The call to action. It’s your bottom line. The reason you brought eyeballs to your page. The only thing you really want visitors to do.
So why are so many CTAs just plain bad?
Seventy percent of B2B blog posts and Web pages contained no call to action at all five years ago, according to Anita Campbell at Small Business Trends. That number has decreased somewhat over time, but for many businesses an increase in quantity doesn’t mean an increase in quality.
Here, we’re going to break down the biggest reasons CTAs fail, the best ways to avoid these mistakes and what tools you can use to create calls to action that attract better prospects.
Ugh: The Top Reasons CTAs Fail
“Getting prospective customers to do what you want them to do can be like herding cats,” Dan Shewan writes at WordStream. “They abandon shopping carts before checking out, they don’t sign up for your beautifully written newsletter, and they don’t even have the common courtesy to read your blog posts all the way to the end [editor’s note: ahem].”
A good call to action, however, can give that herd of cats some direction. It can focus the attentions of your visitors and give them clear next steps.
But bad CTAs do the opposite: They drive people away.
Here’s how too many of them do it:
1. They’re Too Vague
“Buy now,” “Submit” and “Click here” are three of the most popular calls to action online today — partly because they’re also the default language in a number of website-building tools.
They’re also deadly vague. Buy what now? Submit to whom and for what purpose? Click here for what?
In a world of increasing privacy and security concerns, where nearly every Internet user has been burned by a virus at least once, this kind of vagueness doesn’t cause excitement. It causes wariness — not only of the CTA itself, but of your brand as a whole.
2. They Don’t Call Users to Action
One thing the vague “Click here” and “Buy now” CTAs have going for them: They start with a strong, specific action verb. “Click” and “buy” are concrete actions. They’re something readers can do.
Unfortunately, many calls to action are, technically speaking, not a call to action at all. They may provide information, but they don’t ask the reader to do anything, Billy McCaffrey writes at WordStream.
For instance, while “our latest white paper is available here” is great information, it doesn’t tell users what to do with that information. Users who know how to download your white papers or who have done so before may motivate themselves to download this one, but first-time readers may not want to figure out the process.
Worse, they may not feel as if the white paper is for them — that they have been specifically invited to download it for their own use.
3. They’re Unreadable
A call to action won’t be followed if it isn’t read. And when users typically spend mere seconds on a web page, the quicker they spot the call to action the more likely they are to follow it.
Yet many calls to action are so poorly designed, it’s almost as if the business doesn’t really want people to find them. Placing your CTA out of sequence with the decision-making process, crowding it out with other elements or using a color scheme that blends in with other page elements are three of the top mistakes that cause a call to action to disappear into the ether, according to Aaron Agius at Entrepreneur.
4. They’re in the Wrong Context
CTAs are expected in certain media, like marketing emails and social media ads. In others, however, they end up cheapening your content and actually driving customers away, Jonathan Greene writes at Medium, where he argues CTAs don’t belong.
“If you think your greatest value from writing on Medium comes from profit, you are wrong,” Greene says. “The greatest value of your action on Medium is inspiring others.” Slapping a call to action on that inspiration implies that you’re not there to help or uplift, but that you want something in return.
“No piece of content will ever be more artistically successful with a call to action at the end of it,” Green noted.
Lessons From Failure: How to Make Bad CTAs Better
If it does nothing else, a call to action should call readers to act. The action called for should be strong, be specific and engage the use of the body in some way, even if it’s only to click a button or link.
According to Leo Widrich at Buffer, action words trigger the brain’s motor cortex. When the brain encounters strong action verbs, it experiences itself not only reading a word, but actually following through on the action.
And the stronger the verb, the stronger the sensation of action. “Read” and “learn,” as primarily mind-based activities, produce a relatively weak motor cortex response. “Stand,” “search” and even “click,” as movement-based activities, produce a much stronger one.
A strong, commanding action verb makes readers’ brains experience the action you call for even before they do it, which greatly increases the chances they’ll take the next step.
