Marketing has changed a lot over the past few years.
That’s especially true when it comes to the options available to digital marketers.
It seems like every week there’s a new feature available in the platforms most of us are already using, and every month there’s a new platform altogether that blogs and other industry publications are calling the next big thing.
But some aspects of marketing haven’t changed much over the years.
One of those is the way we write calls to action or CTAs.
If you’ve spent much time looking for ways to boost your conversion rates, you’ve probably noticed that most businesses use the same handful of phrases to encourage users to take action.
And this is nothing new.
Marketers have been using similar CTAs to drive action for years — even before they were writing them for websites and digital ad campaigns.
That’s because even as the platforms and channels we use change, the basic goal of a CTA hasn’t: driving potential customers to take a specific action that’s relevant to their stage of the conversion funnel.
No matter where they’re placed, CTAs are designed to inspire action and connect different stages of the buying process.Click to tweet
This means that there are some basic principles marketers have been using for years that continue to drive results.
That’s why in this post, I’ll highlight three essential aspects of an effective CTA, regardless of its location.
I’ll show how these principles were used in traditional advertising methods, how they translate for digital campaigns, and how you can use them to make all of your CTAs even more compelling.
Let’s get started!
Traditional CTA examples
First, let’s take a look at some examples of direct mail promotions from magazines.
Many of these are from magazines, encouraging readers to start or renew a subscription. More specifically, they’re from the inserts that often fall out from within the pages while you’re reading, and look something like this:
As I was reviewing these direct mail promotions, I found three aspects that nearly all of them have in common. Some are more obvious than others in their execution, but all take a similar approach to driving action.
See if you notice them while you read through this line-up of old CTAs, and 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.
Nothing too exciting, right?
To be honest, though, those were some of the more creative ones. 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 the final instruction to a reader, so it makes sense that for similar products, that instruction is largely the same.
After all, when it comes down to it, each of these magazines needs readers to mail an “enclosed card” to earn a subscription.
So without that directive, it wouldn’t matter how well-written the rest of an ad’s copy was. Even if a recipient liked it, if they didn’t know to mail the card to subscribe, the campaign would be a waste.
Of course, this particular example is exclusive to print campaigns.
You’d never see a digital marketer requiring users to mail something to convert.
And I shudder to think of the abysmal conversion rates if they did.
Even so, there are three things that nearly all of the examples above include that are important for any CTA, regardless of format:
- 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.
Together, these three elements make for a simple, straightforward request that requires little of the consumer.
And for most businesses, that’s pretty ideal.
Now, let’s take a look at how these elements translate into digital campaigns.
Adapting traditional techniques for digital formats
When marketers first started using digital channels to reach their customers, it was a logical choice to simply replicate their print campaigns in a new format.
After all, why would they spend time rewriting and redesigning what already worked?
That’s why some of the earliest digital marketing campaigns and their CTAs perfectly mirrored old direct mail advertisements.
These ads an almost identical approach to copy, and simply swapped out the “mail the enclosed card” directive for a link or button.
For example, take a look at this early email campaign from Stansberry Research’s Retirement Millionaire promotion:
Today, this might come across as dated and spammy.
But based on the three CTA elements we covered above, it checks all of the boxes:
- No obligation: “TRY” is in all caps, the email offers a full refund.
- Usability: Readers are directed to click “Subscribe Now.”
- Immediacy: Copy includes the phrase “right away,” and the CTA button uses the word “Now.”
Again, this approach might not work today.
But the fact that many early digital campaigns were fairly similar to their print predecessors wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Consumers were used to direct mail advertisements, and keeping the content largely the same likely made them more comfortable with the shift to digital.
They were already familiar with this style of copy, so the only change was that they could now click a button instead of taking a more complex action.
For example, check out this ad from another early digital campaign for Prevention’s Dance it Off! series:
The graphic here makes the ad essentially look like a piece of direct mail, except that it instructs users to “click” instead of mailing something to respond.
Plus, keeping with the best practices above, it encourages readers to “try it free for 21 days!” instead of asking for an immediate purchase.
From here, some advertisers decided to simplify their calls to action as they shifted from print to digital.
