What Defines a Good Call to Action? 5 Rules of an Effective CTA

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I read something from Matt Heinz the other day that I really liked: “Content is king, context is king, conversion is the ace!” It got me thinking. Are there best practices for converting prospects in a call to action? Can I share some silver bullet insight that would reveal the optimal call to action for marketers to use on a website or blog to drive higher conversions? Possibly, but our survey data produced little insight into the matter. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the recipe for success is actually equal parts of all three ingredients: content, context, and conversion. There is no world where you can successfully optimize the equation by focusing on one more than the other. Too much content and no context, poor conversion quality. Too little content and good context, poor conversion volume. So while some tactics may lead to higher conversion, it is very likely that there was also a direct correlation between the content/context in the interaction that led up to the conversion event. And there’s the 10 million dollar question: is anyone measuring analytics using this trifecta approach?

What makes an effective CTA?

What makes an effective CTA?

It seems to me that most marketing automation reports and analytics are very myopically focused on the conversion, because that can be measured. Something happened and we measure that. But it’s a lot more complicated and maybe even impossible to also evaluate the quality of content, the nature of the communication, or the channel that was used. But we are entering the age of big data. We can not only measure the event, we may be able to look at semantic or natural language processing to ascertain themes or keywords that led up to a conversion event. Could we therefore produce a tool that literally learns and optimizes the path to conversion for different target audiences? I digress.

There is actually a formula for optimizing a call to action.

Stop and think about what makes every call to action unique. It’s right there in the name – it’s a request for someone to take action. Heck, it’s not really a request. It’s a statement: do this now.

  • Subscribe now…
  • Download this whitepaper for…
  • Use this coupon…
  • Register today…

That’s interesting. Here we are making demands of someone we don’t really even know. But it works, and it’s been a tenet of all forms of traditional and digital marketing strategy for decades. So when we ask what defines a good call to action there are a few ground rules we have to think about. What happens if you walk up to your boss or colleague right now and say “Get me a glass of water.” This is unlikely to produce the result you want. In fact, you might get fired for being rude and demanding. It’s missing content and context. But what if you said “I’ve got to type up this contract (content) and I’m late to my next meeting (context). Would you mind grabbing me a glass of water (call to action)?” Something about that works, so let’s dissect it.

The 5 Rules of Effective Calls to Action

A call to action is an exchange.

When you are asking your prospect to act, have you delivered enough content and context that they feel comfortable reacting to a request/CTA? Generally we are more receptive to requests when we feel like we owe someone. So, Rule #1: Deliver value with your content. It’s got to resonate intimately and make the prospect feel like they owe you something for your efforts. That suggests you’ll never optimize your CTA with poor quality content. We generally know this to be true, right?

A call to action must be anticipated and appropriate.

A CTA must not be intrusive in the mind of the recipient. Can they reasonably expect you to make that request? Has your brand captured sufficient mindshare to make a prospect comfortable taking the intended action? When all is said and done will this prospect reflect on their prior experiences with your brand and think “OK, it makes sense to ask me that.” Rule #2: Build trust before you request the action.

A call to action must not be premature.

Even when a prospect is comfortable with your brand, there’s a right and a wrong time to ask them to take action. Ask yourself why they are acting at this point. What is compelling them to take action? If the answer is that we don’t know, it’s too early. I recently wrote a blog post on “The Most Common Mistake Marketers Make on Landing Pages,” and there’s another little secret to calls to action that you can uncover there. Rule #3: Don’t rush the request. That also suggests you need sufficient content that isn’t gated beforehand so your CTA isn’t viewed as intrusive.

A call to action must be earned.

Your brand can actually accelerate how quickly you can feature a call to action. If your brand is trusted or at the very least the prospect knows what to expect from engaging your firm, you don’t have to put in as much effort on the content side of things before you showcase a CTA. The kicker in all this is that at some point you had to build that brand, and it probably required considerable investment in content and context. Unfortunately, no matter what, marketers need to invest in the content side of things. The lesson here is that if you are a startup or are entering a new target market, you need to earn some brand capital before you can start making requests of prospects. Rule #4: Earn rapport.

A call to action must be safe.

A good call to action doesn’t abuse the prospect’s reasonable expectations. How many fields are they likely willing to fill out on a form? Is it reasonable that you email them or just give them a link to download an asset? Do they expect a call after they download content or register for a contest? Make sure you deliver ONLY what they ask for in the CTA and make it obvious what they should expect; no surprises. Also, there’s safety in numbers, so if you can showcase that other people or other customers like them also took this same action, you are more likely to drive a conversion. Rule #5: Don’t take inappropriate liberties in the call to action.

So the 5 rules for an effective call to action are:

  1. Rule #1: Deliver value with your content.
  2. Rule #2: Build trust before you request the action.
  3. Rule #3: Don’t rush the request.
  4. Rule #4: Earn rapport.
  5. Rule #5: Don’t take inappropriate liberties in the call to action.

Treat your call to action measurement like a one-on-one conversation with a prospect. Evaluate whether it would be appropriate to ask “x” at this stage in the conversation. That’s really the only way you can back into the effectiveness of the content and context side of the equation.

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