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

Shane Melaugh   83

Updated on December 22, 2019

"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.


by Shane Melaugh  August 18, 2015


Disclosure: Our content is reader-supported. This means if you click on some of our links, then we may earn a commission. We only recommend products that we believe will add value to our readers.

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Leave a Comment

  • Thanks for writing such a detailed article and sharing your test data Shane! I will be putting these Exit Intent improvements to the test right away.

  • Excellent post, Shane. It will be interesting to see if my Mobile visitors convert more… test, test, test!

  • It’s always good to ‘best practices’ tested and in this case debunked! Do the different popup styles affect time on site, or numbers of pages viewed?

    Those metrics seem like they would be helpful in determining if any lead gen form is distracting the visitor from what she came for in the first place.

    • That’s an interesting question, Martin. It’s something I haven’t tested in this set of case studies.

  • Thank you, yet again, Shane, for a really honest, informative and educational post with no ridiculous hype (as we are so tired of over here on the Pacific Coast). Yours are the only mailers and posts that I read all the way through and that never go in the junk.
    And my wife reckons you’re good looking as well, so these days I just let her think I have thought up all your brilliant ideas…

    • Thanks, Lewis! Happy to know that we can provide value with our content. And the strategy you’ve adopted concerning your wife: good thinking! 🙂

  • Very nice and detailed post Shane, as usually you guys are doing a great job and helping many people.

    Love the way you explain and write! Have you already written a post about how you make your videos?


      • Thanks Shane,

        By the way, will you add to thrive leads the option to suscribe or be suscribed in order to get access to a page of your website? For example a bonus page for suscribers.

        It would be great to have that option.

      • Hello Jorge,

        That’s how the usual setup works, where you send new subscribers to a specific landing page that isn’t linked to publicly, on your site. The page isn’t actually locked for non-subscribers, but in practice, becoming a subscriber is the only way people get to it. See more about this setup in this post.

        You can also use the content locking feature to make specific parts of content only available to subscribers.

  • Hey Shane…

    How did you make the content upgrade form on this page? If this was made with thriveleads, would you please point me in the direction of a tutorial or helpfile on how to do it?

    • It’s made with one of our older products. There are some issues with it currently, but we’re working on a new and improved version. 🙂

  • My tests have confirmed the same thing. I’m glad your tests confirm my tests because you just never know if you might be missing something.

  • I will definitely test this starting now. I get an awesome conversion rate off an Exit Intent Multi-Step setup I am running on 3 different sites right now and I use a 10 second delay for mobile visitors now. I am anxious to see the results.

    • Hi Mike,

      I’d love to know how your test turns out. Great if you’re already getting good conversions. There might be potential for even more. 🙂

      • Well not even 24 hours later I have some really interesting stats using this. I have a “viral content” type site using the Performag theme which generates a lot of quick hit traffic. It has been averaging about a .6% conversion rate as 80% of the traffic is from mobile visitors using exit intent only (no delays or other settings).

        Right after I read this post last night I implemented the Smart Exit at 10 seconds or show on mobile exit in an A/B Test with my current form. No changes where made to what I was running other than adding the smart exit.

        Here are my results:

        Main Control Lightbox – 788 Impressions, 5 Conversions, .64% Conversion Rate

        Smart Exit+ Clone – 961 Impressions, 16 Conversions, 1.67% Conversion Rate

        The Smart Exit is showing a 163.49% Improvement over the control with a 98.04% Chance to beat the original.

        All I can say so far is AWESOME!

        I am anxious to see what the stats are in a few days.

        P.S. Did you get my email about the affiliate thing Shane?

      • Thanks for sharing your results, Michael. Looking real good!

        I did see your email and I’m sure I responded. I’ll double check, though.

  • Can you alter Thrive Leads so it you can use more than 1 type of optin on a site? You can’t use a sidebar optin and popup on the same site.

    • There’s some misunderstanding here – you can run sidebar, popups, slideins, screenfillers, post footers, shortcodes, post footer and content lockers all on the same site..

  • Excellent info Shane!

    I don’t think I’ve ever signed up to anything through an exit intent popup. I always found the fact that they were keeping me from leaving a bit annoying.