Beyond the copy, here are four things you can start doing today to improve your CTAs, boost click-through rates and ultimately drive more conversions.
1. Marry Content With Design
Rounded conversion buttons set off with white space and in contrasting colors from the remainder of the page also get more attention than their more square, crowded or drab counterparts, says Agius. In addition, high-quality images that support the goal of your call to action can help. Just make sure these images don’t compete with the CTA itself.
According to Steve Young at Unbounce, testimonials and case studies near a CTA can increase conversion rates by 68.7 percent — but only if they’re the right kind of testimonials and case studies. Look for short, snappy copy that’s “both believable and impressive,” says Agius.
2. Think Long(er) Term
When you’re generating or contributing content to a platform like Medium, Greene recommends limiting your CTAs to links to other Medium pieces you’ve done, to your main website or to an email list.
From the website or email list, you can start drawing in potential customers.
To some, this sounds counterintuitive: How do more steps lead to more conversion? Here, it’s because you’re building on the reader’s existing interest, inspiration or investment. The original article creates that sense of emotional and intellectual connectedness. The journey to your website or email list continues it.
3. Personalize Your Content
In early 2018, HubSpot’s Jeffrey Vocell ran a study that looked at more than 300,000 CTAs. The CTAs he considered fell into one of three buckets:
- Basic CTAs
- Multivariate CTAs that were being split-tested)
- Smart CTAs that responded dynamically to viewer locations, browser languages and many other user variables
What he found wasn’t surprising: The smart CTAs convert much better than the others. Dynamic CTAs that can speak to someone’s unique profile convert at about twice the rate of other CTAs.
Why such a profound uptick in conversions? Because smart CTAs let you serve someone “serving them content that reflects their current level of interest and knowledge on the subject,” Vocell writes.
“Blog posts and web pages might cater to multiple audiences at the same time, but if they all have the same CTA on them regardless of who’s reading, you’re neglecting various portions of your audience — those people who are either too advanced for what you’re offering, or aren’t advanced enough to need it yet. Smart CTAs accommodate for these differences across the buyer’s journey.”
If you’re interested in trying out dynamic, smart CTAs, here are a few marketing automation tools you should know:
- HubSpot is one of the go-to platforms for personalized marketing. If you have the budget, it has several features that will let you personalize calls to actions on your landing pages, on your blog posts, in your emails and on other digital assets.
- SharpSpring and Experiture have some excellent dynamic CTA capabilities, as well.
4. Test Your CTAs
As you can imagine, there are scores of variables that go into someone’s decision to click “Buy Now” or “Learn More” buttons. That’s why split-testing your CTAs is so important.
“There is indeed a magic formula for creating CTAs that convert,” Robin Nichols writes at AB Tasty. “Test, test and test again. In the real world, behind every successful campaign, every effective call-to-action, are dozens or even hundreds of A/B test runs.”
In general, the variables worth testing break into five categories, Elana Chiari writes at MailUp. Those include:
- Color. Think back to what Agius recommended about button design. Does it make sense to change a red button to a green one? Test that hypothesis.
- Size. “The button should be large enough to be noticeable, but an excessive size may be too aggressive and detrimental to the user experience,” Chiari writes. Run a test to find out where that “too aggressive line is.”
- Position. On landing pages, it’s usually a good idea to have your CTA above the fold. In a blog post, it might make sense to have a newsletter signup at the end of the post, or perhaps someone in the middle of the copy. Test those possibilities to find out what works best
- Copy. In Agius’ piece, he points to a study that found changing a CTA from “Get Your Membership” to the more specific “Find Your Gym and Get Membership” resulted in 213 percent more clicks.
- Design. Do rounded buttons really outperform square ones? Don’t trust someone’s recommendations. Run that test yourself.
How to Say What You Mean in a CTA
Your CTA should call readers to a specific action. But how exactly do you call for the right action at each point of the sales funnel? “Any CTA is better than no CTA,” says Neil Patel, “but it helps if you have a strategy that propels leads deeper into, not out of, your sales funnel.”
