How to Create a Catchy and Effective Call to Action: 9 Best Practices

A woman looking at her phone, in front of a clothing store.

It’s probably the most important phrase you’ll compose when crafting blogs, web pages, emails, ads, and other content for your clients. When well written and designed – and positioned in the right place – it can drive clicks, product views, phone calls, and even immediate purchases of your client’s products and services.

“It” is the call to action (CTA), of course. And it’s a required element of virtually every content-writing project you’ll do. 

But a CTA is as good as useless unless it’s compelling and clearly directs the user to take, well, action. So how do you do that?

What does a CTA look like?

A CTA tells your audience to do something. It’s intended to drive immediate action – to convince someone to act now, and not put off a purchase or download or whatever else you want them to do. Typically, it starts with an imperative verb, like “Click here,” “Watch now,” or “Buy today.”Although the CTA words are certainly important, presentation of the CTA is also critical. The CTA must be designed to stand out – in larger type than the rest of the text, perhaps, or a different, more vibrant color. Some CTAs even have sophisticated visual images, although the usual form is some sort of button with the CTA text imposed on it.

What makes a CTA effective? 9 best practices

To make your CTAs as effective as possible, here are nine best practices that will lead more people to take the actions your client wants, a larger number of conversions to actual sales, views, downloads, or leads, and, ultimately, increased revenues for your client’s business.

1. Make sure your CTA is easily visible

It should go without saying, but your audience should be able to quickly see your CTA, even at a glance. Don’t hide it in the running text of the email, landing page, or ebook. Make it stand on its own, and its message – instructions on what to do – crystal clear. 

This is especially important today, when so many people absorb content on their mobile devices. Chances are good they’ll just give a fleeting glance to your carefully crafted prose, so having the CTA “pop” is essential.  

2. Use short, action-oriented commands

Keep the CTA short and urgent. You might be able to get away with four or even five words if you’re a talented wordsmith, but keeping your CTAs to two or three words is better. “Buy now” “Download here,” and “Read more” are some tried-and-true CTAs commonly used today. If you can come up with more creative CTAs that reflect the content that you’ve crafted around it, that’s even better. “Join us today!” “Start creating!” or even “Get your free gift now” would work. 

And then there’s the action element. Remember, you’re trying to get people to do things. Use the strongest, most active verbs you can think of. And use the imperative voice. Don’t be apologetic or tentative. Command your audience in as strong language as you see fit. “Do it now” and “Get moving today” might not work in polite conversation, but they could get you lots of clicks online. 

3. Experiment with different designs

Your CTA will almost certainly be a button of some kind. Something that your audience can click on, press, or swipe. The most common button types are rectangles. But it doesn’t mean you can’t play with the design. Use different shapes or edges on your CTA buttons. Make them bigger (but not too big – that will backfire by making your CTAs look cheesy) and use different colors. 

You can even use animation if you do it tastefully – have the button wiggle or shake or otherwise call attention to itself through movement – or perhaps have it occasionally change color.

Also make plentiful use of white space. Surround your CTA button with lots of it so it stands out. 

Remember, many people will be viewing your content on their mobile devices. So positioning the CTA is important. Ideally, a CTA will be prominently placed high on the page, in the middle of the screen. However, depending on the content you’ve created, you may want to place it at the end of the text as well (see best practice #6).

4. Try personalizing your CTAs or switch to first-person point of view

You’ve probably been using a second person point of view (“Get your free white paper”) when writing your content and composing CTAs. But changing the button text from second person to first person (“Get my free white paper”) achieved a 90% increase in clicks, according to experiments by Unbounce.

Also, personalizing your CTAs will make them more effective. “John, get your free ebook!” will drive more actions than “Get your ebook,” according to Unbounce.

5. Create a sense of urgency with time-oriented or scarcity wording

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is the mantra for our society. Driven by this impulse, audiences will respond to language that indicates time is of the essence. Use time-oriented words like “now” or “today.”

You can also push your audience’s competitive buttons: “Be first to know.” Indicating that it’s a limited time offer, or that quantities are restricted is another well-tested tactic. “Offer ends tomorrow” or “Reserve your space” work well for this. 

6. Create a double (or even triple) whammy

You should definitely consider having more than one CTA on your page, email, ebook, or whatever content you’re creating. Positioning a CTA front and center is paramount, of course, but placing another one at the end of your text or graphic element is also important. The first is for the people (and the mobile users) who just give your piece a quick glance. The other is for the ones who peruse through until the end. You might even consider having one in the middle, for people who “get” what you are saying quickly and want to respond ASAP. 

It’s important to use design to do this tastefully, however. You don’t want your collateral to look like a supermarket flier. 

7. Lead with audience benefits 

Rather than using your CTA to promote your product or service, you might consider how your offer gives your audience an advantage of some sort. “Try us for free,” “Save with 75% off,” or “Sign up – no credit card required” all fit into this category.

8. Don’t confuse your audience by giving them choices

We think we like choices, but when confronted with too many we can become paralyzed and find it difficult to make decisions. 

With CTAs, you might think it helps your audience to choose signup options, such as through email, Facebook, or Google, but that can backfire. Likewise, asking audiences to select one of several versions of an offer can do the same. So keep it simple. If you have multiple CTA buttons, make sure they make consistent recommendations for action. 

9. Test, test, and test again

Do lots of A/B testing. Do it continuously. Test the text of your CTA. Test the size and placement of the button. Test the colors. Test everything. That’s the only way to determine what works best for your particular offering. And you’ll find that small changes can make a big difference. People are very particular about what they respond to, and it’s your job to find out what resonates with your specific audience.

If you’ve never done A/B testing, it’s very easy. You simply split your audience into two and show them alternate versions of your CTA. You might be surprised at the differences in the number of conversions between two slightly different CTAs! 

Ready to get started?

Remember, you’re competing with lots of other content – both online and offline – for customers’ attention. Position your CTA correctly so it will be the first and last thing users see when they click on your material, and make sure it’s well designed and written to urge them to act immediately. If you’ve done your job, and optimized your CTAs with continuous A/B testing, your client should be delighted with the number of clicks, downloads, or sales they have driven.

ABOUT Alice LaPlante

Alice LaPlante was a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and taught writing at Stanford for more than 20 years. She is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of four novels, and wrote The Making of a Story, the best-selling textbook on writing published by W.W. Norton. Alice also is also a sought-after content writer, strategist, and story consultant for leading technology firms.