Back to Basics: Writing Effective CTAs
Lights, camera, action!
Action, action, we want action!
Whatever the catch phrase, they’re all in our lexicon for a reason: We want movement. And, as marketers, we want movement that means someone is purchasing our thing. The way we get that kind of movement is a CTA.
What is a call to action?
CTA stands for call to action. It’s a rallying cry, an inciter to get our audience to do something.
A CTA is typically used as the kicker – the closer – to marketing material. It comes after all the storytelling, after the perfectly orchestrated copy that motivates across the buyer’s journey. It’s the thing that pushes the audience to do something.
How do you determine your CTA?
There’s actually a straightforward answer here. Ask yourself a simple but very important question: What do you want people to do? In other words, determine what action you want to incite. It may be to make a click, make a purchase, fill out a form … there are myriad possibilities.
Honestly, I could stop the post here. Because that really is the gist of it.
But let’s go on, for kicks. Here are some other things to consider.
What do you want your audience to do – versus what they want to do?
Now here’s the thing. You know what you want them to do (and if you don’t, stop now and figure that out tout de suite). But is that the thing your customers also want?
This is a bit ephemeral, but stick with me. You may want your audience to buy Product X. If you say “buy Product X,” that instruction may or may not get a reaction. But if you can go a step or two deeper to truly understand what they’re looking for, what problem they need to solve, then you can craft a more targeted and more effective CTA. Let’s say Product X can help them solve Problem X. Say that in your CTA – flip it around for them and show them the solution – and I’ll bet you get more action to that call.
Gerry McGovern, author of Killer Web Content, puts it this way: “Asking people directly what they want from your website is rarely a good idea. They will be unable to tell you because they follow their instinct. So you need to be able to read between the lines of what people say to you … to sniff out what people really want.”
Do you know how to speak to your audience?
How do you measure success? KPIs and CTAs.
You can get some clues about what your desired action is by looking at what you’ll measure as success. What are your key performance indicators (KPIs)? What will you be measuring? Start there. If you know what you’re going to be measured against, it’s a whole lot easier to set your course to get there.
Word elements of an effective CTA
Once you figure out what you want people to do, then you can get clever with wording. Use keywords, plays on words, and so on. This is when you can channel your inner Don Draper and come up with a lovely, memorable bit of copy. You may brainstorm a list of relevant words and mix and match them until you find a tantalizing combo. You may look back at past effective campaigns and channel those – tweaking them for today, but playing homage. Or you can say it like you mean it: Buy now; Click here;
Sign up. Whatever you do, though, make it plain, simple, actionable.
“Make the call to action clear and easy to respond to,” says David Meerman Scott in The New Rules of Marketing & PR. “Make certain you provide a clear response mechanism for those people who want to go further. Make it easy to sign up or express interest to buy something.”
How many words in a CTA?
Traditionally, CTAs are short and sweet – roughly two to seven words.
But I hesitate to hard-stamp this with concrete numbers. You may have character or word count limitations based on where your CTA will go. You also may be able to get by with bending those “traditions” and being effective. For example, using one word (such as “Go”) for your CTA may work for you. Or, you may need to write an entire sentence, such as “Buy this new product now and delight your life.” Test and see what lands with your audience.
The difference between taglines and CTAs
You may be inclined to write a punchy, clever tagline and call it a CTA. That may work. But is it really a CTA? The biggest differentiator between a campaign tagline and a CTA is that a CTA gives someone actionable instructions. Make sure you include those.
Different CTAs for different channels
You probably want to elicit the same ultimate reaction (click to a page, buy a product, etc.), but how you get there can vary, depending on the marketing channel.
Part of this is due to space constraints, as I just mentioned. In a blog, for example, you have the luxury to make a CTA an entire sentence. In a web banner you may have one or two words.
Also, people expect different things from different channels. On the web we are conditioned to look for short quips or hyperlinks to elicit a reaction. But you may be able to say more – use more descriptive, choice keywords – in an email.
