I started this article looking for 101 call to action examples.
My plan was to review the all-time great copywriting controls and find the calls to action that made them so effective.
After all, they were written by the historical greats.
But I hadn’t read more than a handful of mailings when I discovered something interesting. All the CTAs were essentially the same.
Well, that was a bust!
Or was it?
I found some interesting parallels between traditional direct mail calls to action and the digital calls to action being written today. And I found three criteria for effective CTAs that work no matter what format you’re using.
Let’s take a look…
First, some traditional calls to action
Reviewing traditional direct mail promotions, I found three things that nearly all calls to action accomplish. See if you can find them in this line-up of old CTAs. (I’ll tell you my findings below.)
Sales and Marketing Management Magazine
So if you were waiting for the perfect time to seize this opportunity, the time is now. Send for your free issue today.
Discover the exciting world of outside. Subscribe today.
Get a taste of SUCCESS! Send me the form at the top of this letter and I’ll send you the next issue of SUCCESS absolutely free.
May I send you a free copy?
There is no obligation attached to my offer…
Please let me know if you’ll accept my offer by January 31.
House & Garden
So indulge—in so much excitement, for so little! Please take advantage of our “Summer White Sale” and save on a subscription to HG today.
Those were the more creative ones. But the majority read like this:
Do mail your acceptance to me today.
So act right now. The postage is paid and you’ve got nothing to lose but a great garden to gain!
SEND NO MONEY NOW! But please mail your card today!
So if you’re looking for knowledge, a rewarding adventure, and the advantage a future perspective can offer, mail the enclosed card today!
See the pattern?
The CTA is your final instruction to your reader, so (duh!) there won’t be 101 variations.
In direct mail, you have to tell people to “mail the enclosed card.” In digital marketing, we ask for a click.
No matter how creative we get, it still boils down to this one request.
But if you look closely at the examples above, there are three things that nearly all the CTAs include:
- A no-obligation statement that removes or reduces risk. In many cases, they’re asking for a free trial rather than a purchase. In other words, try us, you’ll like us. This gives people the confidence to buy.
- All of them contain some version of “Mail your acceptance card.” This is simple usability. You have to tell people what to do next. Today it would read, “Click the button below.”
- Encouragement to respond right away. That’s standard direct response. Don’t give people an option to wait and think about it.
Let me show you a few more examples
Transferring traditional techniques to digital formats
Some digital CTAs perfectly mirror the old mailings. Take this one from Stansberry Research’s Retirement Millionaire promotion.
The pattern is there:
- Try it, you’ll like it: “Try” is in all caps.
- There’s no obligation, which is the modern version of “send no money now.”
- He wants a response “right away.”
- Click on the “subscribe now” link to fill out a form.
Now let’s look at some other formats for CTAs…
The “why not” argument
Sometimes there isn’t a strong reason to take action. But there’s no reason not to, either. Here’s how W Magazine used this logic in an old direct mail piece:
This offer may not last long. So order W now—and see what you think of your free issue. After all, with so much to gain—and with absolutely nothing to lose—shouldn’t you at least take a look?
And here it is in a recent 1-2-3 Shrink promotion:
Your CTA needs to make you want to click, and let’s face it, there isn’t always a compelling reason to try something. Price can get people’s attention, but it’s not good for business, so a common alternative is to ask, “why not?”
Making it all about the benefits
This old Audubon promotion didn’t just offer a subscription. It offered “all the benefits of membership.”
To begin receiving AUDUBON at once and to enjoy all the other benefits of membership in the National Audubon Society, simply return the enclosed form.
If you can offer membership in an exclusive group, this may be a useful approach. But what if you aren’t offering a club, per se?
Focus on the benefits of responding, like this “Off the Grid” promotion from Sovereign Investor:
Who doesn’t want to protect their wealth, build a fortress around themselves, and live a richer, more satisfying life?
Leading with a strong CTA
Here’s the headline in an old Earthwatch promotion:
Got some free time? A week? A month? A summer?
Come volunteer for a conservation project in the wilds, an environmental project in the tropics, an archeological dig abroad.
Or if you’re busy now, cheer us on from the sidelines.
Adventure? Save the world? Wow! It even has a built-in call to action, the “come volunteer” statement. Today, I’d recommend following this headline with an order button.
