Creating a good call to action takes time and creativity. Imagine being able to come up with an amazing call to action within mere seconds – here’s how!
See what I did there? I just used a call to action (CTA) to hopefully peak some interest in what I have to share with you.
The truth is that as marketers, we have to come up with hard and soft CTAs multiple times a day for product ads, content pieces, company assignments, and more. If you are like me, it can get very tiresome trying to rack your brain for creative ways to pitch something that hopefully turns into action over and over again.
To help you save some time in this endeavor, I’ve created a so-called “cheat sheet” that shows twenty different ways to write a CTA, in the hopes that it will spur your creativity and drastically shorten the time it takes to come up with a great CTA.
1. Instant Gratification
People hate waiting… for anything. Capitalizing on this fact is a great way to get people to respond to what you are offering if speed is the main draw.
This type of CTA does a great job implying that someone can get a quick answer, or help preparing their entire tax return.
2. Pull at the Heartstrings
Using emotion can be a powerful motivator to get someone to act on something. The 2015 Super Bowl had more emotionally motivated ads than I’ve ever seen in one sitting. Case in point, the #LikeAGirl ad from Always had me shoveling in guacamole dip with tears in my eyes.
This emotional CTA works on a few levels. First, it makes you feel like a schmuck if you have ever used “like a girl” as a negative connotation in conversation. Second, it uses that shame to motivate you to be a part of their movement against damaging social norms.
If you need a CTA for a specific demographic or niche, creating situational context is a great strategy to acquire relatable action.
This CTA draws in people who do have coffee delivered while implying that lower shipping rates would change the way they think or worry about it.
4. Problem Aggravation
Many marketers view this type of CTA to be one of the most popular and successful formats out there. This formula works by identifying an issue, explaining what would happen if the problem persisted, and then ultimately solving it.
By aggravating the problem, you can create motivation based on what people don’t want to experience if they wait to act.
5. Implication & Effect
This is very similar to a problem solving CTA, with the main difference being that you lead with the question regarding the effects or impact of a problematic situation.
Essentially, this really lays it on thick when it comes to the possible pains they are currently experiencing related to the problems they face.
6. People Want to Belong
People don’t like feeling like they are missing out on something that everyone else is already having fun experiencing. Sites like MailChimp do a great job of making it feel like everyone else is doing it the easy way using their service, so why not join them by signing up?
7. How it Works
Sometimes just cutting to the chase and letting people know exactly how your offering works is a good strategy.
This CTA does a great job of spelling out what it is they do and how it works without the need for too much creativity.
8. Focus on the Features
Every product or service has certain features that set it apart. Using this strategy is a great when you sell in a saturated marketplace to help you stand out from the crowd.
This CTA is a good example of listing several features in order to clearly convey some of the perceived bells and whistles a product or service may offer.
9. Focus on the Benefits
This is another widely used strategy for CTA’s, and for good reason! Focusing on the benefits of a product or service over the features is a great way to show the consumer what they can experience AFTER they act.
10. Sell the Savings
For people who just want to save money on a product in a marketplace, blatantly telling them what those savings are is often enough to get a response.
While auto insurance isn’t necessarily the most exciting thing to buy, the possibility of saving more than $500 is the pull here that warrants action from a consumer. Also, the curiosity of whether or not you could save that much is a great motivator to get someone to request a quote.
11. Using Fear
How exactly can fear be used to motivate in a CTA? I like the way Andrew McDermott explains it:
“It screams consequences, danger, and loss. It’s the screeching tires that flood your body with adrenaline, the Hells Angel parked next to you, and the police sirens behind you. It focuses on what is most feared, not what’s most likely to happen.”
In the example below, the CDC does a great job using fear to get people to take action.
12. Individualize the Message
Who exactly are you writing the CTA to? Can you imagine who they are and what type of persona they embody? The better you can visualize who you are speaking to, the easier it will be for your to craft a great CTA.
For instance, if I’m writing a CTA for a small business owner without a large web presence, I don’t want to focus on a big enterprise level piece of SEO software with millions of reports. A small business owner isn’t concerned with all that. All they want to see is an increase in sales.
13. Use a Cliffhanger
We all love a good story, but when we don’t get to hear the ending it can drive us crazy! Hollywood does a great job with this concept by turning a story into three separate movies in order to keep you on the hook to see them all in order to find out how the story ends.
Playing off of the anxiety people feel when they don’t know how a story ends is a great way to motivate action.
14. Make it a Game
What is the best part about a game show? The ridiculous prizes one can win just by participating! Gamify your CTA in order to get a crazy amount of responses.