    However, your solution seems like a great compromise. And I appreciate the info on when one method is more appropriate than another method.

    Thanks Shane!

    David Coleman

  • Wow, beautifully written, to the point article Shane, I love it when you test things and share your results. Even though every site and instance is different, it’s more about learning or being reminded of the process. I personally hate pop-ups as much as I hate sliders, but then they both have there uses.
    Its just of matter of when and where, and you have once again helped in that department by providing well meaning direction. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Keith! I love testing things like this and when the results are so unexpected, I have to share them of course. 🙂

    • We do indeed, yes. I can’t really say this without bragging about our product, but with Thrive Leads, testing really is fun.

  • Awesome test and results! I’m running almost the same test. For now a 4 sec delay is performing 82% better then the rest.

  • The real question: what tool am I using to assemble and segment my list of lists? This isn’t big data yet, so as we get started, what Database or spreadsheet tool should we use that will grow and adapt with our list? Thanks Shane & Team, great post with meaningful solutions toward the goal of growing our mailing lists. (By the way, I’m on your lists but not yet a subscribing member), you differentiate that, I can tell. Now how about a video that talks about preparing for that opportunity? please

    • Any autoresponder service (e.g. Aweber, GetResponse, MailChimp, ActiveCampaign etc.) will give you at least some basic way to segment your contacts into different lists. If you’re asking what the “best” solution is, I’m afraid I can’t answer that question. I’ve tried many but not all of these services and they all have their pros and cons.

  • Great explanations, thank you. Now to put it into action. I currently don’t have any optin forms on a page unless it is a landing page that’s meant to have one. I have a site that’s page heavy, so I’ll look and see where I can add it in for best effect.

    • I’m sure you could see some serious acceleration in your list growth if you start adding some lead groups for forms that show site wide.

  • Very interesting and thought-provoking data, thank you so much!

    Now I’m curious about how good the conversion rate will be for paid products, depending on how the lead signed up to your list.

    In other words, do some types of pop-ups lead to a lower Customer Lifetime Value? One would need good tracking and enough traffic/conversions to test that.

    • That’s a very interesting question indeed and one that is unfortunately not very easy to answer. We have a longer-term plan to add such tracking features to Thrive Leads, but it’s quite a challenge to make it happen.

  • Wow! Thanks a lot,
    I always hated them – exit lightboxes! It even urged me to close the tab in my browser, so I was always sceptical about using them. However, as you pointed out in the video, people seem to repeat that this is highly effective while it’s not that effective. Even high authority IM sites repeat this statement on and on (without ever testing it – I presume).
    When I don’t know something, then I listen to my guts and if I’m still unsure, then I try to test – if I can.

    Very nice myth busting article! And thanks for not leaving us without an alternative solution Shane!

  • Killing it as usually Shane…

    I wanted to ask you 2 things:

    1) Do you imply that we should test having both a popup when a visitor lands and an exit intent with a secndary offer?

    2) Would it be possible in the future to track the device of the visitor with Thrive Leads and if it’s desktop do an exit intent, otherwise do a 20 sec popup?

    Thanks in advance and keep it real as always!

    • 1) That might be a bit excessive. Although why not test it and see what happens? 🙂

      2) You can do that right now, with Thrive Leads. What you describe is exactly what SmartExit does.

  • Thanks for this post. It is something I was thinking about previously but didn’t bother testing. There are 2 things that always worried me about exit intents:

    1. Some of the people will have read the page before they get the offer and decided to leave, meaning that psychologically they are in a ‘No’ state of mind. This surely makes it harder to get them to say ‘Yes’ to an offer.

    2. Others, having finished the post, will feel that the query which brought them to the post has been answered. They may then feel that they do not need any further information so they decline the opt in.

    My thinking may of course be complete nonsense. Having seen the results of your test, I feel that hitting them with the opt in offer before their query has been fully answered may be better as they still have a thirst for more information.

    As a result of this post, I implemented an A/B test between an Exit Intent and a lightbox with 10 second delay and SmartExit. While it is early days yet with the test, the 10 second delay lightbox is performing better. If that continues over a couple of weeks, I will then test different time delays.

