Calls to Action: Compelling or Inviting?

Many publishers are obsessed with developing the perfect call-to-action (CTA).   That obsession can end up being a turn off for some audiences.  Audiences don’t necessarily want to feel compelled to act, or feel rushed into making a decision.  In certain circumstances, publishers can ultimately achieve more by making their CTAs less compelling, and more inviting.

There’s little argument that CTAs matter.  A well optimized CTA can have real world consequences.  The UK government experimented with how to word a call to get people to donate their organs.  The best performing option yielded a significant increase over the worst option, and may be indirectly responsible for saving more lives.

But even the best performing CTAs are ignored or rejected by many if not most visitors.   Those visitors might not be ready to act, and the publisher can’t assume they’ll return to the website once they are ready to act.  They may head elsewhere.

Traditional CTAs, focused on urging the reader to do something specific, are not the only path to forming a relationship with audiences, nor are they necessarily the most appropriate path.  Publishers’ emphasis on action can sometimes presume a desire for commitment by readers that really isn’t present. When readers click, they are often not taking action as much as they are “poking” at the content, and seeing what happens.  They explore topics incrementally.  Their actions are tentative as long as they are still deliberating.

Before plotting the ways CTA buttons can wield power over readers to get them to comply with our wishes, content designers should consider how content users evaluate these buttons.

CTAs are most often crafted to support transactional content that discusses why a certain choice is a good one.  With transactional content, all the information needed to make a decision is right there.  The only unknown is whether the reader is sufficiently persuaded to act.

But much content is geared to building interest, instead of supplying cold hard facts or making bold assertions.  Such content is deliberative rather than transactional: it helps audiences think through a range of issues they need to consider before they are ready to make a decision.  When perusing deliberative content, readers often encounter CTAs that ask them to make a decision based on incomplete information.  What kind of CTA is appropriate to present when audiences aren’t ready to take action?

In many cases publishers serve up pushy CTAs while users of content are still trying to understand and evaluate a topic.  They aren’t yet sure how interested they are. A CTA is seen as pushy when the next step proposed is not aligned with the next step the user would be likely to take.   CTAs shouldn’t jump ahead of where the audience is likely to be after reading the content.  CTAs need to match the intention of the audience.

Getting CTA Alignment Through the Audience Perspective

The conventional advice about CTAs is to not offer choices to online visitors.  They will only get confused, distracted, or riven with doubt, according to this advice.  They won’t take action, and the outcome will be failure.

But a CTA that isn’t aligned with the visitor’s readiness is also a failure.  No matter how visible and clear the CTA, or how compelling the benefit, if the reader doesn’t feel ready to act, the call will be ignored.  No amount of  behavioral economics theory will nudge the viewer of the content across the chasm between figuring out their level of interest, and being ready to take action.

Choice Architecture in CTAs

Most CTAs shy away from offering readers any choices, but some exceptions exist.  The most common case is when a CTA for buying a service offers more than one package at different price points.  There may be a starter plan, a value plan (positioned in the center of the price spectrum and shown larger), and a deluxe plan.

Brands often offer multiple CTAs when the content system does not have sufficient information to segment the visitor accurately.   A website may not be able to assume everyone has the same reason for visiting and that everyone is seeking to do the same thing.  Uber’s homepage, for example, might include two calls-to-action: one seeking new drivers, and the other inviting new customers to join.  A common segmentation question is whether someone is an existing customer, or a prospective one.  Visitors are given a choice: to sign up for a service (new customers), or to sign in (existing customers).

The most common CTA that truly cedes decisions to visitors is used in product explorations.  Many landing pages give visitors the option of a trial or a tour.  They can choose to make a deeper commitment immediately, or they can explore the product more superficially with less effort.

CTA Variables: Payoffs and Obligations

Most CTA research focuses on wording changes.  For example, a marketer might test “Get your free evaluation” and compare it to “Download my no-cost evaluation.”    The wording is different, but the net outcome for the user is identical.  They are testing variant presentations of the same CTA, instead of offering alternative actions reflecting genuinely different choices.

Rather than focus entirely on wording, CTAs can be more dynamic and powerful when the outcome for the user is variable. Users then have more of a stake in what they are deciding.

Readers consider two aspects in a CTA: What do they get, and what kind of commitment are they making?  In both cases, CTAs are frequently vague on these points — often intentionally.  Here, the reality of CTAs collide with the lip-service many marketers pay to the concept of “value exchange” — that customers get something valuable in return for providing their personal details.  Customers need to trust that the publisher will give them something worthwhile in return for their effort.

The Reader’s Perspective on CTAs

Audiences encountering CTAs consider how the CTA meets their needs now, and in the future.  Past experiences with prior CTA interactions can influence these decisions, sometimes subconsciously.  A extended loop of micro-interactions with content shapes how valuable audiences believe the exchange with a brand will be.

Audiences may ask themselves:

  • What do they get now, and how valuable will it be?
  • What might they get in the future, and will it be valuable or not?
  • What personal details do they need to supply to get this information?
  • If they change their mind, how easily can they change the arrangement?

