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The Science of a Powerful, Clickable Call to Action

by Jeremy Smith

Ah, the call to action.

That’s what it all comes down to. All of your marketing efforts, from advertising on social media to optimizing your page for search engines, are designed in one way or another to create conversions.

And you get conversions from the CTA.

The call to action is that critical tipping point between a bounce and a conversion. You can have the strongest page content and the best product or service, but if you fail to present a clear and well-designed call to action to your viewers, you will lose sales.

Are you confident in your call to action? If you’ve barely given it any consideration at all, you’re probably in trouble, because there’s more psychology that goes into an effective call to action than you might think at first.

This article is about the ideas that will revolutionize your calls to action and bring in the conversions you may not even know you’ve been losing.

This article is predicated upon the psychology of the CTA. My points here are tactical in nature, but they draw upon a theory of CTA psychology. I recommend that you check out this article to find out more.

What is a Call to Action?

Let’s cover the basics first. The call to action (CTA) is a usually a button.

The button can take many shapes and forms, but at its essence, it is any clickable element that calls for a prospect to do something.

The CTA can be an actual button with shape, border, and definition. Some CTAs are YouTube annotations and other clickable elements.

More than just a design fixture, a CTA is a psychological event. It is the act of conversion in process. When you ask someone to do something on your page, they need to go through the CTA to do it.

Click here, call to action

Click the button. See what happens. I dare you.

The CTA can ask people to do any number of things. Examples include downloading a PDF, opting in to a newsletter, signing up for coupons or discounts, placing a free trial in the shopping cart, and more.

No matter how the CTA is presented or what it asks the prospect to do, the CTA needs to be well designed and well written in order to be effective.

Clear and compelling language, strategic placement, and noticeable size are all elements of good design, but there’s more to it than just slapping a “Buy Now to Feel Good” button in the middle of the page.

There’s a psychology that goes into the CTA. This psychology underlies the whole reason that people click on the CTA to begin with. When you overlook this psychology, your CTAs are nothing more than haphazard design predicated on flimsy feeling.

You can do better than that.

What Makes a Good Call to Action?

There’s an art that goes into a good CTA. Almost every element of marketing, from advertising to page design, is tailored towards the psychology of the viewer. Color, page placement, font, language, imagery, framing, and more all factor into the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of a good CTA.

There are two sides to every CTA. The button has two primary elements, design and copy.

Both play their role in the act of conversion, and both roles are separate but complementary.

  • Button design is the visual aspect of the button, the quality that makes it sing to the viewer’s eyes. It answers the question that your content makes them ask, “Where do I click?”
  • Copy is what convinces them they want to do that in the first place. It’s the element that helps them make up their minds at that pivotal moment. “Why should I click?”
Achieving the click on a CTA is the mission critical conversion goal.

Your conversion optimization should be turned towards the CTA whenever it is present on a page.

Design and copy are the two underlying psychological modes that cause a CTA to be effective. By taking a peek at the inner workings of these two components, we’ll be able to circle in closer to what makes a truly effective, compelling, and persuasive call to action.

Ready to dig in?

Let’s take a deeper look at how design and copy fulfill their respective roles in the psychological pursuit known as the CTA.

Issue #1: Design — How to Design an Effective Button

Go to Spotify’s website and you’ll notice the call to action immediately. This is effective design at its best.

Click here, call to action

Spotify’s CTA is so effective because they leave no questions about where to click to sign up.

The design of the button stands out from the rest of the page and it is a clear visual cue that answers the question, “Where do I click?”

Why is this button so effective? Let’s take a look at the reasons, and absorb some of the lessons.

Color

We experience the world in color. People take all kinds of cues from color, from the taste of a food to the intentions of a stranger. Most of these cues are subconscious. So how large of a role does color play in getting conversions?

Let’s take a look at an example from Hubspot. The test was to find if green or red would produce more conversions.

test red vs green call to action button

They found that red had 21% more conversions compared to green. Was this because red is always better at grabbing attention, or is there more at work here? Take a look at the page again. The color green is a primary color in both pages; it shows up in the logo, in the images, and as clipart. What stands out more in a sea of green? More green, or a big red button?

The lesson is that it doesn’t freaking matter.

I sort of wish that the whole Hubspot example would vanish from the interwebz. It’s been misleading people for more than 1,400 days.

