So You Think You Know Marketing? ACTION!

So you’ve gotten your customer’s attention. What’s next?

Now you need to push toward a clear Call to Action.

What’s a Call to Action?

Imagine that you finally build up the courage to ask your boss for a raise. You set up a meeting, show up on time, and give a brilliantly designed presentation demonstrating your professional accomplishments over the past several years. You share the goals you’ve set for yourself and how you’ve achieved them. You explain how you’ve added value to the company…

At this point, your boss checks his watch, thanks you for all your hard work, and excuses himself to attend another meeting.

You delivered a fantastic campaign, but you never even had the chance to ask for the raise. What a waste of time!

Are your marketing campaigns just as ineffective? It all depends on whether you’ve created a strong Call to Action (CTA). A CTA is basically a visual cue in your advertisement that shows the viewer what you want them to do.

In this ad, the Call to Action is the SHOP KIDS’ SALE button, front and center.

Brand Marketing vs. Direct Response Marketing

First, one caveat. Not all marketing require a CTA. For example, brand marketing is designed to create loyal customers who believe in your company or cause – not to direct your customer towards taking a specific action.

Brand marketing could include eye-catching billboards, catchy jingles, and ads that link your brand with a strong concept. The purpose of brand marketing is not to galvanize the consumer to take any specific action; it’s just to reinforce your brand.

Here are two classic brand marketing examples:

Direct response marketing, on the other hand, is designed to elicit a specific, immediate, and concrete response. For example, when you get a nonprofit solicitation in the mail, it is designed with extreme care to push you inexorably toward a specific action: making that generous donation.

See the “two options” on the mailing below? That’s the Call To Action, in action.

And it’s not only donation requests that need a CTA. Successful businesses use a strong CTA in their mailings, encouraging their customers to CALL, SUBSCRIBE, or FIND OUT MORE! Or, as the mailing below shows, SEND FOR YOUR PREVIEW ISSUE TODAY.

Digital Marketing

As the world has moved online, CTAs have become a hallmark of online marketers, although the concept of CTA definitely predates them. Much of digital marketing is actually a spin-off of direct-response marketing, since they’re trying to get you to do something specific (e.g., click, download, sign up, buy).

In digital marketing, as in all direct marketing, a CTA tells your customers what the next step should be – what action they can take now that you have their attention.

Sounds obvious, right? But a major concept in direct response marketing is that you can’t be too subtle. You’re marketing for a reason – and that reason is to generate a certain action from the customer.

Sometimes the action really is obvious. But often it’s not. Whether the main part of your marketing campaign includes hard-hitting copy, weepy testimonials, heartstopping videos, or educational information, your end goal is to overtly push your customer towards your easy-to-find, specific Call To Action.

Depending on your business, your CTA might offer a free trial, additional information, a newsletter subscription. Here are some ideas of a strong CTA:

  • Donate!
  • Click here to volunteer
  • Buy now!
  • Add to cart
  • Download
  • Sign up
  • Attend our parlor meeting
  • Visit our website for more information
  • Visit our school today!
  • Sign up for our monthly newsletter
  • Download your free wallpaper
  • Schedule an appointment
  • Get a free estimate
  • Start your trial now!

…and yet other CTAs might be specific to your business, like the “Create My Graphic Now” button in this ad:

Warning: Potential CTA Fails Ahead

When attempting to add a strong CTA to your ads, stay away from these basic mistakes:

  • Confusing direct-response and brand marketing. You probably know some great taglines, like Frosted Flakes’ “They’re greeeeeeeat!” or Staples’ “That was easy.” But if the goal of your ad is to motivate your customers to take action, you’ll need to make it easy for them to do so.
  • Relying on product descriptions. A jumble of products without an easy-to-see CTA is a waste. Products are for sale, yes, but make sure to add BROWSE or SHOP or GET IT NOW! – whatever will move your audience.
  • Burying the CTA. The CTA is the most important part of your ad, so you need to ensure that it stands out. Use contrast color, whitespace, arrows, or other graphic elements to make it visually prominent.
  • Overkill. Throwing a bunch of conflicting buttons and options into your ad is a recipe for disaster. In the ad below, the sheer number of options is visually overwhelming, leaving potential CTA options buried underneath the rest.

In short, although the medium of direct-response marketing has changed, the rules have not. Your customer — whether it’s an individual or a business — needs to be told what to do, and clearly. Don’t be afraid to say “buy.” Don’t be ashamed to say “donate.” That’s why you’re reaching out. Don’t be coy. Don’t be cute. Be clear — and use a Call To Action.


This article is part of the series, So You Think You Know Marketing? These article shed new light on marketing fundamentals, with examples and tips to help you apply these concepts to your own business. See all the articles in the series here.