W Magazine, for example, relied heavily on the “why not” approach in their print campaigns.
The basic idea here is that by addressing readers’ concerns and removing all barriers to action, you create the sense that there’s no reason not to try a product or service. In theory, this increases the chances that potential customers will take action.
Here’s how they 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?”
The effect they’re hoping to achieve here is clear. By promising that readers have “so much to gain” and “absolutely nothing to lose,” they’re aiming to create a sense that not taking action would be an illogical choice.
If you’re worried that your CTA isn’t compelling enough to make readers want to take action, this can be an effective strategy. It essentially aims to shift a user’s mindset from “why” to “why not?”
As W Magazine shifted to digital, they continued to use this approach. But they adjusted it to take advantage of the immediacy that comes along with digital campaigns.
Just take a look at this advertisement for their 1-2-3 Shrink diet program:
Of course, a similar ad could’ve worked in print.
But instead of asking potential customers to pay four dollars, then wait a few weeks to receive the program, they’re offering it immediately following payment.
For a reader who’s already interested in this program, that’s a pretty low barrier to entry. They could have the diet plan within minutes, and all that’s standing in their way is a few bucks.
So, why not?
There’s no significant reason they wouldn’t want to take action.
And W Magazine wasn’t the only brand to make full use of this ability the earn immediate responses.
Another magazine, Audobon, attempted to entice readers with something beyond a simple subscription in their CTAs. Here’s an example from one of their old direct mail pieces:
“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.”
The ad makes a brief mention of “all the benefits of membership.” For a reader who was aware of what those membership benefits were, this might’ve been a compelling offer.
But even if they returned the subscription card right after they received this advertisement, it would be at least a week — and probably more — until they started seeing any benefits at all.
With digital marketing, that all changed.
Open rates increase, email is double, when combined with direct mail efforts.
Even without direct mail, advertisers gained the ability to make offers that presented immediate benefits to their target audience.
For example, take a look at this early “Off the Grid” promotion from Sovereign Investor:
In this case, the company encouraged users to reserve their spot “today!” and promised the first installment of an email series immediately.
This was a huge improvement over requiring potential customers to wait weeks for information. Plus, the idea of immediate gratification is much more compelling for most of us.
The ad also promises that there’s “no obligation,” includes a clear directive to “enter email address,” and encourages readers to take action “today” — meaning it checks all of the boxes for an effective CTA.
It’s also worth noting that in many cases, digital advertisements can convey much more information in a smaller space.
That’s because they don’t need to spend as much time spelling out complex directives.
For example, take a look at the copy from 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.
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.”
The copy here is fairly compelling. After all, who doesn’t get at least a little excited about the idea of embarking on an adventure in the tropics?
Plus, it does a nice job of offering a few different options.
Spending a week, a month, or a summer on a conservation project or an archaeological dig abroad simply isn’t a viable option for many people. So it’s wise for Earthwatch to also encourage readers to take the simpler action of subscribing.
Still, it’s a lot of copy for what it’s asking. If the same offer had been presented in a digital campaign, it likely could’ve been a lot more concise.
For example, take a look at this email campaign from Early to Rise:
There’s still a fairly large chunk of copy here, but it’s all relevant to the campaign’s goal of enticing readers to click on either of the links.
It explains exactly what they can expect to gain by clicking, and why the company is qualified to be offering the promised information.
Of course, many of today’s consumers would be skeptical of a company offering the “one secret of multi-millionaires.”
And rightly so.
But remember, this is a campaign from the early 2000s — back when most people weren’t quite as skeptical of everything they read online.
In that context, this email worked and was likely very effective in driving clicks. And readers who did click either link were directed to this dedicated landing page:
There’s nothing on this page but a CTA and a field where readers can enter their email address to gain access to the company’s so-called “secret sauce.”
So once a reader makes it this far, they don’t need to spend time reading lines of complex copy. There’s one simple question — and if the reader’s answer is affirmative, they know how to take action.
A CTA this simple likely wouldn’t have worked in a traditional campaign because it doesn’t fully explain what, exactly, the product is, or how it benefits the user.