There is no magic color for getting more conversions. The best color for your button is the color that is differentiated from the rest of the page, that catches the user’s eye, that resonates with the user’s unique color sensitivity, and a bunch of other stuff.

A well-designed page has elements that work together to draw attention to the focal point, the CTA. Never underestimate the power of contrasting colors to make a button shout out to your viewers.

Placement

Nobody is going to answer your call to action if they have to rummage around the basement to find it.

On the other hand, you don’t need to shove it into their face. The best approach for your CTA placement depends on the user, the significance of the other, and the action of the CTA.

There are two approaches to CTA placement.

  1. The first is above-the-fold placement, which requires no scrolling to see and is high up in a page.
  2. The second is below the fold, which is lower on the page and may require some scrolling.

Where should you put your CTA?

There is no simple answer. I’ve tackled the complexity of the issue in a massive blog post, and you can read it if you value your life.

Here’s the summary version.

If you have a more complex offer, you should consider moving your CTA below the fold. A study by ContentVerve found that CTAs at the bottom of pages with complex products and services had 304% more conversions than if the same CTA were placed at the top!

test call to action button palcement

This might seem surprising at first, but the takeaway lesson is that it’s okay not to ask for a conversion right away. It’s important to give the viewer time to process the information they’re being presented. You don’t want to scare them away with information dumps.

Here are a few issues to consider when placing your CTA:

  • Put it in a spot where the user can see it at the right time. Every page has cognitive flow — a method whereby the page communicates information in a sequential and organized way. Show the user the CTA at the right point in the process of the release of information.
  • Surround the CTA with all the information that is relevant to a user’s decision. If that’s below the fold, so be it.
  • Place trust factors within visual proximity of the CTA. Trust factors import trust sensations into the CTA, which can improve the conversion rate.
  • Read up on Fitt’s law. It’s awesome. It’s number one on my Pricing Page Psychological Techniques.

So…back to the question. Where does your CTA go? Above or below?

Answer: Test, and find out what works best for your site.

Other Factors

Of course, there are other factors that come into play when designing good buttons.

Contrast, size, clickability, the use of white space, and directional cues are all factors. The key point that you need to understand is that the CTA button is most effective when it is supported by the design of the entire page.

Remember that design has a cognitive and psychological component. It’s more than just pixels. It includes thought, understanding, and expectation.

Issue #2: Copy — Writing Effective Copy

You’ve made a well-designed page that tells me where I should click. Your copy will tell me why I should do that in the first place, and also what’s in store for me if I do.

What are some best practices for writing CTA copy?

Don’t be Boring

When writing copy, don’t use generic words like download, submit, and subscribe. These words are boring, lacking in character, and don’t give the reader any value or idea of relevance. Why should they care?

Boring copy, even in a tiny CTA, can destroy your conversions.

Tell a Story on your Website

Emotionally charged stories sell. If your website isn’t making conversions, the story you’re telling with your website isn’t resonating on an emotional level. There’s even scientific evidence to support the importance of storytelling in conversion.

In a Princeton University study, Uri Hassen found that when a storyteller tells their story, both the speaker and the listener’s brains would light up in the same areas. The phenomenon is called neural coupling.

Storytelling creates changes in brain activity that leave a lasting impact.

A similar study found that stories of actions, sensations, and experiences caused related areas of the brain to become more active.

“Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex. […] Then, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.”

When you are writing your copy, you need to make your reader feel the emotion and imagine the action. How you do this depends on the product or service, but your copy should work together with your page design and images to sell a story.

Here’s how Tommy Walker expresses it on the ConversionXL blog:

“I [don’t] want to mislead you into thinking that changing the button from “Buy Now” to “Sign up Here” at the bottom of a sales page makes a lick of difference when everything leading up to that final call to action doesn’t build some kind of anticipation in the readers [sic] mind. The best calls to action aren‘t effective just because of your word-choice on the button. No no, the best calls to action are the ones that promise your story only gets better after you sign up.”

Example

Here’s how WordPress shapes their CTA.

example of wordpress call to action button

Notice how the button uses two simple words: Create Website.

Those two words, however, are part of a story. The story is one of creation and continuation. It invites the user to participate in an activity that is engaging and productive.

That, in a very simple way, is how the CTA works.

Here’s another example from Mention.com.

mention example of call to action

In this example, the CTA has the create idea as well, helping to compel the user to engage in that experience of never missing a thing. There’s an underlying story, and the user is invited to be a part.

