What is a CTA (Call to Action) in Marketing? Writing Effective CTAs

A call-to-action (CTA) is a critical component of marketing content. It incites people to do something – to take action. What do you want them to do?
Article Outline
A hand clicks on a mouse at a computer desk to illustrate the idea of CTAs in marketing
What is a CTA in marketing? It’s how we get our customers to click! Photo by Carrie Allen  on Unsplash

Marketers know the importance of compelling calls to action (CTAs). Moving the audience to click through and follow the next step in a journey or campaign is what our jobs are all about. But what exactly makes a CTA effective? How do you make the most of your opportunity to influence potential buyers? And how do you write motivating CTA copy each and every time? These are the questions we’ll explore in this review of marketing fundamentals.

What is a call to action in digital marketing?

CTA stands for call to action. In digital marketing, it’s the piece of your content that gives the audience something to do next, after reading your perfectly constructed marketing email, blog, web page, etc. The CTA can be a link, or a button, or a phone number to dial.

Often, the CTA comes at the end of your marketing content, as the culmination of your efforts to persuade and convert. But CTAs can also come midway through the content (we call these in-line CTAs), or even at the very beginning. It all depends on your marketing strategy, and what you want your audience journey to look like.

How do you choose your CTA?

Choosing a CTA may seem simple, but it can be fairly complex. Start with this simple question:

What do you want people to do after reading your marketing content?

Sometimes that answer will be obvious. “We’re trying to drive traffic to our pricing page” or “We want prospects to download our new ebook.”

For larger, more complex marketing campaigns, your CTA might not be as obvious. Say your campaign includes multiple deliverables and a complicated audience journey. For each deliverable, you’ll likely have a different CTA to drive the desired action for that stage in the journey. Early on, the CTA might be focused on moving the buyer to the next piece of content; CTAs like “Read more” or “Go further” might serve the purpose. Later, you can move toward CTAs that more explicitly drive conversion; think, “Sign up” or “Download demo.”

CTA Writing: How to Craft Effective CTAs in Marketing

Once you figure out what you want people to do, then you can get clever with your wording. Just remember: in some channels you must pick between certain CTAs pre-selected by the channel operator. For example, social media channels such as LinkedIn have a list of approved CTAs to choose from. But, if you’re able to be creative with your CTAs, it’s worth experimenting with different approaches.

Try clever or funny twists on CTAs. Sure “Learn more” works fine, but how about Become an expert” or “Dive in”? Better yet, if you’re working on a themed campaign, try using themed language to spice up the CTA. Working on a Valentine’s Day campaign? How about “Fall in love with [product]”?

While clever CTAs that hook your readers are worth trying, don’t lose sight of the fundamentals. It’s all in the acronym: Calls to action should … inspire action! If your audience can’t tell what they’re clicking on, your CTA isn’t functioning as intended.

“Make the call to action clear and easy to respond to. Make certain you provide a clear response mechanism for those people who want to go further. Make it easy to sign up or express interest to buy something.”

-David Meerman Scott in The New Rules of Marketing & PR

 How many words in a CTA?

Most CTAs are short and sweet – roughly two to seven words.

But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. You may have character or word count limitations based on where your CTA will go. Using one word (such as “Go”) for your CTA may work for you. Or, you may need to write an entire sentence, such as “Buy this new product now and delight your life.” Test and see what lands with your audience.

Design and CTA: how they work together

Once you’ve crafted the clever words, it’s time to put it into design. To elicit the most clicks – and action – your goal is to get the CTA to stand out on the page so the people see it and take action.

You may put the keyword in a different color or font or treatment. Put it in a circle or other “button.” You may go understated and cool, like Apple. You may even employ flashing buttons or red text (more on that in a moment.)

Consider, too, the placement of the CTA on a banner. For example, is it better at the bottom of the page, or in the middle?

As with anything, test, test, test. Try a few things and see what works for your audience.

Call to Action Writing: Examples from Our Team

A/B testing CTAs in your digital marketing is a great way to see what works best for your audience. In Act-On’s email marketing, we’ll often test a more straightforward CTA against something a little more creative, to see how each option performs. Interestingly, our more creative options tend to perform better! This could be because our audience is made up of marketers who are used to seeing the same old CTAs and are intrigued by something they haven’t come across before.

Example of a cta in marketing, "Success Starts Here" in a button underneath promotional copy.
Writing CTAs in marketing can be challenging due to the small amount of space available. Try a CTA that gets their imagination going.

This version of the CTA for a recent email marketing blog performed better than the alternative by about 10x. CTAs that point to results and inspire the imagination can often pay off in your marketing efforts.

Example of a cta in marketing, "Succeed at Email" in a button underneath promotional copy.
When you’re writing CTAs in marketing, it’s best to A/B test so you can narrow in on what your audience prefers.

This version of the CTA, “Succeed at Email,” didn’t perform nearly as well as our other option. It’s a little more straightforward, but it all comes down to audience. Our list of marketing professionals might have found this option a bit too straightforward to pique their curiosity.

Now, let’s look at another example. For this email, we explored a space travel theme using a recent case study about email deliverability.

Example of a cta in marketing, "out of this world deliverability" in a button underneath promotional copy.
Spice up your marketing CTAs with language that plays into your campaign theme, even if it’s less informative.

This first version of the CTA, “Out of This World Deliverability,” performed (again) about 10x better than the more straightforward version, below. It’s interesting to note that, theme or not, the first version promises a certain result, whereas the second version (below) promises an example, but doesn’t suggest what kind of results the example illustrates.

Example of a cta in marketing, "Deliverability in Action" in a button underneath promotional copy.
Interestingly, this digital marketing CTA performed worse than the other option, despite following the best practice of being more straightforward and informative.

What's New?