CTAs like this perform really well because the customer basically says to themselves, “What do I have to lose?” This type of thinking makes them focus less on the personal information they are giving up and more on the possible prize(s) they may win.
15. Offer a Bonus
Who doesn’t want an extra freebie when they sign up for a service or buy a product?
Sprint is dialing in on the “Why not?” feeling of its potential customers by offering the bonus of paying off their existing phone plans with this CTA.
16. Stroke the Ego
Validating people’s accomplishments and knowledge is deeply rooted in our society as humans. Many of us feel like we deserve something because of who we are. Playing to this need is a great way to create an impactful CTA.
This example from Rolex clearly plays to someone’s ego by making them feel like they are joining a distinguished club by wearing one of their watches.
17. Build Some Hype
I really like how Brian Lett describes how to build hype around your products or offerings by channeling the passion and example of Steve Jobs.
“Don’t just talk about what your product does or why it’s superior; show them a compelling picture of how it’s going to make their life better. That’s what gets people excited.”
18. Toot Your Own Horn
Awards are meant to be shown off, so if you have them, flaunt them in your next CTA. Touting awards or accomplishments instantly creates a sense of credibility and trust with potential customers who may not understand the difference between what you are offering and your competitor.
Most people are motivated by having something that is considered the best or that is highly rated, and showing off awards in a good CTA feeds that motivating factor.
19. Stopping Power
Have you ever been told to stop doing something? We all have, and it’s not very pleasant.
Nobody likes to think they have been doing something wrong or wasteful; however, when you are told to stop something your interest immediately piques and your attention and emotion sensors are ready and waiting to respond.
20. Picture This
The power of the imagination is definitely a force to be reckoned with when it comes to piquing interest.
Copywriter Brian Clark puts it this way:
“Producing a mental image in a reader’s mind is one of the most powerful things you can ever do as a writer, so expressly engaging the imagination is a powerful opening technique. Activate the mind’s eye of the reader by using words like “imagine,” “picture this,” “do you remember when,” etc.”
I hope that some of these ideas will help you form awesome CTAs more quickly. If one of these CTA formulas works well for you and your readers, don’t be afraid to go back to it often.
At the same time, if you ever feel like your CTA’s are getting stale, don’t be afraid to try something new from this list – the only way to get different results is to try something new!
Looking for even more CTA ideas? If so, go check out fellow SEJ author Kevan Lee’s amazing post on how to grab a reader’s attention. Thanks for the inspiration Kevan!
Are there any CTAs from the list that you use with great success? Are there other types of CTAs that I missed that you feel are worth sharing?
If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Featured Image: 123RF Stock Photo (Modified)
Image #11: CDC image. Used under license.
Other images created by author for Search Engine Journal
I started this article looking for 101 call to action examples.
My plan was to review the all-time great copywriting controls and find the calls to action that made them so effective.
After all, they were written by the historical greats.
But I hadn’t read more than a handful of mailings when I discovered something interesting. All the CTAs were essentially the same.
Well, that was a bust!
Or was it?
I found some interesting parallels between traditional direct mail calls to action and the digital calls to action being written today. And I found three criteria for effective CTAs that work no matter what format you’re using.
Let’s take a look…
First, some traditional calls to action
Reviewing traditional direct mail promotions, I found three things that nearly all calls to action accomplish. See if you can find them in this line-up of old CTAs. (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.
Those were the more creative ones. But 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 your final instruction to your reader, so (duh!) there won’t be 101 variations.
In direct mail, you have to tell people to “mail the enclosed card.” In digital marketing, we ask for a click.
No matter how creative we get, it still boils down to this one request.
But if you look closely at the examples above, there are three things that nearly all the CTAs include:
- 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.
Let me show you a few more examples
Transferring traditional techniques to digital formats
Some digital CTAs perfectly mirror the old mailings. Take this one from Stansberry Research’s Retirement Millionaire promotion.
The pattern is there:
- Try it, you’ll like it: “Try” is in all caps.
- There’s no obligation, which is the modern version of “send no money now.”
- He wants a response “right away.”
- Click on the “subscribe now” link to fill out a form.
Now let’s look at some other formats for CTAs…
The “why not” argument
Sometimes there isn’t a strong reason to take action. But there’s no reason not to, either. Here’s how W Magazine 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?
And here it is in a recent 1-2-3 Shrink promotion:
Your CTA needs to make you want to click, and let’s face it, there isn’t always a compelling reason to try something. Price can get people’s attention, but it’s not good for business, so a common alternative is to ask, “why not?”
