Think of the elusive call to action as a lead-generation gateway. Creating a great call to action can be tricky, however. Clearly identifying what you offer and how you want to convey that offer requires thoughtful consideration and good timing.

Here are 12 tips for optimizing your calls to action to ensure they compel potential customers to act.

1. Create concise subject lines

Online readers are expert skimmers, so create short, effective email subject lines that contain clear benefit, and be sure to instantly answer the question, "What's in it for me?" Make the message personal, and speak in "human," not jargon.

The three most popular types of subject lines that get subscribers reading emails are those featuring discount offers, free product offers, and familiar brand names.

According to a study by Experian Marketing Services (PDF), the use of the words "you" and "your" in subject lines has increased 3.7% since 2008, appearing in 20.9% of email subject lines. The use of the word "free" has decreased, showing up in only 12.4% of email subject lines, compared with 16.9% in 2008.

2. Test the subject line

Experiment. Test which subject lines get click-throughs. Try new things. Are you subscribed to a company email list? What gets you clicking? Again, refer to your analytics to see what content is inspiring your subscribers.

3. Consider using buttons

Sometimes, you may want to use a button as part of your call to action. Choosing the right button is critical to getting visitors to click. The goal is to create a subtle, easy-to-use image. Experiment with button shapes. Contrast the colors of buttons to make them pop, and use clear and bold text. And keep it simple! The simplest calls to action are almost always the most successful.

Notice the design of Facebook and Twitter buttons. Each has only two colors and one letter. Overly complex buttons can be confusing and misleading. You can never go wrong if you keep your calls to action clean, simple, and to the point.

4. Get the language right

Your calls to action should tell readers exactly what's in it for them. Use confident language. Be bold and assertive, but don't stray from your brand's style and tone.

5. Make it urgent

Creating a sense of urgency will motivate the reader to click through to the page. Use words such as "today" and "now." Use wording that provides incentive to the reader to click right then and there. Urgent, action-oriented words are more successful than words such as "free" in inspiring your subscribers to take action.

6. Remove distractions

Keep your message clear. Do not litter your email with busy distracting designs, too many colors, or multiple fonts. Remember—keep the message in your calls to action simple and to the point.

7. Use numbers when possible

When people search online, they are looking for specifics. Numbers convey at least the impression of a clear, specific message. Therefore, find ways to incorporate statistics and other numbers to share based on the overall goal of your call to action. If your goal is to promote an event, for example, use numbers to show the specifics (e.g., dates, prices, attendees, specials).

8. Make it newsworthy

Research news pertaining to your industry, sign up for RSS feeds, and visit Google Alerts for daily ideas on spinning news into a creative call to action.

9. Ask questions

Asking a question is a great attention-grabbing tactic to motivate reader follow-through. Make questions compelling, personal, and irresistible.

10. Plan its design

Good tactics go into creating good calls to action. Getting the position of the call to action right largely depends on the design layout. Place your calls to action high up and centered on the page—right in the reader's main area of interest.

Another way to make your call to action really pop is to leave a significant amount of white space around it. On the other hand, using an alternative and interesting color palette would also effectively draw attention to your call to action. Make your calls to action big. The bigger... the more noticeable.

Using all those various ideas correctly will effectively lead the reader to your call to action.

11. Focus on creating good content

Although great design is key to a successful call to action, the words you use and the way you use them are the most important. Start the call to action with a verb, followed by a subject, such as "Ask an expert." Be bold and declarative.

Offer the reader something valuable. Use incentives such as coupons and special offers to keep the subscriber reading. Tease your "special offer" at the beginning of the email—and close with a hard sell.

Feature images of your product, or, better yet, use video to send a message. A study by GetResponse (PDF) found that more than "80% of respondents [planned] to use video emails in 2010, while in 2009 only 15.7% of responders used video in their email campaigns."

Use alliteration, metaphor, and rhyme. Target your audience with dynamic content, and produce the dynamic content via list segmentation and the use of autoresponders. Find popular phrases and words related to your product or service, and use them in your copy to boost search engine optimization.

12. Choose an email service provider that offers simple email optimization features

For example, drag-and-drop email editors simplify content creation and allow you to send emails much faster and more effectively. Other software features that enhance your calls to action are flexible and intuitive navigation; the ability to move, copy, or delete content blocks; and easy graphic-editing tools (so you don't need to know HTML or CSS coding).

Plus, email personalization, social media integration, dynamic content, and RSS content capabilities will automate your campaigns, and make them more interactive.

(Photo courtesy of Bigstock: Little Strong Boy)

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12 Ways to Strengthen Your Call to Action

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Leigh Dow draws on her 15 years of Fortune 100 experience in e-commerce, CRM, and digital marketing to craft digital strategies for international company Mailigen, a leading Web-based email marketing platform for businesses and organizations of any size in the US, Asian markets, and now the CIS and European markets.