It's the perfect compromise! Or is it..?

The Damning Evidence Against Exit Intent

We built Thrive Leads specifically to make A/B testing of opt-in forms as fast and easy as possible. As a result, we've been able to run tests on many sites in different niches and compare the effectiveness of exit intent against other opt-in form triggers. Here are some of the things we discovered:

Case Study #1

These are the results of testing an identical opt-in lightbox with three different trigger settings:

  • ​Showing the lightbox on exit intent.
  • Showing the lightbox after 10 seconds.
  • Showing the lightbox instantly on page load.

The data from the test looks like this (tested using Thrive Leads):

The test shows that both showing the lightbox after a delay or showing it instantly on page load are significantly more effective at converting visitors into subscribers than the exit intent trigger is.

Using exit intent opt-in forms on your site? Here's why probably you shouldn't... #exitintentmyth

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Case Study #2

You may also remember a similar test from one of our previous posts, that looked like this:​

If we grab the same data points as in the test above, we see this:

The results are similar and again, the exit intent trigger performs worse than any of the other triggers tested. There is a caveat with this test, though: because the number of conversions is quite low, I'd describe these results as an "early indicator" rather than solid evidence.

Having said that, we have run similar tests for longer periods and with more traffic and gotten the same kinds of results repeatedly. The evidence suggests strongly that exit-intent forms don't tend to perform very well.​

If you look at how commonly used exit intent is all across the web, it's clear that there's a myth about exit intent being "the best" thing or "the right" thing to use. With the tests we've run and the case studies shown above, I hope that we've effectively busted this myth.

The Redeeming Factors: When to Use Exit Intent

I could spend the rest of this post showing more test data where exit intent performs badly and continue to tear it down as a technique for list building. Instead, I want to make this more positive and useful, so we'll examine when it actually does make sense to use exit intent. After that, we'll look at some ways in which exit intent can be improved dramatically.

The ideal way to use exit intent can be summed up in one sentence: use it to promote secondary offers only.

List building tip: use exit intent for secondary offers only! #exitintentmyth

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Here are some examples to illustrate what that means:

​Add a Lead Generation Offer to a Sales Page

On a sales page, you have a clear primary offer and conversion goal: you want visitors to learn about the product and then make a purchase.

On a sales page, it would be a mistake to interrupt a visitor with a time-delayed lightbox and an opt-in offer because getting the lead is secondary to making the sale.​

However, using exit intent can be useful in this scenario. Instead of interrupting potential buyers, you show an opt-in offer only to visitors who were about to leave anyway. This gives you a chance to get their email address and then turn them into customers later on.

Offer a Coupon or Trial on a Sales Page​

We have the same scenario as above: your visitor is looking at your sales material and you don't want to interrupt them while they're doing that.

Another way to try and save the sale when a visitor is about to leave is to show them a coupon offer or a trial offer on exit. In this case, the ideal outcome is that the visitor reaches the primary conversion goal, which is making the regular purchase at the full price. If they're about to leave, you can advertise a secondary offer, like a lower-priced trial or a price reduction.

Both of these secondary offers aren't as good for your business as the primary conversion goal, but they're better than losing a visitor forever and that's why using exit intent to make these offers is worth testing.​

Create a "Reminder" for Your Content Upgrade

We've talked about content upgrades and the power of highly relevant offers before.​ If you have a content upgrade in your post, that's the clear primary offer and as long as your visitor is still reading through the post, there's no need to interrupt them. However, if they're about to leave and haven't taken up your content upgrade yet, it can make sense to open a lightbox with the offer on exit intent.

Here's a video with a few more examples of when to use or not to use exit intent, plus a summary of the main points in this post:

4 Things You Should Know About Exit Intent (Video):

I hope these examples help illustrate the underlying principle, which is: you need to ask yourself when it makes sense to interrupt your visitor with whatever offer is in your lightbox and when it makes more sense to leave the visitor uninterrupted.

Exit Intent on Steroids: Introducing SmartExit

Now that we've seen both the shortcomings of exit intent as well as some examples of when it still makes sense to use it, let's get to improving it. As a result of the testing and research we've done, we've developed two technologies that improve on the results of traditional exit intent. We call them SmartExit and SmartExit+ and both are available in the latest version of Thrive Leads.

​Here are the results from a SmartExit test we ran:

As you can see, SmartExit outperformed exit intent by almost 60% and we also got an additional conversion boost by combining SmartExit with a multi step offer.

