By Mark Sherbin published September 14, 2012

Are Your Calls to Action Missing These Proven Formulas?

buy now call to action, CMIGreat content converts. You’re a compelling writer. You share useful information. You get all kinds of traffic through your content marketing channels.

So why aren’t you converting more of those leads?

Creating valuable content takes a lot of time, effort, and brainpower. But your content must do more than simply inform. It must clarify the next step.

A call to action (CTA) is the critical part of your content marketing. It’s the trigger that leads the visitor to engage in a meaningful next step with your organization — whether that step is engaging the audience in the comments, finding more content, or buying your product or service.

Most of us understand that CTAs are essential for content marketing. But the best way to frame our calls to action isn’t always clear. To complicate matters (in a good way), the rise of behavioral targeting offers new, more effective ways to engage prospects using dynamic calls to action.

Weaving a call to action into your content marketing follows a different (although related) formula than your typical website content. What are the different types of CTAs content marketers can use?

The three tiers of CTAs

To simplify how we approach the call to action, it makes sense to categorize the different types according to what they accomplish. Brafton, a content marketing agency out of Boston, separates CTAs into three distinct tiers, with an emphasis on making the spectrum of calls to action on any given page relevant to the content itself. They use the approach for consulting clients, as well as on their own website.

Tier 1: Soliciting the sale

According to Katherine Griwert, head of marketing content & communications for Brafton, “The first tier for CTAs is the commercially focused ‘Buy Now’ command, which should be responsive to what the intended reader is likely interested in buying. This is the link that takes your visitor from the content to the next step in forming a business relationship or making the sale.”

American Express OPEN Forum offers a strong look at how user-generated content can power enterprise content marketing. Accompanying the typical top navigation to sift through content is a clear call to action: “Apply for a Card.”

Tier 2: Capturing the lead

The second tier for CTAs catches visitors while they’re considering your company, product, or service. Many of us use these commands to collect email addresses through newsletter sign-up, white paper download forms, and other lead-gen tactics. For instance, a blog post on a topic your brand has covered in depth in a white paper presents the perfect opportunity to invite visitors to download the related long-form content.

Even a page focused on selling might be a good place for a related call to action. Problogger, for example, sells its book Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income through a microsite associated with the blog itself. To the right of the page, Problogger asks visitors that aren’t ready to purchase the book to join the website’s email list in the meantime.

Tier 3: Nurturing the relationship

Third-tier CTAs may point to other onsite content or encourage the visitor to post a comment — anything that takes your prospect deeper into your brand and its expertise.

Some of the time, we place these calls to action in the content itself. For example, a hyperlink in a blog post to related information on your site is a good example of third-tier CTA. If a prospect navigates to a landing page to download an eBook, the site may point to a webinar covering similar content, in case the visitor prefers interactive content.

Each tier plays its role. Implementing them follows a four-step process.

A step-by-step guide to using calls to action in content marketing

Content marketers should always follow rigorous guidelines for implementing calls to action—whether they plan to weave hyperlinks into their content or develop buttons or banners.

According to Maggie Georgieva of HubSpot, misleading CTAs are a common mistake made by marketers and advertisers alike. “Not long ago, we spent some time looking through ads on the New York Times and studying what happens after the click,” she explains. “Too often, we found a huge gap between the promise of the ad and where it actually took us.”

In some cases, Maggie explained, the landing page that followed the ad was too cluttered. In others, the call to action promised a lighthearted destination. The landing page, on the other hand, asked her to spend money.

Avoid these kinds of mistakes by following a step-by-step process for creating your own CTAs.

Step 1: Write copy that gets specific, touts benefits, and uses keywords.

Actionable, specific language is the most important part of writing your call-to-action copy. “The internet is full of vague information,” Maggie says. “By using exact language with the audience, they’re more willing to invest the time.” For example, a specific CTA might mention the number of pages in an eBook or the length of a webinar.

CTAs also resonate better when they highlight the benefit to the audience. If you’re encouraging a demo or conversation with the sales team, tell audience members what they get out of it. For a soft sell like a newsletter sign-up, lead with “Stay Up to Date on Industry News” or another benefit-oriented line. If you sell productivity software, your ‘Buy Now’ command may look something like “Click to Save 5 Hours a Week.”

Productivity software developer Evernote features a benefit-led call to action on its blog. In the upper right corner, the CTA explains that members can “Get the story behind Evernote’s technology” by clicking on the badge.

Step 2: Design contrasting buttons and shallow navigation.

CTA buttons and banners should stand out through contrasting colors — but which colors you use may be less important than you think.

“Someone once told me, ‘I’ve never not clicked a call to action because it was deep purple instead of bright blue,’” Katherine Griwert of Brafton explains. “Content marketers should consider other design priorities, like using brand-appropriate colors or creating a recognizable custom icon to pair with your CTAs.”