Making it all about the benefits
This old Audubon promotion didn’t just offer a subscription. It offered “all the benefits of membership.”
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.
If you can offer membership in an exclusive group, this may be a useful approach. But what if you aren’t offering a club, per se?
Focus on the benefits of responding, like this “Off the Grid” promotion from Sovereign Investor:
Who doesn’t want to protect their wealth, build a fortress around themselves, and live a richer, more satisfying life?
Leading with a strong CTA
Here’s the headline in 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.
Adventure? Save the world? Wow! It even has a built-in call to action, the “come volunteer” statement. Today, I’d recommend following this headline with an order button.
The call to action for this promotion is good, but not nearly as compelling.
Remember, the CTA must tell people what to do next. Which means it can’t always have the same excitement level as your headline or lead. Here’s how Earthwatch did it:
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.
Can the lead ever work as your CTA? In the Earthwatch promotion, it could have. But back then, you had to provide instructions for how to respond.
Today, people are comfortable with responding to digital offers, so you don’t need to provide the instructions that made their CTAs clunky. You can simply provide a link or button—and people know what to do.
Here’s a digital promotion that pulls off this technique quite well.
It was introduced in an Early to Rise email like this:
Click the link, and you land here. There’s nothing on the page but the CTA.
Selling the trial
Because people are so comfortable with digital formats, your CTA can almost be implied. (Implied, but not forgotten!)
Prevention promotions typically ask for a Try rather than a Buy. It sounds less obligatory, so buyers offer less resistance.
And Prevention is so sure you’ll like their products, they give generous trial periods. Here’s one from Prevention’s Dance It Off! promotion. Notice that the actual CTA is in a graphic:
Of course, software and similar products rely on the trial too. Here’s Crazy Egg’s call to action:
This approach emphasizes the no-obligation element of strong CTAs. And it works.
Two CTAs that don’t work
I mentioned above that you can leverage people’s comfort with digital marketing, which allows you to streamline your calls to action. But you still need to be clear.
Weak or no CTA
One of the most common (and worst) mistakes in direct response is to assume people know what to do, and forget the call to action.
From my perspective, that’s what this promotion does:
This is just a portion of the page—there are floating elements that didn’t allow me to grab it all—but this screenshot has the majority of the information.
Where’s the call to action?
“Pick your city” is all I can see. That’s not compelling, risk-reducing, or benefits-oriented. In fact, if you read the fine print, the author of the book won’t be at the event.
There’s little here to compel anyone to respond.
The other extreme: too strong of a CTA
I can’t tell you what’s on the page because the pop-up acts as a pay-wall, so to speak, blocking entrance until you share your email:
Here, I’m stuck if I don’t respond.
“Join Now” or don’t view the page.
This call to action is a little too high-pressure for my taste. What saves it is the “Why we ask for email” link at the bottom of the form, the promise of 70% off, and the no-hassles language below the button.
But I still don’t want to be forced into compliance, so no thanks.
You want a strong CTA, sure, but not too strong.
The winner: A benefits-oriented, personal CTA
TheStreet’s Quant Ratings promotion showed up in my inbox, and it’s the clear winner among the promotions I reviewed.
Look at the call to action:
This CTA does a lot of things right.
- It implies no work on your part. It’s completely benefits-oriented and personal, asking you to put TheStreet to work… for you.
- There isn’t a vague, uninspiring “click here” command. The link is embedded in the benefit statement. And that statement is phrased as a command, so I can’t miss it.
- There is also a button—in a bright, can’t-miss red—that offers an incentive for clicking: “Save $150.” (You’ll need to test the color that works for your promotion, but here, red does well.)
- Urgency is subtly included in the CTA with “don’t wait another minute.” So it urges you to respond now without resorting to hype.
Does it fulfill the three criteria for effective calls to action? You bet:
- It offers a trial membership.
- The link and button provide implicit instructions (without going so far as to omit the CTA). It’s clear that you’re supposed to click on the link or the button.
- You’re asked to respond now: “Don’t wait another minute.”
Not only does this call to action use the same techniques that worked in direct mail, it improves on them, because there’s no bulky paragraph telling you where to find the response device and how to submit it.
With digital, you can build the response into the promotion for a seamless user experience.
CTAs may have changed over the years, but the goal hasn’t changed: Put the right message in front of the right people at the right time. It’s critical that you learn to do this well. And, of course, there’s no better way to learn than to be testing your CTAs.
Have you got some favorite techniques for an effective call to action? Or do you struggle with telling people how to respond? Let us know in the comments below.