How to write a better call to action: 10 tips

The call to action (CTA) is one of the key components of a piece of copy. It usually sits on its own towards the end of the article, but there could be several sprinkled around the piece. It can be words, an image, a button or some other form of interaction.

Writing a better call to action

What is a call to action?

A call to action is an instruction to do something. In consumer marketing terms, that’s usually to buy something, but with larger, more considered purchase decisions, it can be to guide the reader further down the sales funnel. Typically, it will be in imperative mood, i.e. “Do this.” Online, calls to action usually form the text of a hyperlink or button. Obviously that’s impossible on hard copy (direct mail, TV adverts, newspaper ads etc.), but the intention is the same: to get the reader to do something.

Why are CTAs so effective?

Calls to action work because they don’t leave the customer dangling. The reader has succumbed to the attention-grabbing headline, emotive graphics and persuasive copy, and is now ready to move the next stage – adding something to the basket or booking the room. They just need to be told what to do next.

Putting the reader in a receptive mindset makes it easier to compel them to respond to the call to action. If this sounds sinister, it shouldn’t. The selling part has already happened. The CTA is simply guiding them to where they want to go next.

How to write better calls to action

Think of the call to action as the conclusion to a really good story. The reader sympathises with the characters and wants to find out what happens to them. As the writer, you’re in a position to deliver the answer. But imagine if the answer wasn’t in the book, but at the end of a phone line. You’ve created a need in the reader, and they now feel compelled to act upon it.

To write better calls to action, you have to put yourself in the position of the reader. Ask yourself, “If I’ve just read that copy and want to take the transaction further, what would I need to do next?” The call to action should guide them to that step in the process. It’s vital that it does that, and nothing else. Saying “Buy now” and then taking them to more sales spiel or upselling opportunities is off-putting. Change it to “Choose your options” or suchlike if the process hasn’t ended yet.

Is a call to action always the conclusion to a story? Not necessarily; a call to action can stand alone. It’s how clickbait works: the story is the call to action. But nowadays, with people being wiser to clickbait than they once were, it has to fulfil a need that the reader already had to be successful, so placement in a receptive environment is key. However, you can learn some good CTA techniques by observing the clickbait ads that almost made you click them.

Call to action tips

Here’s a quick list of tips and ideas to help you craft your calls to action. Remember that it’s part of a process, from discovery to purchase, and there can be multiple calls to action along the way. You’re taking the reader by the hand and guiding them, not shoving them forward.

1. Start with a verb

This is a basic tip, because the imperative mood usually starts with a verb in English. Do this. Eat that. Buy now. Find out more. It leaves the reader in no doubt that it’s an instruction that needs to be followed.

2. Point out scarcity or urgency

A common sales technique is to imply that the transaction should be completed as soon as possible to take advantage of a deal. If successful, it has the effect of stopping the customer shopping around. After all, if you’ve won an interested buyer, you get first dibs on their custom.

Don’t flat out lie, of course, but if your special offer ends in two days, or stock really is low, point it out. Never-ending sales are not a good look, and became the butt of many a joke in the furniture industry. I always find it a bit dubious when a conference organiser starts saying that tickets are going like hot cakes, because if that’s so, there’s no need to advertise. See also “Only 3 apartments left”. Scarcity and urgency are genuine reasons to buy, but people aren’t stupid and you could sound desperate.

3. Keep it short

Write fewer words.

4. Be a copywriter

Think about your CTA. Analyse how it bridges the gap between the marketing they’ve been exposed to and the action they’re about to take. Remember, the call to action is all about guiding them. It’s like putting your palm on a guest’s back when you invite them in. Read it out loud. Think about whether you would act on it. Redraft it if you’re not happy. If you’re still not happy, hire a copywriter (obviously).

5. Point out the advantages

The benefits of your product or service are what you’re pushing, so you can include them in the CTA. “Save money now.” “Drive off in a new car today.” “Buy one, get one free.”

6. Reiterate the main point of the copy

You’ve just explained the deal to the reader, so if they like what they see and have reached the CTA, they don’t need any more convincing. Just use a snappy version of the story as a call to action. “Get 50% off now.”

7. Reassure the customer

All purchases are decisions, and decisions by their nature have alternative options to consider. You can use the CTA to make the decision less of a gamble. “Try it now – no commitment.” “Sign up for the UK’s most popular service here.”

8. Point out exclusivity

Direct mail presents a real opportunity to target individual buyers with “exclusive” offers. It could be a new customer offer, a loyalty offer or an sweetener offer to someone who has complained. If that’s the case, put it in the CTA to remind them that it’s a deal that only they (or a small number of people) can get. Bloggers, vloggers and podcasters often give their consumers exclusive deals with their advertisers, usually in the form of a special link or code.

Mentioning that they qualify because they’re listening to that podcast is a good way of making them feel special; and who wouldn’t want 10% off web hosting?

You can use the same techniques with any marketing drive, but only do it if there genuinely is a degree of exclusivity. Customers will be suspicious of “exclusive” deals that everybody gets.

9. Make it simple

People don’t want hassle when they’re making a purchase. The more steps they have to take before the final transaction, higher the chance they’ll abandon it half way. Think of the difference between “buy now” and “visit the retailer’s site”. One makes you feel like you’re a few seconds away from getting on with your life. The other gives you no idea when the process will be over.

10. Be honest

Don’t use a call to action that looks final if it’s only to take readers further down the funnel. They will soon tire of your shenanigans.

Image: Jamie Templeton