Calling You to Action

Hanging out at SES Chicago last week, I spent some time with Stewart Quealy, VP of content development for SES, who told me that he enjoyed my last column about the power of a great unique value proposition. He suggested that as more new faces begin to adopt conversion rate optimization, some may not be as familiar with the fundamentals as many of us are.

And of course, the end of the year is always a good time to talk the fundamentals. This week, I want to discuss another conversion rate optimization basic: the call to action (CTA).

Two Types of Call to Actions

The most common thing that jumps to mind when we think about CTAs is the big CTA button. The less obvious, less famous is the textual CTA.

CTA buttons are those in-your-face buttons that excitedly point the way to your visitors taking a profitable action on your site. Their subtler sister, the textual CTA, usually shows up in the body of active window copy. Often it’s simply a standalone hyperlink; sometimes they show up as part of headers. Other times, they’re snuggled up against a product picture or a hero image, even in navigation.

Improving Call-to-Action Buttons

  • Shape variations. There are rectangles, squares, ovals, circles, and irregular shapes (like Amazon, which blends an oval and a rectangle). Corners can be pointy or rounded. Is there a shape that works better for you?
  • Colors. You have a world of colors to choose from; there’s really no wrong color.
  • Non-graphical buttons. There are also non-graphical “add to cart” buttons created from plain text or simple HTML with the traditional gray background. These can be styled somewhat using CSS (define). Would plain and simple be the best way to go?
  • Style variations. Two-dimensional or three-dimensional? With or without shadowing? Does your audience have a preference? Does the CTA stand out from other content on the page, or do other (less profitable) elements dilute the page?
  • Icon variations. Little images of arrows, carts, baskets, or bags may help distinguish your buttons from the other elements around them. Is there an icon that makes sense for your business and improves conversion?
  • Size variations. Larger isn’t always better. Will size matter?
  • Legibility. The previous factors work in combination to affect the legibility of an “add to cart” button. Font choice, font size, and text/background contrast will also affect how readily a visitor identifies the CTA and acts on it. The possibilities are limitless.
  • Location variations. Where to put your button: Above the fold? One above and one below? On the right or left or in the middle of the page? How far should you place it from neighboring elements?
  • Wording. Just think about all the possible ways you can say “add to cart.” Or “contact me.” Or “sign up.” The words matter. For example, years ago we influenced Dell to change the words in its configurator from “Learn More” to “Help Me Choose,” which had a significant impact.

Improving Textual Call to Actions

A ClickZ column I wrote in 2003 offers a quick guide to get you started:

The clearer the explicit benefit of clicking on a hyperlink, the more likely a visitor will click.

[CTA links] should be constructed with an imperative, an implied benefit of what visitors can expect when they click, and a clear sense of the information on the landing page. Which link best conveys what the visitor will find after the click?

  • Find out which after-school program is best for your child.
  • Find out which after-school program is best for your child.
  • Find out which after-school program is best for your child.

The first link implies the landing page lists programs. The second tells you the landing page probably lists after-school programs. The third tells you the landing page contains content that will help you decide which after-school program is best for your child.

Research has shown that the best links are between 7 and 12 words, but I prefer four to seven words for SEO (define) purposes.

While textual CTAs are all about the copy and the words, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider the copy on your buttons. Effective button copy and effective textual link copy have the same characteristics. So don’t forget to apply these CTA copy tips to your button copy as well.

Do You Have an Eye for Good Call to Actions?

Let’s see how you fare. Take a look at this page on These guys aren’t clients of ours, but we can safely deduce that the two primary CTAs are “buy now” and “download.” How well are these guys doing with their CTAs? What would you do differently? What would you like to test? Would you lay out the page differently? If so, how?

Send me your thoughts, then get to work on your own call to actions.

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