But with digital campaigns, where users are already familiar with a product and just need to be encouraged to take a final action that offers immediate results, simplicity works.
In fact, at this point, saying that simplicity works might sound like stating the obvious.
But this wasn’t immediately clear to many of the first marketers making the shift from print to digital.
There was a clear learning curve as the industry shifted.
For example, another issue that many traditional marketers found challenging when they first switched to digital campaigns was striking a balance between weak and strong CTAs.
Today, most people are familiar enough with digital marketing that they know what’s expected of them when they arrive on a landing page. Most of us naturally know to look for large, brightly-colored buttons with a clear CTA, since they’re now a common landing page staple.
But if your page doesn’t include an obvious CTA, you risk losing potential customers. So you need to make it as clear as possible what it is that you want visitors to do on each page of your site.
Unfortunately, one of the most common mistakes in early digital campaigns that still prevails today is the assumption that people instinctively know what to do on any given page.
For example, take a look at this landing page for Rich Dad Education.
What, exactly, does this page direct visitors to do? What’s the call to action?
The only real directive on this page is “Pick your city.”
But what’s the benefit of taking that action? What does it require of the user? And is there an immediate return?
It’s hard to say — because the page doesn’t include those details around this directive. In this case, I’d argue that the page doesn’t have a call to action at all.
There’s nothing compelling, risk-reducing, or benefits-oriented.
So there’s little here to compel anyone to respond.
This makes it an ineffective landing page. Or, at the very least, not nearly as effective as it could be with a clear CTA.
But on the flip side, some digital marketers also make the mistake of making their CTAs too strong.
I don’t mean that they present too many benefits, or make it too obvious what a reader stands to gain. That would be extremely difficult to do.
Instead, they attempt to force users to convert by making it the only action they can take on a page.
For example, check out this old popup from Joss & Main:
If a user lands on this page and is ready to join (or is already a member), this is likely extremely effective at converting them.
But what if a visitor isn’t ready to take that step?
What if they just want to browse the site and see what the company has to offer before becoming a member?
Well, that’s too bad — because the pop-up blocks the rest of the content on the page until they share their email.
This means the user is stuck if they don’t want to respond. They can either “Join Now,” or leave.
This call to action is a little too high-pressure.
It makes sense to encourage new visitors to sign up, but this ultimatum-style popup likely cost the company at least a few customers who would’ve signed up if they’d been given the opportunity to make that choice on their own.
Fortunately, many companies have learned to strike a balance where they guide visitors to take action without forcing them to do so.
Now, let’s take a look at how Joss & Main earns new members today.
Instead of requiring visitors to enter their email upon arrival, they let them freely browse their products without a popup in sight. Users can learn about what the company has to offer and determine whether they’re interested in buying at their leisure.
They can also add various items to their cart as they browse.
Then, when they click the cart icon, presumably to start the checkout process, they’re directed to the following page:
Here, they’re required to enter their email address to make their purchase.
But for a user who’s already prepared to spend money and complete a transaction, this isn’t a huge request. In fact, it’s a necessary step in the eCommerce sales process, since customers typically receive order confirmations and shipping updates via email.
By moving this requirement to a later point in the sales process, the company eliminated a barrier that likely cost them a significant amount of customers early on.
Of course, this is just one of many lessons marketers needed to learn in order to effectively shift their campaigns to the new digital landscape.
And while some of it might seem obvious in hindsight, that’s simply because many of us already know the standard “best practices” involved in creating online campaigns.
How to write effective online CTAs using insight from traditional campaigns
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from those early days of digital marketing. Still, the general approach that many traditional marketers took in their print campaigns can serve as a starting point for writing effective online copy.
And when combined with all of the advantages that digital marketing offers, they can be even more successful in driving results.
So with that in mind, let’s jump into five ways you can use a traditional marketing mindset to improve your online campaigns.
1. Emphasize low risk
The first of the three common elements in the traditional CTAs above was a focus on a lack of obligation or risk on the customer’s part.
From a consumer’s perspective, this makes perfect sense. The less you stand to lose from an action, the more comfortable you’ll be with the idea of taking it.