At the heart of the reader’s decision is an assessment of how much control they have in the process.  By clicking that button, what kind of commitment are they signing up for?

Commitments can be:

  • One time transaction [exchanging personal data for a defined information product]
  • Temporary commitments can be reversed [usage-based trial]
  • Commitments for a predefined time period [time-based trial]
  • Indefinite commitments with periodic windows inviting adjustment [open ended advisory relationship].

The reader wants to know how much of the content they will be able to experience immediately, verses how long they will need to wait to experience the full value of content offered.  Savvy readers are aware that signing up can involve an escalation of interaction from a brand.  They will get more messages from the brand unrelated to their specific request, and these will involve pitches for other informational products, requests for more personal data, and attempts to sell the brand’s product directly with offers.

As they are second-guessing what they may be committing to, audiences may simultaneously be unsure what they really want.  When brands focus exclusively on trying to get readers to agree to a specific proposition, they can loose sight of whether that proposition truly reflects what an individual wants.   Let’s assume the individual is interested in getting further information related to content they’ve read online.  The brand has successfully built sufficient interest to encourage the individual to listen to more of what the brand has to say.  Yet the presence of interest does not mean that the brand can simply craft some kind of “get more info” CTA and satisfy the individual.  The individual may be thinking the the current content is good for now, but not exactly what they want moving forward.  If the brand truly wants to build interest, they need to accommodate the preferences of readers, not just pressure them to take action.  Audiences may want options relating to:

  • Scope of the content — electing for broader or narrower content, based on what they consider more and less valuable in what they are reading
  • Pacing of the content — electing for more or less frequent content, based on how urgent or important the topic is to them at the moment
  • The convenience of the content — choosing formats based on convenience of consuming (such as audio podcasts) or sharing with others (such as worksheets and templates that can be repurposed).

The invitation to choice

Providing options signals to the reader they are important, and not just a means to an end for the brand.  Consider the case of the online political news publication, Politico.  They offer a premium service called Politico Pro that costs many thousands of dollars a year to subscribe to.  One of the key features the premium service offers over the free one is that readers can specify specific topics to track and get alerts when news is published about these topics.  That customization is simple, but provides enough value that thousands of readers elect to buy the premium service.

Instead of trying to control user behavior, calls to action that invite choice can help uncover what people really want.  That can be a key benefit when trying to understand the motivations of readers who might be interested in the product or service of a brand.  By inviting readers to request more tailored information, the content supplier can be more targeted in what they highlight.

The invitation approach is an alternative to the next-action approach, where readers are exhorted to “convert” by signing up, or at least reading one-more-thing while they are on a website.

What kinds of invitations are possible?  Brands can invite readers to indicate their interests by asking how the brand can be of help.   “How can we help you?” is not common wording in CTAs.   CTAs are generally geared to acquiring prospects and customers, and accordingly have a decisional orientation.  An invitational orientation steps back and emphasizes the relating and confirming stages of interaction with the audience.

How CTAs differ in deliberative and transactional content
How CTAs differ in deliberative and transactional content

Many kinds of companies can help readers by offering content options.  Some typical scenarios where readers can be asked for their interests could include:

  • Let me know when new information is available about [choices presenting informational topics of potential interest].
  • Suggest solutions that let me [choices presenting outcomes of interest]
  • Show me current offers on [choices presenting packages of services]

Better Content, Better Knowledge of Customers

Publishers can move beyond the passive feedback of click-based analytics by giving readers an active role in specifying their interests.  Behavioral analytics rarely answer why users take actions, and user motivations must be inferred from behaviors driven by a mix of factors.  When offering users choices, publishers get active feedback on the appeal of their content, and understand the motivations of their readers much better.

Publishers can gauge the depth of interest by providing audiences with choices.  Some readers may want to expand the range of topics the content addresses.  Other readers may want more focused content.  Some will indicate a continuing interest in the content, provided there is genuinely fresh material to see.  Such indications provide tangible information for publishers about the readiness of readers to consider actions.

This approach can be particularly useful in contexts where the factors involved with making a decision are complex, and the lead time for consideration can be long.  B2B marketing is one example, as are high stakes consumer decisions such as where to attend university.

All successful CTAs rely on experimentation and testing.  Introducing choices into CTAs brings a richer layer of information with which to experiment.  The specific options that customers care about, and ultimately act upon, might not be obvious until different variations are implemented and tested.  Only some options will perform above expectations: the challenge is uncovering which options matter the most to both audiences and the business of the publisher.  Content about high interest options may become more extensive and frequent.  Content about options that are of interest only to select groups may be offered less frequently or extensively, while low interest content can be withdrawn.

Providing precise, relevant content depends on publishers knowing their audiences.  Publishers prepared to make such an effort will gain far richer insights into the customer journey beyond what is conveyed through more generic approaches to modeling how people make decisions.

— Michael Andrews