Ten tips for successful Calls to Action

Calls to Action best practices

How to win friends and influence people

The ‘Call to Action’ (or CTA), is a ubiquitous marketing term used to describe a graphic or piece of text that prompts a user to take a desired next step. In print, a CTA could be a graphic at the bottom of a piece of direct marketing inviting the reader to dial a Freephone number. In the digital world, Calls to Action are more often than not buttons that prompt the user to interact with them some way.

Among the digital marketer’s closest allies, the humble CTA button is relied on time and time again for mission critical purposes such as enticing users to find out more information about a service, join a CRM programme, donate to charity, or make a purchase. We’ve all fallen victim to a Call to Action at some point, clicking that ‘proceed to checkout’ button to buy some shiny new trainers, or tapping a ‘find out more’ banner and subsequently signing up for a newsletter. The success of a CTA is often closely scrutinised – and rightly so for such a key tool in the digital world – so it’s important to understand what makes a CTA a success or failure.

Continuing on from my article on link usability from a few months back, I’ve dug out some research and added my own thoughts to create a set of guidelines for making your CTA buttons effective.

1. Maintain a clear hierarchy

It’s important to give your Call to Action the weighting that it deserves and make it stand out on the page. This may sound obvious but all too often web pages use a single button style and important features end up getting lost amongst the page furniture. Simply put, a key button that you are measuring success against (such as ‘sign up’ or ‘checkout’) should never have the same weighting as the other buttons on the page.

Ideally, a webpage should have three distinct button styles, ranging from the most important, primary Call to Action, through to a slightly less important secondary button style, down to utility-style buttons that don’t need to stand out, but do need to exist on the page. Prominence can be given to buttons using a combination of size, white space, use of font and colour. The most prominent primary button style should be reserved for a single, key CTA per page – for example, Google uses a striking red button for ‘sign in’, while Twitter uses an eye-catching yellow lozenge for their ‘sign up for Twitter’ call to action.

Multiple CTAs with the same weighting on a page will compete with each other and fail to offer a clear path forward for the user, so it’s better to use a small number of distinct actions, and make it obvious to the user what you want them to do next.

Example of a clear CTA hierarchy in the Sold app

2. Supporting text is not a crutch

A clear Call to Action should function without the need to read all the text around it. Remember, users scan read the web, no one reads copy word for word, no matter how much effort you’ve put into writing it. So the wording of a CTA should make sense in isolation and explain what it links to. This is not only usability best practice, it also enhances your search engine ranking and improves the accessibility of your website.

3. Communicate value

Never make your visitors ask “What’s in it for me?”, because if they can’t implicitly see the reason for clicking your CTA, they’re unlikely to bother doing so. The Apple website’s product pages are a great example of how to successfully communicate value in CTAs. By adding a few more words, they clearly communicate to the user both what will happen when they click the Call to Action, and the value in doing so. So a link will say ‘Learn more about the design of the iPhone 5 >’ rather than simply ‘Learn more >’. Incidentally, these longer wordings have led to them using text links rather than buttons, but successful use of white space combined with colour keeps them prominent.

There is, of course, a balance to be made between concise wording and communicating value or explaining what will happen next. It’s always best to be as succinct as possible; too much wording will make your CTAs harder to scan read, less punchy and will affect conversion rates.

A clear Call to Action that communicates value on the Apple website

4. Clarity

Copywriting for the web is a real art, and writing the perfect Call to Action is a huge challenge. CTAs need to be succinct, but most of all they need to be clear. There can be a temptation to take the button copywriting down an emotional, storytelling route that follows a brand’s tone of voice, but I’d recommend leaving this style of writing for the supporting copy. Instead, keep Call to Action wording as straight forward and as clear as possible. Users need clarity about what exactly will happen when a button is clicked, or it will lead to confusion and a sub-par user experience.

We highlighted this issue in some recent usability research carried out here at The Real Adventure, which found that users get confused by CTA wording that didn’t explicitly sign post them to what they were looking for. Luckily, this was easily fixed, but it’s something we should all avoid for the future. This article also shows how small changes to CTA copy can improve clarity, and in turn positively effect conversion rates.

CTA Pic3
Example of unclear button wording, image sourced from UX matters (‘Label buttons with what they do’).

5. Verbs get the job done

Verbs are integral to writing successful CTA copy because they encourage users to take action. Strong action verbs such as ‘call’, ‘watch’, ‘buy’, ‘register’, ‘compare’, ‘shop’ and ‘download’ will grab people’s attention and encourage them to act. Examples of action verbs in CTA copy include ‘Register now’, ‘Watch the video’ or ‘Buy now for £19.99′.

6. The gentle art of persuasion

Sure, it’s not pretty, but there are times when it’s necessary to ratchet up the sales patter a little, and aggressively go after that sign up or purchase. An example might be on a pay-per-click landing page where you only have limited time to convince your visitor to do something, in which case you can employ various techniques to make your Call to Action more compelling and increase its conversion rate.

Words that increase a sense of urgency, immediacy, ease and value will all help here. Urgency can be achieved by generating tension and excitement for your reader, employing CTA wording such as ‘now’, ‘immediately’, ‘today’ or ‘quick’. Immediacy can be reinforced by placing emphasis on time and availability, so you can stress that an offer is ‘for a limited time only’, ‘ends in 2 hours’, or that there are ‘only 5 items left’.

An emphasis on ease might mean spelling out that signing up for an account ‘only takes 60 seconds’, alleviating users’ concerns that it will be difficult or time consuming. Showing value could mean placing emphasis on a service being free or on special offer, removing perceptions of it being costly. By creating a sense of urgency and relieving users’ concerns, they should be more inclined to take action.

7. The secondary nudge

A secondary line of copy, positioned close to your CTA, can support your primary message. It can be used to alleviate users’ concerns about a service (as highlighted in point 6), or to feature a benefit that will encourage conversion. But as with any web copy, there’s no guarantee that it will be read due to how people scan read, so it should never be replied on. It can also add to the visual clutter of the page, so you need to be sure it’s definitely adding value. That said, a simple line under your CTA like ‘it’s free and only takes 30 seconds’ could be the difference between conversion and abandonment.

foursquare-supporting-line (2)
A line of copy to support a ‘Sign up with Facebook’ CTA on the Foursquare website

8. Icons can help

Icons can enhance a CTA by communicating a bit of extra information. A right-pointing chevron or arrow can help increase urgency and imply a positive forward movement, a left arrow implies going back, a padlock icon suggests a secure process, and a cog; some ‘under the bonnet tinkering’. In nearly all cases, graphics shouldn’t be replied on, they only exist to enhance CTA text.

CTA Pic4
A secure padlock icon as used on the Lloyds TSB website

9. Don’t disappoint

Once the user has acted on your CTA, make sure you deliver whatever you promised them and carry it through, otherwise you’ll lose them. Fast.

10. Test, measure and refine

The only way to really understand which design and word combinations yield the best results is to try them out on your audience using A/B and multivariate testing to see what works. Then test and refine again, an iterative approach will pay off in the long term. See the whichtestwon website for examples of testing strategy and results.

Sell, sell, sell!

So there you go – ten ways to make your CTAs more user-friendly. There are exceptions to every rule, but I hope that you find these guidelines useful. Now it’s over to you to go and create that million dollar CTA button. If you’ve got any more tips for creating great Calls to Action, please share them in the comments below.

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