And even as the marketing industry evolves, this concept hasn’t changed a bit.
For example, take a look at this CTA for Amazon’s Prime Video service:
A free trial alone is enough of an incentive for many people to test the service. But beyond that, this CTA emphasizes that users can sign up “risk free” and “cancel anytime.”
If a visitor has any hesitations after initially landing on the page, these details can ease their fears about committing to the service. The knowledge that they can cancel at any time is likely compelling for users who are worried about forgetting to take this step at the end of the 30 days.
Plus, like every other digital campaign (and the remainder of the examples we’ll cover on this page), this ad gives visitors the option to take immediate action by clicking a button.
In this case, the user can start streaming content from the platform immediately.
And with no risk at all, that’s a fairly appealing offer.
2. Strive for clarity
You can have the most beautifully-designed landing page in the world, with stunning graphics and an impeccable advertising strategy in place for attracting traffic.
But if the copy on that page doesn’t tell visitors why they should take action, it’s useless.
Copy is what connects with visitors, and convinces them that they want to take action. It does this by explaining what they stand to gain by doing so.
Of course, there’s tons of room for creativity within marketing copy. An experienced copywriter can make even the least “exciting” products sound interesting.
But as you develop your CTA copy, remember to be as clear as possible about what you’re offering.
Innovative copy is great for spicing up a page and grabbing visitors’ attention. But if it creates any confusion about what that page is offering, it’s counterproductive.
That’s why the most effective CTAs are extremely straightforward.
For example, take a look at this email from Buffer.
To kick things off, it highlights the importance of Instagram for businesses. If a user isn’t sure why they should be interested in learning about the platform, that uncertainty is addressed within those first two sentences.
From there, the offer is completely benefits-oriented. The copy offers free information, asking for nothing in return.
The user doesn’t even need to provide an email address or fill out a form. All they have to do is click a button!
And the button itself is more than a vague, uninspiring “click here” command. Its bright blue shade immediately stands out from the rest of the email’s content.
Then, its copy reinforces exactly what a reader will gain (growth tips) by clicking it. And its use of an action verb “Get” is a great way to inspire a sense of action.
If you’ve ever researched ways to optimize your CTA buttons, you’ve likely heard that it’s considered a “best practice” to incorporate action verbs.
And that’s true.
But if you think back to the traditional CTA examples above, you’ll realize that’s by no means a new concept in the marketing world.
Each of the direct mail examples includes some variation of the directive “send,” “mail,” or “return.”
This is simple usability! You need to tell people what you want them to do in order for them to do it.
And although the exact verbs we use today are a bit different, the basic idea remains the same.
So even when using the three principles above, based on traditional campaigns, this Buffer email measures up.
It includes the same basic techniques that work for direct mail, but improves on them, because there’s no bulky paragraph with complex instructions for responding.
Instead, they use that valuable space to clearly explain what they’re offering — so that by the time the user reaches that simple button, they know exactly why they should click it.
3. Highlight immediate benefits
As I’ve mentioned a few times already, one of the biggest advantages digital marketing has over its traditional predecessors is the potential to deliver immediate gratification.
You can give your customers downloadable resources, access to tools, and premium services all within seconds of their conversion.
That’s pretty incredible!
Of course, it’s not quite as straightforward for all industries. SaaS companies, for example, can offer instant access to their full product — while eCommerce retailers and service-based businesses typically have a bit of a waiting period.
Still, almost any business can offer immediate payment processing and order confirmation.
And who doesn’t love knowing that they’ve successfully ordered a product to their home, without ever leaving the couch?
(That’s a rhetorical question.)
But regardless of industry and business model, any company can offer their customers some type of immediate gratification.
Even if it’s not in the form of their main product or service, they can give a user something for converting.
Today, one of the most popular ways of doing this is offering free downloadable content.
For example, take a look at this CTA for Optinmonster’s guide to converting abandoned site visitors into subscribers.
If you’re unfamiliar with Optinmonster, it’s important to note that content like this is not their main product. The company sells tools for helping site owners increase their conversion rates and generate more leads.
But most users won’t be ready to sign up for a monthly plan during their first visit to the site.