The call to action for this promotion is good, but not nearly as compelling.
Remember, the CTA must tell people what to do next. Which means it can’t always have the same excitement level as your headline or lead. Here’s how Earthwatch did it:
If our organization sounds like something that you too would take pleasure in being a part of—whether by participating actively, or cheering us on from the sidelines—I urge you to send in the order form at your earliest convenience…so your adventures can begin with the very next issue of EARTHWATCH.
Can the lead ever work as your CTA? In the Earthwatch promotion, it could have. But back then, you had to provide instructions for how to respond.
Today, people are comfortable with responding to digital offers, so you don’t need to provide the instructions that made their CTAs clunky. You can simply provide a link or button—and people know what to do.
Here’s a digital promotion that pulls off this technique quite well.
It was introduced in an Early to Rise email like this:
Click the link, and you land here. There’s nothing on the page but the CTA.
Selling the trial
Because people are so comfortable with digital formats, your CTA can almost be implied. (Implied, but not forgotten!)
Prevention promotions typically ask for a Try rather than a Buy. It sounds less obligatory, so buyers offer less resistance.
And Prevention is so sure you’ll like their products, they give generous trial periods. Here’s one from Prevention’s Dance It Off! promotion. Notice that the actual CTA is in a graphic:
Of course, software and similar products rely on the trial too. Here’s Crazy Egg’s call to action:
This approach emphasizes the no-obligation element of strong CTAs. And it works.
Two CTAs that don’t work
I mentioned above that you can leverage people’s comfort with digital marketing, which allows you to streamline your calls to action. But you still need to be clear.
Weak or no CTA
One of the most common (and worst) mistakes in direct response is to assume people know what to do, and forget the call to action.
From my perspective, that’s what this promotion does:
This is just a portion of the page—there are floating elements that didn’t allow me to grab it all—but this screenshot has the majority of the information.
Where’s the call to action?
“Pick your city” is all I can see. That’s not compelling, risk-reducing, or benefits-oriented. In fact, if you read the fine print, the author of the book won’t be at the event.
There’s little here to compel anyone to respond.
The other extreme: too strong of a CTA
I can’t tell you what’s on the page because the pop-up acts as a pay-wall, so to speak, blocking entrance until you share your email:
Here, I’m stuck if I don’t respond.
“Join Now” or don’t view the page.
This call to action is a little too high-pressure for my taste. What saves it is the “Why we ask for email” link at the bottom of the form, the promise of 70% off, and the no-hassles language below the button.
But I still don’t want to be forced into compliance, so no thanks.
You want a strong CTA, sure, but not too strong.
The winner: A benefits-oriented, personal CTA
TheStreet’s Quant Ratings promotion showed up in my inbox, and it’s the clear winner among the promotions I reviewed.
Look at the call to action:
This CTA does a lot of things right.
- It implies no work on your part. It’s completely benefits-oriented and personal, asking you to put TheStreet to work… for you.
- There isn’t a vague, uninspiring “click here” command. The link is embedded in the benefit statement. And that statement is phrased as a command, so I can’t miss it.
- There is also a button—in a bright, can’t-miss red—that offers an incentive for clicking: “Save $150.” (You’ll need to test the color that works for your promotion, but here, red does well.)
- Urgency is subtly included in the CTA with “don’t wait another minute.” So it urges you to respond now without resorting to hype.
Does it fulfill the three criteria for effective calls to action? You bet:
- It offers a trial membership.
- The link and button provide implicit instructions (without going so far as to omit the CTA). It’s clear that you’re supposed to click on the link or the button.
- You’re asked to respond now: “Don’t wait another minute.”
Not only does this call to action use the same techniques that worked in direct mail, it improves on them, because there’s no bulky paragraph telling you where to find the response device and how to submit it.
With digital, you can build the response into the promotion for a seamless user experience.
CTAs may have changed over the years, but the goal hasn’t changed: Put the right message in front of the right people at the right time. It’s critical that you learn to do this well. And, of course, there’s no better way to learn than to be testing your CTAs.
Have you got some favorite techniques for an effective call to action? Or do you struggle with telling people how to respond? Let us know in the comments below.