Competing against yourself: when to use more than one CTA
Meerman Scott recommends using multiple CTAs because “you never know what offer will appeal to a specific person.” There may be a darn good reason for using more than one CTA, such as if you want to run a simple ad hoc test to see which copy is eliciting better responses.
The risk is that you also may dilute your effort and not get a great return on either investment. There’s an interior design principle that suggests you need a focal point for your room. That’s why designers shy away from having both a fireplace and a TV on competing walls, for example.
Take a cue: Pick one focal point.
Design and CTA: how they work together
Once you’ve crafted the clever words, it’s time to put it into design. Your goal to elicit the most clicks – and action – is to get the CTA to stand out on the page so the people see it and take action.
You may put the keyword in a different color or font or treatment. Put it in a circle or other “button.” You may go understated and cool, like Apple. You may even employ flashing buttons or red text (more on that in a moment.)
Consider, too, the placement of the CTA on a banner. For example, is it better at the bottom of the page, or in the middle?
As with anything, test, test, test. Try a few things and see what works for your audience.
Tools of the trade
So, how do you concoct those clever CTAs?
Brainstorming is one of my favorite activities. I love to start a writing project by generating a list of relevant words and letting my mind wander. I keep that list handy, then, as I go through the creative process, I come back to consult it and see what words came up. Those initial reactions – off the cuff, gut-words – are almost always precise and accurate.
To give this a try, make a list of actionable words – things that truly put the “action” in “call to action.” Some examples include “enroll,” “sign up,” “buy,” “sell,” “send,” “email,” “purchase,” “try,” and “go.”
Next, generate a list of the words that apply to the topic at hand – words that come up in your industry that surround your product or service, or are otherwise familiar in context.
If you’re stuck, thumb through your thesaurus for ideas. Google makes some pretty cool tools that can help you, too, such as AdWords and Correlate; both can help you generate keywords, which are a smart starting point for creating a CTA.
Non-traditional CTAs and tricks
There are elements of a web page, or email campaign, that may not scream “CTA” but have a similar effect. As an example, think about airline websites. Frequently, you’ll see statements like “only three seats left at this price.” That isn’t a CTA – but it is a motivational tactic, appealing to buyers’ scarcity complex. It sets the stage for what’s ahead, putting the audience in the frame of mind that they need to take action, quickly. Then, when they see the “Buy” button, they’re all the more primed.
Another example – one I’m less fond of, but which may be just as effective – is the negative approach. You know the one: those silly buttons that appear when you’re on a website that say things like “No, I’d rather not improve my marketing skills, thanks.” They try to have a reverse psychology affect on you. I’m not a huge fan, but I do appreciate their cleverness and attention-grabbing power.
Both of these examples are shared to get you to start thinking outside the box. Have a little fun. Play.
Learn by example: good and bad CTAs
My husband (also a copywriter) and I have a nerdy habit of sharing well-done marketing campaigns and copy with one another. I’ll leave you with some of my favorite recent examples:
Airbnb’s CTA game is neat because it’s a progression along the buyer’s journey. When you first browse properties on the site, the button’s CTA reads “See dates.” It’s just casual. Have a look around, it says. Come explore. A soft sell. Once you click and look at dates, you’ve indicated your interest to Airbnb. The next page is a harder sell, but still not pushy. It says, simply, “Choose date,” as though you have all the time in the world to make your decision. Only once you click that do you get to the nitty gritty – the Terms and Conditions to agree to and begin your purchase.
Tesla’s experience is more hard sell from the start. Right on the home page you get three options – the first of which is clear and direct: “Order yours.” This is for the people who know what they want and want to cut to the chase.
Finally, one of my favorite cheeky examples comes from a Seattle pizzeria. It’s delightfully ‘90s retro, flashing, and red. It basically encompasses Everything Not to Do in 2017. And yet, with time and distance, this now feels fresh and fun. I love it.
I also scoff when they get it wrong – like a recent Home Depot ad I heard on the radio, hawking a ceiling fan “So you don’t get in over your head.” The whole point of a ceiling fan is to get it over your head! Missed opportunity. I was so distracted by this that I missed the CTA entirely.
What is your favorite go-word – and can you use it in your next CTA? Share it here.