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.
In what manner have you reiterated your ideas? What have you left your reader to think about at the end of your paper? How does your paper answer the “So what?” question?
As the last part of the paper, conclusions often get the short shrift. We instructors know (not that we condone it)—many students devote a lot less attention to the writing of the conclusion. Some students might even finish their conclusion thirty minutes before they have to turn in their papers. But even if you’re practicing desperation writing, don’t neglect your conclusion; it’s a very integral part of your paper.
Think about it: Why would you spend so much time writing your introductory material and your body paragraphs and then kill the paper by leaving your reader with a dud for a conclusion? Rather than simply trailing off at the end, it’s important to learn to construct a compelling conclusion—one that both reiterates your ideas and leaves your reader with something to think about.
In the first part of the conclusion, you should spend a brief amount of time summarizing what you’ve covered in your paper. This reiteration should not merely be a restatement of your thesis or a collection of your topic sentences but should be a condensed version of your argument, topic, and/or purpose.
Let’s take a look at an example reiteration from a paper about offshore drilling:
Ideally, a ban on all offshore drilling is the answer to the devastating and culminating environmental concerns that result when oil spills occur. Given the catastrophic history of three major oil spills, the environmental and economic consequences of offshore drilling should now be obvious.
Now, let’s return to the thesis statement in this paper so we can see if it differs from the conclusion:
As a nation, we should reevaluate all forms of offshore drilling, but deep water offshore oil drilling, specifically, should be banned until the technology to stop and clean up oil spills catches up with our drilling technology. Though some may argue that offshore drilling provides economic advantages and would lessen our dependence on foreign oil, the environmental and economic consequences of an oil spill are so drastic that they far outweigh the advantages.
Since the author has already discussed the environmental and economic concerns associated with oil drilling, there’s no need to be passive about the assertion; the author thus moves from presenting oil spills as a problem to making a statement that a ban on offshore drilling is the answer to this problem. Moreover, the author provides an overview of the paper in the second sentence of the conclusion, recapping the main points and reminding the reader that he or she should now be willing to acknowledge his or her position as viable. Though you may not always want to take this aggressive of an approach (i.e., saying something should be obvious to the reader), the key is to summarize your main ideas without “plagiarizing” yourself (repeating yourself word for word). Indeed, you may take the approach of rather saying, “The reader can now, given the catastrophic history of three major oil spills, see the environmental and economic consequences of oil drilling.” For more information about summary, please refer to the textbook piece on incorporating sourced material into your essays.
As you can thus see, reiteration is not restatement. Summarize your paper in one to two sentences (or even three or four, depending on the length of the paper), and then move on to answering the “So what?” question.
Leaving Your Reader with Something to Think About: Answering the “So what?” Question
The bulk of your conclusion should answer the “So what?” question. Have you ever had an instructor write “So what?” at the end of your paper? You might have been offended, but the instructor was not saying that he or she did not care about your paper; rather, he or she was pointing to the fact that your paper leaves the reader with nothing new to think about. You cannot possibly spend an entire paragraph summarizing your paper topic, nor does your reader want to see an entire paragraph of summary, so you should craft something juicy—some new tidbit that serves as an extension of your original ideas.
There are a variety of ways that you can answer the “So what?” question. The following are just a few types of “endnotes”:
The Call to Action
The call to action can be used at the end of a variety of papers, but it works best for persuasive papers, such as social action papers and Rogerian argument essays (essays that begin with a problem and move toward a solution, which serves as the author's thesis). Any time your purpose in writing an essay is to change your reader’s mind or you want to get your reader to do something, the call to action is the way to go. Basically, the call to action asks your reader, after having progressed through a brilliant and coherent argument, to do something or believe a certain way. Following the reiteration at which we previously looked, here comes a call to action:
We have advanced technology that allows deepwater offshore drilling, but we lack the advanced technology that would manage these spills effectively, As such, until cleanup and prevention technology are available we should, as gatekeepers of our coastal shores and defenders of marine wildlife, ban offshore drilling—or, at the very least, demand a moratorium on all offshore oil drilling.
This call to action requests that the reader—remember, you need to identify your audience/reader before you begin writing—consider a ban on offshore drilling. Whether the author wants the reader to actually enact the ban or just to come to his or her side of the fence, he or she is asking the reader to do or believe something new based upon the information he or she just received.
The contextualization places the author’s local argument, topic, or purpose in a more global context so that the reader can see the larger purpose for the piece—or where the piece fits into the larger conversation. Whereas writers do research for papers so that they enter into specific conversations, they provide their readers with a contextualization in their conclusions so that they acknowledge the broader dialogue that contains that local conversation. For instance, if we were to return to the paper on offshore drilling, rather than proposing a ban on offshore drilling (a call to action), we might provide the reader with a contextualization:
We have advanced technology that allows deepwater offshore drilling, but we lack the advanced technology that would manage these spills effectively. Thus, one can see the need to place environmental concerns at the forefront of the political arena. Many politicians have already done so, including So-and-so and So-and-so.
Rather than asking the reader to do or believe something, this conclusion answers the “So what?” question by showing the reader why this specific conversation about offshore drilling matters in the larger conversation about politics and environmentalism.
The twist leaves the reader with a contrasting idea to consider. For instance, if I were to write a paper that argued that the media was responsible for the poor body image of adolescent females, I might, in the last few lines of the conclusion, give the reader a twist:
While the media is certainly responsible for the majority of American girls’ body image issues, parents sometimes affect the way girls perceive themselves more than the media does.
While this contrasting idea does not negate the writer’s original argument (why would you want to do that?), it does present an alternative contrasting idea to weigh against the original argument. The twist is kind of like a cliffhanger, as it’s sure to leave the reader saying, “Hmm . . .”
The Suggestion of Possibilities for Future Research
This approach to answering the “So what?” question is best for projects that you want to turn into a larger, ongoing project—or, if you want to suggest possibilities for future research for someone else (your reader) who might be interested in that topic. This approach involves pinpointing various directions which your research may take if someone were to extend the ideas included in your paper. Remember, research is a conversation, so it’s important to consider how your piece fits into this conversation and how others might use it in their own conversations. For example, if we were to suggest possibilities for future research based on this recurring example of the paper on offshore drilling, the conclusion might end with something like this:
I have just explored the economic and environmental repercussions of offshore drilling based on the examples we have of three major oil spills over the past thirty years. Future research might uncover more economic and environmental consequences of offshore drilling, as such consequences will become clearer as the effects of the BP oil spill become more pronounced.
Suggesting opportunities for future research involve the reader in the paper, just like the call to action does. Who knows, the reader may be inspired by your brilliant ideas and may want to use your piece as a jumping-off point!
Whether you use a call to action, a twist, a contextualization, or whether you suggest future possibilities for research, it’s important to answer the “So what?” question so that your reader stays interested in your topic until the very end of the paper. And, perhaps more importantly, leaving your reader with something juicy to consider makes it more likely that the reader will remember your piece of writing. Why write just to end your paper with a dud? Give your conclusion some love: reiterate and then answer the “So what?” question.
"How to Write a Compelling Conclusion" was written by Jennifer Yirinec