Created by L’Oreal, Makeup.com exemplifies an eye-catching color contrast. The site itself is full of vibrant colors that work well for a makeup website. But in the lower corner of the fold, you find a CTA pointing to Giorgio Armani foundation — a product from one of L’Oreal’s makeup brands. The black box contrasts well against the whites and pastels of other content.

User-friendliness is also a factor. If a visitor clicks on a CTA, shallow navigation and a simple path from start to finish increase the likelihood that the visitor will complete the desired action. In the Makeup.com example, clicking the advertisement leads you immediately to a related product page, simplifying the path to the purchase.

Make sure your call to action has room to breathe. A CTA jammed between layers of other content won’t do you any favors. Make it pop, ensuring visitors know exactly how to take action.

Step 3: Weigh your CTAs and prioritize them.

Assuming your ‘Buy Now’ command is your most important isn’t always correct. Your highest priority CTA should be paired with the content, depending on where your prospect is in the sales process.

For example, if your visitor reads an introductory blog post, chances are they are unfamiliar with your brand and not quite ready to buy. The CTA should point them towards more advanced content — instead of the contact page or shopping cart.

Organize business goals and identify success metrics. Use quarterly goals to prioritize CTAs for pages that lack simple ways to identify the audience (like your home page or “about” section). The placement of your CTAs depends on how you prioritize them.

Step 4: Place the most important CTAs in the upper right hand corner, above the fold.

According to Katherine, industry benchmarks say the upper right corner of the screen is where CTAs perform more effectively. “The majority of your calls to action should fit above the fold. Placement on the page should reflect the hierarchy of your business goals.”

Copyblogger, for instance, prominently features a lead-gen CTA in the top right corner of its blog, asking readers to sign up for its email newsletter.

While it’s generally best to follow these concepts, testing audience responsiveness regularly is still the best way to figure out what works and what doesn’t.” Other great places to insert CTAs include:

  • At the end of the article
  • Within the content itself, as long as it doesn’t interrupt the flow
  • In a right-hand sidebar
  • On a top banner

How does your organization develop CTAs? Share your strategies with us in the comments.

Want more content marketing inspiration? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.

Image via Shutterstock.com

Author: Mark Sherbin

Mark Sherbin is a freelance writer specializing in technology and content marketing. He shares occasionally insightful information at Copywriting Is Dead, where he promotes authentic communication between organizations and their audiences. Contact him at msherbin@gmail.com.

Other posts by Mark Sherbin

  • http://twitter.com/mgieva Magdalena Georgieva

    Thanks for the great piece, Mark! Love the idea of separating CTAs based on different Lifecycle Stages.

    We actually also put together an ebook of successful calls-to-action that readers might find helpful: 101 Examples of Effective Calls-to-Action available here: http://www.hubspot.com/examples-of-effective-calls-to-action/

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Thanks for sharing, Maggie. And thanks for helping out with the article!

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I completely agree with Step 4. Not only do call to actions perform better when they are located in the top right corner, but they make it an easy conversion. Putting a call to action at the bottom of the web page means your visitors need to scroll down then enter their information. Having in the top right corner makes it easy to find and use. With call to actions, you want to make sure there are as few steps as possible to encourage conversion.

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Agreed, Nick. Putting the onus on the reader is never a good idea. Making the process as simple as possible is the way to go.

  • http://www.writespark.com Janice King

    Good points in this article. But what do you think about sites that use pop-up windows as a CTA, especially for things like email newsletter sign-ups? Too many sites seem to display these pop-ups even before I’ve had a chance to look at the page, not only an annoyance but, it would seem, something that would also turn away visitors who might sign up if the mechanism wasn’t so in-their-face.

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      If you go the route of the pop-up, it shouldn’t appear until a certain amount of time has passed. It could draw an idle visitor back into your content.

      Some marketers like pop-ups because they’re eye-catching and interactive. I like the aggressive strategy here, but when a newsletter sign-up pops up before the visitor has a chance to see the content, it’s like trying to sell a car without giving the buyer a test drive.

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    • miglena

      I also don’t like these pop-ups. I close them immediately and if they come with the opening I close the site immediately. It irritates me when they poke my eyes with subscriptions. I don’t know if there is a research about the effectiveness of this kind of CTA, but certainly it won’t have place on our $earch site. May be I’m different kind of customer but never follow the aggressive strategies like this.

  • NeverMissGift

    Great article. I placed my CTA at the end of the page BUT the content is targeted to my people within my network who will likely read the entire email. If it were to an unknown audience or an audience with minimal awareness of my solution, I would definitely place the CTA in the upper right hand and / or try to incorporate it throughout the article. I chose not to put it in the upper right hand corner because that seemed too impersonal / business – oriented for my purposes.

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      You’re right, Cristina — it depends on the audience and the purpose of your website. Of course, testing is an important part of making sure you’ve made the right choice.