In order to keep those first-time visitors interested, the company offers this free guide that’s directly related to its product, and highly relevant to anyone who’s considering purchasing a subscription to CRO tools.
After all, if someone is prepared to spend their marketing budget on a product designed to convert site visitors, why wouldn’t they want free information on accomplishing that same goal?
Including this option on their site gives the company the ability to offer all of their visitors an immediate reward for engaging with their content.
And this is a strategy that almost any business can replicate.
Just take a look at this pop-up offer on Rascal Rides:
The site caters to parents shopping for bikes, bike accessories, and safety gear for their kids. So it makes perfect sense that their visitors would be interested in children’s bike shopping guide.
Even if a visitor isn’t ready to select and purchase a product right away, the site still offers something they can access immediately. Parents can start learning about the factors they need to consider while shopping within seconds of providing their email address.
So as you develop your CTAs, look for ways to provide immediate value to your visitors.
The sooner they can start seeing the benefits of taking action, the more compelled they’ll be to do just that.
4. Include secondary CTAs
In the previous section, you likely noticed that the examples showing instant gratification weren’t for those companies’ main products or services.
That wasn’t by mistake.
Although your site is likely designed with one specific, high-value action in mind, that shouldn’t be the only action you give users the option to take.
You might want all of your visitors to immediately make a purchase — but unfortunately, that’s unrealistic.
And when you limit your site to one CTA, you essentially give your visitors an ultimatum: Take that action, or leave.
When you add some extra options into the mix, however, you reduce odds of a visitor leaving simply because they’re not ready to take your main offer.
The first way to do this, as we covered in the previous section, is to come up with additional “offers” visitors can take advantage of for free.
The second is simply to highlight ways that a user can stay engaged with your content.
For example, take a look at this landing page from T.C. Pharma.
The main CTA, highlighted with a yellow button, tells visitors to contact the company to learn more.
But if a user doesn’t want to take that action, they’re presented with a clear alternative. The button immediately to the right of the main CTA lets them view the company’s products.
This way, they’re not driven away from the site just because they aren’t far enough along in the buying process. They’re encouraged to stay and learn more — which could help them get closer to a conversion.
5. Establish credibility
Many digital advertising platforms today offer advanced targeting options that help marketers reach users that are likely to be part of their target audience.
This allows brands to focus their campaigns on users that could be qualified leads and customers. It’s a significant improvement over traditional options, which were typically limited to a particular TV channel or radio station’s target demographic.
But using these targeted options also means that your company could reach more users who’ve never heard of you.
After all, ads on a local radio station are likely for businesses within a 20-mile radius of you — so there’s a higher chance you’ve heard of those businesses than the ones advertising to you on Facebook.
So as you create ads for digital platforms, it’s important to remember that even members of your target audience may be unfamiliar with your brand.
And you have a limited amount of time in which to establish your credibility. Even if you’re advertising a free trial or another low-risk offer, you need to show your audience why they should trust you enough to take that step.
For example, take a look at this Facebook ad for a free trial from Pipedrive:
First, it’s important to note that this ad is intended for a target audience that’s already familiar with the concept of a CRM. This alone means that they need to set the rest of their targeting options fairly broad — beyond the other local businesses in their area.
And they show those users who may be completely unfamiliar with their brand that they’re trustworthy by including important credentials.
They emphasize that over “50,000 sales teams” use their product to stay organized, and highlight the fact that the platform was “built by salespeople for salespeople.”
If a reader is interested in trying out new CRM software, this is plenty of information to get them interested in the free trial, even if this is their first interaction with the brand.
They know they’re by no means the first to try the tool. And if 50,000 other companies already use and like it, there’s no reason not to at least test out the free trial.
Marketing has changed a lot over the past few years, but the ultimate goal has remained the same. You need to drive consumers to take action.
CTAs are essential for making this happen. So as a marketer, it’s critical that you learn to write effective ones.
But as trends shift and new platforms emerge, the principles of writing effective CTA copy have remained consistent: Emphasize a low barrier to entry, include a clear directive, and encourage immediate action.
What are your favorite techniques for writing effective calls to action?