Here's the raw data from the test:​

So, what exactly does SmartExit do? Quite simply, it considers mobile users.

Exit intent is enabled by tracking the mouse cursor and for visitors that are navigating your site using a phone or tablet, there simply is no cursor to track. Usually, that means they just won't see your opt-in offer.

With SmartExit, you set your lightbox to trigger on exit intent for desktop visitors and you set an alternative, time-based trigger for mobile visitors.

Check your analytics to see how many of your visitors are coming from mobile devices. You might see a number that's 50% or higher, so it's no surprise that SmartExit can increase conversions by 50% or more.​

Here are the results from a test we ran between traditional exit intent, SmartExit and SmartExit+:

In this case, the SmartExit trigger lead to a 45% higher conversion rate while SmartExit+ more than doubled the conversion rate of the control form.

Here are the numbers from this test:​

SmartExit+ works like this: for a time delayed lightbox, it will trigger the lightbox on exit intent if the visitor intends to leave before the time trigger fires. Here's what that means in practice:

  • ​Normally, if you set a lightbox to show after 10 seconds, a visitor who leaves after 5 seconds will never see it.
  • With SmartExit+, if you set a lightbox to trigger after 10 seconds, any visitor who intends to leave the site before those 10 seconds are up will be shown an exit intent lightbox instead.

How to Use SmartExit & SmartExit+

Now, as a marketer, I should probably just parade those conversion numbers up and down every channel I can get my hands on and invite everyone to sing the praises of SmartExit along with me.​ Instead, I'm going to be my usual pragmatic self and get real with you about these features.

SmartExit and SmartExit+ aren't simply better versions of exit intent.​

They can be vastly superior when used right, but it's not just a question of replacing every instance of exit intent on your site with SmartExit+ because "it's the best".​

Once again, we want to look at the principle of how these features operate and ask ourselves where they make the most sense to use:

​When to Use SmartExit

SmartExit acts as a regular exit intent trigger for all your desktop visitors, but it will interrupt your mobile device visitors.​

At first, it might seem like that means you shouldn't use it on something like a sales page. After all, you don't want to be interrupting people who are moving towards your primary offer, right?

The real answer is that it depends. Look at your analytics to see how many sales conversions you're actually getting from mobile visitors.​ Here's an example from an ecommerce website:

As you can see, on this site, only 1.8% of all sales conversions are coming from mobile visitors. And that's even though about 20% of the traffic comes from mobile visitors.

In this case, it makes sense to interrupt the mobile visitor from moving towards a conversion goal he'll almost certainly not reach (sale) and offer a secondary goal he's much more likely to convert on (lead).​

This is not uncommon, as sales conversions from mobile devices are still lower across the board, compared to conversions from desktop visitors.

When to Use SmartExit+

SmartExit+ isn't so much an alternative to exit intent as it is an improvement to time delayed triggers. It makes sense to use on any form that you are showing after a time delay, no matter whether the delay is long or short.

The reason we built SmartExit+ is because in our testing, we saw that exit intent usually loses out to time delayed triggers. However, time delayed triggers can be improved if exit intent is added to save those that leave before the trigger fires.​

SmartExit+ also works in the same way for scroll-based triggers.​

Test & Conquer

Now it's up to you: we've just armed you with some deadly conversion know-how that you can test on your own site. Emphasis here is on the word test.​

It's very easy to make blanket statements such as "exit intent is really bad" or "SmartExit+ is the best and everyone working at Thrive Themes is incredibly handsome". These statements may be true for the most part, but there can always be exceptions.

The only way to find out what works best for your website is to run your own tests.

As mentioned above, SmartExit and SmartExit+ are available for you to use in Thrive Leads and it's very easy to test different triggers, forms, form types etc. using this plugin.​Using the right triggers and forms can make a huge difference (as we showed in the examples above) and you can literally set up a test of your own in just a few minutes, using Thrive Leads.

If you enjoyed this post, please help us spread the word with a quick social media share:​

If you have any questions or some of your own results to share, please leave a comment.


Author: Shane Melaugh

Shane Melaugh is a co-founder and the CEO of Thrive Themes. When he isn’t plotting new ways to create awesome WordPress themes & plugins, he likes to geek out about camera equipment and medieval swords. He also writes about startups and marketing here.

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