How to write compelling calls to action

by Tom Albrighton 7 December 2009 Copywriting

What is a call to action?

A call to action is a short piece of text (usually one or two sentences) in an advertisement or marketing communication that encourages the reader to take a particular course of action – buy, donate, make contact and so on.

Calls to action guide the audience towards a real-world action, so they don’t turn the page, click through to another site or just carry on browsing your material aimlessly. They set a boundary on readers’ ‘information gathering’ experience, encouraging them to move into the ‘doing’ phase.

The call to action is one of the most important ‘take-aways’ for the audience. If there’s one thing the copywriter wants the audience to read and internalise (after the headline), it’s the call to action.

Where are calls to action used?

Calls to action should be included in almost every piece of marketing, whether focused at businesses or consumers. Examples of where they might appear are:

  • In brochures: on the back page, or interspersed within the text
  • On websites: on every ‘selling’ page, and perhaps also on a ‘contact us’ page (possibly not on ‘more information’ pages)
  • In direct mail sales letters or marketing emails: towards the end, before the sign-off, and perhaps repeated in a P.S.

Often, a call to action will be highlighted by being boxed out, emboldened or otherwise ‘biggened up’.

Calls to action are not used in pure ‘brand-building’ marketing, where the only aim is to make the audience remember the brand.

Define your desired customer response

Before you can create a call to action, you must know your desired customer response (DCR). What do you want the reader to do once they’ve read your message? Whatever your DCR is, it should be all of the following:

  • Clear. A ten-year-old should be able to understand what you’re asking them to do.
  • Simple. A DCR should consist of a single step. You may want people to go to a website and buy, but the first step is just to get them there – it’s the website’s job to convert traffic to sales.
  • Specific. A DCR should make it clear exactly what the audience should do, in concrete terms: fill out a form, visit a shop, make a phone call, go to a website and so on.

Create a basic call to action

At its simplest, a call to action is a single sentence that tells the reader to do something, using the imperative tense:

Call us now to claim your FREE sample copy of Lawnmower World.

Note the key characteristics of the basic call to action:

  • It communicates the DCR, preserving its three key attributes (clear, simple and specific).
  • It links the DCR with a benefit for the reader (in this case, a free magazine). This is essential. A call to action offers a quid pro quo. ‘If you do this,’ we’re saying to the reader, ‘you’ll get that.’ The benefit need not be concrete, but there must be something in it for the customer, even if it’s only useful information on a product.
  • It commands the reader directly, with no equivocation. The impact can be softened with ‘please’, but this is rarely necessary. People generally avoid the imperative in conversation, but commands aren’t always confrontational and may often be welcomed or reassuring. (For example: ‘Sit down, have a coffee and let me take care of it.’)
  • It tells the reader when to act (‘now’) instead of leaving the timeframe open-ended.

The simple ‘sanity check’ for calls to action is to read them through and ask yourself whether you’d be happy if the reader did exactly what you’re asking, no more and no less.

It’s OK to vary the content of your call to action (for example, to add variety if it appears on more than one page in your site), but the message (i.e. the underlying DCR) should always be the same.

Add the power of persuasion

Sometimes, it’s not enough just to tell people what to do. They need to know why they should do it. To address this need, you can use principles of persuasion to add more power to your call to action.

There are a number of proven ways to persuade readers to act, which I’ve covered elsewhere, so here are some examples with links through to posts that will explain the persuasive principle that drives them. 

Thousands of businesses have already unlocked huge productivity gains by switching to BookKeeper. Call us to discover how you could join them. (Social proof: do as others are doing.)

Are you tired of scrubbing off limescale? Pick up a FREE trial pack of ScaleAway at your local store and say goodbye to it for ever. (Consistency: taking the desired action is consistent with the response to the question being asked.)

We all know how hard it is to find presents that friends and family will really love. So make Christmas easier this year at (Liking: alluding to a rapport or shared interest with the reader.)

Doctors recommend eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Call today to order your regular organic box from Willow Farm and make sure you have delicious fresh produce ready to eat, every day. (Authority: the opinion of a reputable source supports the DCR.)

Embedded commands

In NLP, embedded commands are sentences embedded within longer sentences that act as cues on the unconscious level. In theory, they direct the reader towards the DCR by subliminally planting an idea in their mind.

The great thing about embedded commands is that they can be scattered throughout the text without interrupting the flow or irritating the reader (if you have a good enough copywriter, that is).

Here are a few examples, with the embedded command in bold:

When you choose our service, you’re tapping into decades of expertise.

How good would it feel to book a short break right now?

You can call our order hotline 7 days a week.

Think about the benefits that will be realised for your business when you work with a professional accountant.

Most customers who buy in bulk from us make big savings.

You don’t even need to visit your nearest branch – we’re also available online and by phone.

It won’t always be possible to include the DCR explicitly in an embedded command. Instead, the embedded commands can ‘soften up’ the reader by gently introducing the general theme of the DCR, before you hit them with the direct call to action at the end.

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