    Thank you for constantly providing us with practical tips to help us improve our chances of success. It is like buying a product and getting a Marketing Degree thrown in as a bonus.

    • Your hypothesis makes sense. It’s difficult to test whether that is actually what’s happening, but it’s a possible explanation for why exit intent doesn’t perform very well.

  • how do ya’ll get ya’lls icons to be colored? In the thrive themes and leads I only see one color icons. Am I missing something?

  • Hi Shane, please allow me to quote your wisdom:
    “You need to ask yourself when it makes sense to interrupt your visitor..”

    People, and that includes all of us here, get overwhelmed, under pressure for all good reasons. There is a lot to read and learn for every people and unfortunately, not enough time! We are customers like the audience we target. We like, clear, simple, short and sweet and to the point.

    Note to self: Louise stick Shane’s short and sweet sentence you quote and stick to center of mirror in your bathroom…

    Who like interruptions?

    Mr. Shane, you embody “Common Sense” it annoys me, when I am about to X-out a page on the web and a lightbox shows up asking for my name and email. It’s pushee and feels like a car salesman behavior.

    I really enjoyed your tutorials. Always looking forward for the next one! Thank you for sharing your knowledge, gifts, and especially your pragmatic beautiful mind.

    Oh. One question please: when I zoom in the screen of my laptop, your social bar on the left drags all the way to the center of my screen where I am reading your blog, would it be possible to make it stick to the left ? Makes sense?

    Stay great and pragmatic!

    Louise Grogan

  • Shane, how does this make sense? You just say that exit intent doesn’t work as well as instant or 10-second delay. So why would SmartExit work better? Wouldn’t it be better just to have 10-second or instant for BOTH desktop and mobile?

    • Hi Kevin,

      It’s dangerous to think of these things in absolute terms. We’ve seen in several tests that shorter delays tend to lead to higher conversion rates. That doesn’t mean that shorter delays ALWAYS lead to higher conversion rates. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t possible scenarios where a time delay is the best choice. That’s why time delays are one of the options you can choose in Thrive Leads.

      Similarly, we’ve seen many times that exit intent isn’t a very good trigger to use, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t ever be a case where using exit intent makes sense. As mentioned here, there are certain situations where it is indeed a good choice.

      What we aim to do with our products is give you all the tools and make it as easy as possible for you to run your own tests. That way, you can find out what truly works best on your site.

  • Thank you for such an informative post and loved the idea about SmarExit. I am doing my research from last week on using (or not using) exit intent.

    My test would be to use exit-intent forms on the success page (after successful conversion) to ask visitors to like us on fb and gets updates for future sales/coupons.

  • Do NOT believe this for one second. I have used Exit Intent on my website for over a year on one specific page. My pricing page. After adding Exit Intent to my pricing page I increased my sales by 10% just from that page. I offered a 30% off coupon to exit intent traffic and boosted my sales. While this might not be the norm for others it was for me.

  • I would improve exit intent with sensivity option. now many solutions except Optin Monster dont have it. and it really helps to avoid shoein exit intent when user is not leaving. or is outside window by accident and got back

  • I don’t see how this test was fair. Exit intent captures only customers who were leaving. 10 second and instant pop ups are probably just handing discounts to customers who would have ordered without a pop up. I don’t think a test needs to be run to see that those would have higher conversion rates.

  • Thank you for another invaluable article, Shane. I’m delighted to see some data on exit intent lightboxes. I especially appreciate your suggestions as to when to still use them. Thanks to for developing a couple options we can use to improve the effectiveness of our exit intent lightboxes.

  • I recently implemented an exit-intent lightbox because I’ve read over and over that Google is penalizing pages that have them pop up upon page load or in any way that gets in the way of a visitor viewing content. I see that this post is a few years old, but can you offer your take on this issue and if these numbers would be different now because of changing Google algorithms?

  • What—as a website user—I find annoying about exit intent pop-ups is when the wording of them makes reference to “why are you leaving?” or otherwise implies that I am leaving the page when, in fact, I am loving the page and am bookmarking it or adding it to Pocket to read later.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}