CTAs and how to optimize

Most content creators will tell you that a good CTA can make all the difference in how well your content can perform with certain audiences.  It’s also no secret that not all CTAs are created equal.  Audiences don’t necessarily want to feel coerced into action — rather most of the time, you can ultimately achieve more by making your CTAs less coercing, and more inviting.

If you don’t believe that a well optimized CTA matters, check out this life-saving example from the UK — where the UK government experimented with how to word a call to get people to donate their organs.  The more inviting option yielded a much higher percentage of people taking action, which undoubtedly resulted in lives being saved. Organ donation isn’t marketing, of course, but if phrasing can have an affect on people donating their organs it’s bound to cause an effect in people taking action on your ads and on your site.

But even the best performing CTAs are ignored or rejected by many if not most visitors.   Those visitors might not be ready to act, and the publisher can’t assume they’ll return to the website once they are ready to act.  They may head elsewhere.

Traditional CTAs, focused on urging the reader to do something specific, are not the only path to forming a relationship with audiences, nor are they necessarily the most appropriate path.  Marketers’ emphasis on action can sometimes presume a desire for commitment by readers that really isn’t present. When readers click, they are often not taking action as much as they are “poking” at the content, and seeing what happens.  They explore topics incrementally.  Their actions are tentative as long as they are still deliberating.

Marketers should focus just as much attention on how their audiences will likely react to a CTA as they should on what the CTA will be.

CTAs are most often created to support transactional content that discusses why a certain choice is a good one.  Put more bluntly, usually in this content all the information needed to make a decision is right there.  The only unknown is whether the reader is sufficiently persuaded to act — which could be a better place to focus your CTAs

But much content is geared to building interest, instead of supplying cold hard facts or making bold assertions.  Such content is deliberative rather than transactional: it helps audiences think through a range of issues they need to consider before they are ready to decide.  When perusing deliberative content, readers often encounter CTAs that ask them to make a decision based on incomplete information.  What kind of CTA is appropriate to present when audiences aren’t ready to take action?

Simply put, a CTA that isn’t aligned with the visitor’s readiness will always be a  failure.  No matter how visible and clear the CTA, or how compelling the benefit, if the reader doesn’t feel ready to act, the call will be ignored.  No amount of behavioral economics theory will cause the viewer to close the gap between figuring out their level of interest, and being ready to take action.



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