A CTA continues the story.

However, the CTA doesn’t spill the beans and spoil the plot. Instead, the CTA leaves the user on a cliff. They have to click to resolve the cognitive tension that you’ve built up in the page as a whole.

It’s imperfect, but here’s an illustration that I made just for you.

cognitive flow of page and call to action

This is the psychological power of the CTA at work. Your page provides the windup, and the CTA provides the conclusion. It does so using the right flavor, flair, and style of copy.

Your CTA ought to be using enticing words — words that promise, that predict, but don’t totally give it away.

Making it Work for Your Page

We’ve gone over the two main elements that all CTA buttons have, design and copy. We’ve seen how they work together and how they can be used more effectively.

More importantly, we’ve seen that there is a psychological undercurrent that drives the CTA forward. This psychological undercurrent is the missing ingredient in most CTAs.

Rather than create CTAs lemming-like, try to enter into the mind of the user as you determine their motives, their interests, and what will satisfy their cognitive desires and curiosity while they are on the page.

Now it’s time to bring this knowledge together and improve your own call to action.

Two Questions to Ask Yourself

Michael Aagaard recommends two questions that aid in the analysis of the CTA:

  1. Why does my prospect want to click this button?
  2. What do they get when they do?

The answer to these two questions is going to be the foundation for your button copy and the rest of the copy surrounding that button.

Feedback Loops

Knowledge is power. Don’t rely on inaccurate knowledge, especially when it comes to how your customers view your product.

Use feedback loops to get accurate information on how your customers answer the two key questions.

Don’t rely on guesswork. Rely on testwork, surveys, interviews, and other actual information

Don’t Follow Blindly

Taking inspiration from a page is a good idea. Copying other CTAs exactly might be shooting yourself in the foot.

Successful CTAs are designed around a specific product or service, they have copy and layout that are tailored for the audience and the product.

Crazy Egg ran a test on the effectiveness of copying copy. They took their example from HighriseHQ, a company that got a 200% increase in conversions when they switched over to a new CTA copy.

Crazy Egg used that copy, letter for letter, for their own CTA. The result? They had a 10% drop in conversions.

Remember that good copy is tailored to your specific needs. It doesn’t pay to use copy that’s fit to someone else’s needs.

Someone else’s jeans aren’t going to fit you.

Design the cognitive flow.

Interested parties like Google have done a lot of research on the way a viewer reads any given page. There are famous diagrams, like the Gutenberg Diagram or the F-pattern Diagram, that have shown how viewers read text-heavy pages, like books or traditional search results.

But when it comes to pages with big blocks of images and content hierarchy, there is no one single reading pattern. You, as the designer or conversion optimizer, should shape the flow that the reader follows.

Take charge of this, and direct the visitor’s eye through the story that you’re telling them.

You get to tell the story. You get to create the climax. You’re in charge.

Conclusion

CTAs are complicated beasts.

There’s a lot that goes into making an effective CTA that speaks to your audience and suits your product or service. The power of the CTA should not be underestimated.

We have seen that correct conversion optimization of your CTA can yield results that are — to descend into clichés — MIND BLOWING!

The CTA is the critical moment, the pivoting point, the deciding moment. Own it.

Tell us your favorite takeaway about calls to action.

Then read other Crazy Egg articles by Jeremy Smith.

3 Comments

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Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith is a serial entrepreneur, trainer and conversion consultant for Fortune 1000 companies. He has a powerful understanding of human behavior and profit-boosting techniques. You can learn them by downloading his latest ebook: Landing Page Optimization for In-House Marketers.

3 COMMENTS

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  1. Bill says:
    February 10, 2016 at 10:37 pm

    I’ve been surfing online more than three hours as of late, yet I by no
    means found any fascinating article like yours.
    It’s beautiful worth sufficient for me. In my opinion, if all web owners and bloggers made excellent content
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  2. Netta says:
    August 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

    Hey Jeremy, Thanks for the insights on CTA’s. They are so important and I’m working now on some tests -seeing their effects on different pages and with different copy – so this was super relevant. Thank you!

  3. Matt G. says:
    August 3, 2015 at 10:40 am

    I completely agree with the button color only affecting the action by how it stands out on the page (not what color it is). I’ve been working on my copy a lot lately and have noticed some unusual responses to more direct (command) type cta’s.

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