Every SaaS company wants to captivate (and convert) potential customers, but the way to do so isn’t always intuitive, especially at the top of the sales funnel.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common CTAs seen throughout the funnel and how well they do their job.
‘Follow Us on Social!’
This CTA is one of the most popular ways to draw potential customers closer. It appeals to the 50 percent of qualified leads who aren’t ready to make a purchase decision while encouraging them to stay in touch via social media.
Here, the CTA starts with a strong action verb, “follow.” It includes some specifics (follow us). It even tells the visitor where they’ll be doing the following … sort of.
Where does this link lead? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, another page listing all those options? To boost the rate at which visitors click this CTA, make sure they know exactly which social media platform they’re getting when they do. Something like “Follow Us on Twitter!” would do the job.
Or punch it up even further. Serial entrepreneur Jeremy Smith recommends using a call to action that implies the person clicking is becoming part of a story that only gets better. Here, that option might read “Join Us on Facebook!” or “Continue the Journey on Twitter!”
‘Download Our [Lead Magnet]’
Ebooks, white papers, worksheets, info packets: The list of potential lead magnets is endless, but these tools are only valuable to you or to prospective contacts if they’re actually downloaded.
“Download Our Ebook” asks for a bit more involvement from the visitor than a social media like or follow. Here, you’re asking them to commit sufficient interest to want that ebook, white paper or other free prize in your digital box of cereal.
So, how do you convert “I’ll click Like on Facebook” visitors to “I’ll read this free ebook” visitors?
Lilach Bullock recommends involving your visitors in the CTA directly by letting them “speak” through a CTA in the first person. “Download Our Ebook” invites them to take a step, but “Send Me My Free Ebook Today” puts them in the position of asking to participate in that step. And because asking signals buy-in, it also encourages buy-in.
As a CTA, this one…isn’t. There’s no verb at all, much less an actionable verb. Sure, visitors love adjectives like “free” and nouns like “trial,” both of which offer them the chance to make their own decisions about value without requiring a commitment. But what do you want your visitor to do?
Despite its weaknesses, “Free Trial” is still one of the most popular CTAs out there. To improve its conversion power, focus on clarifying exactly what your visitor gets when they click it, Patel recommends.
For instance, try “Free Trial Version,” “Instant Download – Free Trial Version,” or “Try Our Free Trial.” For that first-person experience, experiment with “Yes, I want my free trial!” or “I want to try [Software] for free.”
‘Free 30 Days’
“Free 30 Days” suffers from many of the same defects as “Free Trial,” but it has one difficulty all its own: It threatens to deposit the user at a credit card information form they aren’t prepared to fill out, either because they don’t have their card handy or because they don’t want to share that much information.
The result? Often, a quick click of the back button and a moment of revulsion.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In December 2017, Amazon introduced its app users to a swipe-based 1-Click checkout, as Sarah Perez at TechCrunch reports. The swipe bar contained the CTA “Swipe to buy with 1-Click.”
The results? Approval, not only for the swipe function itself but also for the CTA. Amazon shoppers knew exactly what would happen if they swiped.
Use that same level of specificity if you want users to land on a payment page in the right moment.
“Buy Now” can learn something from Amazon’s 1-Click swipe bar as well.
Here, the value is in being placed alongside a less commitment-heavy CTA, e.g. “Start your free trial.” Part of what made Amazon’s 1-Click so popular, notes Perez, is that users not only knew what they were getting by swiping, but they could also discern how it differed from clicking “Add to Cart.”
Users in a hurry could 1-click, while those who intended to buy but wanted to browse still had the cart option. Win-win.
If You Forget Everything Else, Remember This
To turn your call to action into customer action:
- Use short, strong, concrete action verbs.
- Design for visibility and appeal.
- Place your call to action with the user’s decision-making process.
And let your own taste be your guide. If you’re intrigued and excited by your CTA’s design, placement and wording, your audience likely will be, too.
But then test your design against alternatives, anyway.