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BACK TO BASICS: How to Write a Call to Action

By Jessica Lee, December 2, 2011

Sometimes in the Web marketing world, the perception of the task at hand becomes more overwhelming than it needs to be. For example, Internet marketing as a whole is just the evolution of traditional marketing; social media in its purest form is just a conversation between a company and its audience; and calls to action are merely nudging online prospects to do something you want them to do.

Young Man Yelling Through Megaphone

Calls to action are nothing new, in fact, they’ve been incorporated in advertising and marketing since advertising and marketing became “a thing.” Today, calls to action are typically lumped into one of two categories of Web marketing disciplines: copywriting or conversion. To do them well, calls to action actually need to be approached with a mindset of both disciplines, and backed with a clear-cut marketing strategy.

But don’t let the words “copywriting” and “conversion” scare you off from experimenting with the basics, because that’s how great calls to action are created. Sometimes it’s better to dive right in and start testing those initial ideas to find out which calls to action actually receive an action and become a conversion.

In this article, we’ll define calls to action, explore its many forms, give ideas for writing them for an intended audience, and review how to use experimentation backed by data to create stronger calls to action for better results.

Calls to Action Defined and Explored

Let’s start with some basic definitions and exploration of the concepts behind calls to action. First, BusinessDictionary.com defines “call to action” as:

"Words that urge the reader, listener, or viewer of a sales promotion message to take an immediate action, such as 'Write Now,' 'Call Now,' or (on Internet) 'Click Here.' A retail advertisement or commercial without a call-to-action is considered incomplete and ineffective."

In Web marketing, we often refer to this action taken as a conversion. In his book, “Call to Action: Secret Formulas to Improve Online Results,” Bryan Eisenberg gives two definitions of the term “conversion,” with the most basic being:

"1. A process whereby a visitor is converted into a “buyer” (used in the most general sense of someone who takes a desired action)."

The beauty of calls to action is the freedom one has with the placement and form they can take, and the clarity that comes through experimentation and tracking results. Calls to action can simply be Web content written on a page, or they can be words incorporated into a design element like a button on a Web page.

To expand your idea of calls to action further, think about other Web marketing channels that can benefit from great calls to action – your social media updates in Facebook or Twitter, your paid search ads and pay-per-click copy – even your Web page’s Meta data offers opportunity for conversion through calls to action.

Writing Calls to Action that Speak to an Intended Audience

Now that we have the basic concepts of calls to actions covered, we can see that they are merely words that are packaged in various forms that urge a prospect to convert. But let’s not disregard the thought and care that should go into choosing those words to communicate effectively to a specific audience.

How do you choose your audience? Oftentimes, your audience chooses you. Depending on the type of business you are and the following you have on your various channels – website, blog, social media and so on, you can mine the data certain tools present to you to get a better understanding of your prospects. This in turn gives us clues into how to speak to and engage them.

What tools can help? At the very basic level, Google Analytics can give us keyword phrases that are calls to action in action. These keyword phrases tell us what products, services and information people are looking for, and how they are searching for them. This data can be incorporated into a compelling call to action.

pad and paper

Facebook’s Insights and Graph API offers endless data about the platform’s users. These tidbits allow for very targeted ad campaigns on Facebook and the ability to craft strong call-to-action ads that resonate with the people they are presented to.

In Twitter, you can begin to test your tweets and the language you use for the same end goal – whether it’s driving traffic to your site, your blog, sharing content, creating engagement, garnering new followers or something else. Which tweet garnered the most response? Which tweet made your audience to take the desired action?

And of course, having a true understanding of who target customers are, their needs, what keeps them up at night, and how a product or service can solve their problems is so important to creating calls to action that strike chords.

A May 2009 SEO Newsletter article on writing strong calls to action delves into key tactics such as:

  • Making it simple: Easy-to-understand language that doesn’t require the reader to think too much is key. People are busy enough; help make their decisions easier by giving them clear-cut direction on what you want them to do.
  • Making it tailored: Depending on where the visitor is in a conversion cycle (whether they are doing research or ready to buy), the message will change. You can understand where they are by digging into analytics to see which words or phrases people are using to get to pages within the website site.
  • Making it obvious: Some reports say using words like “click here” is more effective than using keyword phrases in calls to action. Keep all angles in mind when testing your copy.
  • Making it persuasive: Special offers, upgrades and time limits are additional ways to get prospects to act now, not later.

Understanding the medium the call to action is in, is another important aspect. Space constraints often force writers to be as compelling and concise as possible in very few words. Once you know how to speak to your audiences, practice converting a call-to-action idea across various channels, whether it’s a button, a pay-per-click ad, a tweet or something else.

Conversion Optimization for Calls to Action

Once you have your initial calls to action, you can begin testing them. Use the data you collect to make the next iterations even stronger and more optimized for conversions. Conversion rate optimization is simply improving the rate at which your efforts are converting your audience. In this case, how many times do your calls to action receive an action, and how can it be improved?

The various platforms and channels you are operating within, whether it’s a Web page, pay-per-click ad or something else, will offer different ways to test the results of your copy. For Web pages in particular, you have many options to help track behavior.

You can test the effectiveness of your calls to action using tools like heat maps. Heat maps show where on a page receive the most action when a user lands on it. This can help you with the placement of your calls to action, whether they are buttons, or simply words on the page. There are plenty of free heat map tools available for this, and sometimes the investment in the paid tools are worth the cost.

You can also experiment using multivariate testing. This type of testing falls under the discipline of landing page optimization, which is a subset of conversion rate optimization. Multivariate testing allows a person to test various elements within a landing page, versus just testing two landing pages as a whole side-by-side, known as A/B testing.

Multivariate testing is a great way to get insight into how calls to action perform when tweaked – whether it’s new language, new colors or font or new shapes of a button. SiteTuners.com offers some great resources for tools in its Conversion Ninja Toolbox.