How to Make Your Call to Action Not Suck

Too many calls to action we see these days are tragically, inexcusably boring.

If you see a large, centrally-located button on a website that says something like “More information” or “Sign up for our newsletter,” please, please, don’t click it. It’ll just encourage them and perpetuate the problem.

If you’re trying to sell something in today’s market, be it a product, a service, or yourself (calm down—I’m talking about things like personal blogs), you have the unfortunate disadvantage of having to sell to the most shrewd, marketing-sensitive audience of all time. These people automatically filter out gobs of sensory input all day long, they’re notoriously noncommittal, and they scare easy.

What’s your strategy?

Be direct, but not pushy. Be helpful. Be cool. Be exactly what they need, before they even know they need it.

Essentially, think of your audience like angry teenagers. If you try to shove something down their throats, they’ll reject it regardless of whether they actually want it or not. If they sense that you care too much, they’ll go out of their way to care even less. If you sound like a broken record, they’ll tune you out. And there are no second chances—one uncool move brands you Uncool for Life.

Scared? If not, you must be the wide-eyed parent who is positive that her baby boy has never touched a drink.

In other words: maybe your approach isn’t working quite as well as you think, or as well as it could.

Make Their Dreams Come True

Your goal is to make an offer your audience can’t resist. The way to do that is to hone in on the thing they want, and then present that thing in the most alluring way possible.

Your call of action should not be “Like us on Facebook!” or “Join our email list!”—those are outcomes you want.

To figure out what your audience wants, you might have to think a few steps ahead to the ultimate goal, rather than the steps to get there. Maybe you want people to download your Blogging 101 eBook, which describes how to write killer blog post titles. But your audience’s dream is not to write killer blog post titles—their dream is to become popular, respected bloggers.

Instead of “Download our Blogging eBook,” how about a more enticing call to action like “Find out how to make your blog posts go viral.”

Don’t Pitch Them – Invite Them

People aren’t dumb. If you come barreling at them with your marketese, pushy language, and too-good-to-be-true offers, they’ll become instantly defensive and resistant. They want to buy, but they don’t want to be sold to.

Here are four solid ways to be more inviting.

    • Be straight with people. Acknowledge what you’re asking them to do, rather than pretending it isn’t happening or that they might not notice what they’re doing. If you need them to enter their email address, attach a disclaimer: “Look, if you regret this, you can always unsubscribe tomorrow. No hard feelings.”

Redbull Spam

Red Bull says: yeah, it’s spam. But we’re so cool we know you’ll still want it.

    • Be personal. Hubspot gave the example of adding this call to action to the bottom of your About Us page (linking to your careers page): “Like our culture? Become a part of it!” In another example, a web design company like us could put a CTA on our portfolio page that says, “We think your website would look good here. Let’s make it happen.”
    • Ask a question. Questions engage people, ya know? (Did you like that? How about this one?) This is a tactic that’s beneficial to many areas of copywriting, and you probably aren’t surprised to see it here too. A call to action at the bottom of a portfolio page could say: “Salivating yet? You’re next.”
    • Make them think it was their idea. As Dan Zarella explains, “People like to think that everything they do comes from some logical, un-manipulateable part of their own brain.” Zarella talks about how the key to accomplishing this is subtly—use thought-provoking statements instead of direct commands.

Don’t Beg Them – Motivate Them

To respond to a call to action, people need motivation. CTAs like “Call for a free consultation” or “Sign up for our newsletter” don’t motivate people. The word consultation has come to mean pitch, and newsletter=junk mail. Sites with multiple CTAs sprinkled all over the place just look desperate.

Maybe you motivate your customers by helping them realize they need something they didn’t know they needed before. Maybe you’re able to socially validate their decisions by expressing the number of others who’ve already found wild success through your goods.

Or maybe you just give them free stuff. Hey, no shame in that. I recently happily offered my email address to a writer in exchange for a free excerpt from his newly released book.

Show that you respect people’s intelligence and shrewd shopping abilities by keeping your motivation tactics subtle, rather than salesy.

What’s in it for them?


Zynga reminds you that you’re not the only one playing their games. So they must be good, right?

Be Punchy

People like to be surprised. They like to have fun. Our culture, which once valued professionalism and hard work as the primary trademarks of good business, now looks for things like uniqueness and humor.

So be funny. Be friendly. Be clever. Be brief.

If you don’t know what I mean, take a minute to scroll down the Skittles homepage. (Even if you do, do it anyway.)

It doesn’t matter how smart or right you are anymore if you’re also boring. No one’s buying boring.

Make It Easy and Obvious

Hopefully you’ve heard by now that super long forms of any kind are a no-no. Do you really need to know people’s home addresses, company names, or preferred methods of communication? If I click on a call to action that takes me to a long form, my first instinct is to immediately bail. I’m sick of creating logins and entering my email address all over the internet. If I must do these things, it better be clear to me why it’s necessary, and it better not take me long.

When people click on a call to action, they want to get exactly what the CTA promised, and fast. You’ll win no points by including a link that says “Free coupons!” if that link takes people to a separate website that requires both login creation and the download of coupon-printing software. (This has happened to me…)

Reducing “task friction” is the idea of minimizing the forces that block people from getting things done. When it comes to calls to action, this can be as simple as using the words people are looking for. In the UK, Amazon says “shopping basket” instead of “shopping cart” to avoid tripping up their British customers during checkout for even a split second.

Don’t Yell Fire, but Do Suggest Smoke

You’ve heard that you must apply urgency to your calls to action. But you also need to make sure this urgency is real.

We’ve all had enough of the commercials that urge you to “call in the next 10 minutes!” for an extra-special offer. Or the websites that claim an offer expires (what are the odds!) today, but then are magically still going the next day.

But what if you don’t really have anything to be urgent about?

Try focusing on helping your audience shake your competitors as soon as possible. People are paranoid about wasting their time and money on the wrong guys—tell them why they should stop dawdling with research and go with you now. Address the sticky points directly to really validate their decision. (Sure, we charge more, but it’s because we do a better job. Here’s how you can tell.)

You also want the urgency to be subtle. Small wording changes can help. Think about the difference between “Add to Cart” and “Buy Now.” Or how about “Get a Free Trial” vs. “Try It Free Today.”

Final Thoughts

The best way to craft a perfect call to action is to experiment yourself. Not every tip or suggestion you find out there about how to do this are going to apply to your business and audience. It’s up to you to figure out what your audience responds to and what scares them away.

If all else fails, remember: what would the angry teenager do?

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