In marketing, a call to action (or CTA) is any message designed to prompt an immediate response or encourage an immediate sale.
According to Wingify, almost 30% of all A/B tests run by their customers are call-to-action button tests. But only one in seven of those call-to-action tests produces a statistically significant improvement. When it does, however, the average increase is 49%.
The potential is there, even though most people have no idea what to test. When they stumble upon a winning combination of text, size, color, font, and location, they see significant conversion increases.
It’s obvious that call to action buttons are important, so let’s learn how to design and test them the right way.
If you want to skip ahead:
Table of contents
Calls to action exist in the context of a page
When it comes to web pages, no element lives in vacuum. Each is surrounded by other elements of varying size, importance, and message. All play a role in the success or failure of that element.
It’s no different for calls to action. The rest of the page plays a huge role. This is what Peep has to say about it:
“Serious gains in conversions don’t come from psychological trickery but from analyzing what your customers really need, the language that resonates with them, and how they want to buy it.
It’s about relevancy and perceived value of the total offer.”
To create a strong call to action, learn about your customers and their needs. Offer relevant and valuable products in a language that resonates with them. Seems easy, no?
Well, no. Understanding your customer is the first part—and a critical one —but it’s also just the start.
First, let’s look at what to do with the info you have and how it affects the design and copy of CTA buttons.
How to design a call-to-action button
Look at the homepage of Spotify. Where should I click?
Or Misfit Wearables. Where am I suppose to click now?
In both cases, it’s clear where should I click. The high-contrast color of the call to action attracts attention. It stands out from the rest of the page and acts as a visual cue to answer the question, “Where should I click?”
It’s impossible to say which color converts the best. Similarly, there’s no “guaranteed best” font type or size for a call to action (or where it should be located on the page, something detailed later.)
While a streamlined design and high-contrast button may capture your attention, whether you click on that CTA depends on how the call to action works with other elements, especially copy.
Call to action copy: What to call your call to action
Should you say “Read more” or “Product information” in your product category view? Which is better: “Add to cart” or “buy now”?
Here are four rules for naming your call to action buttons and links.
1. Use trigger words
When people browse your site, they have a silent conversation in their mind. They’re asking themselves “where is X?” or “How do I do Y?” In most cases, people are looking for a specific wording.
Trigger words are the words and phrases that trigger a user to click. If the user is looking for “pricing,” and your link says “pricing,” they’re going to click on it. So, in that case, “pricing” would be the trigger word.
If people can’t find what they want (either the content or the link to it), you have a problem. Don’t be clever; don’t reinvent the wheel.
Remember, people spend most of their time on other websites and are used to common wordings like “pricing” or “login.” If you try to be original and use “See how cheap it is” or “entry” instead, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
So, first talk to your user base and try to understand which particular words they’re looking for.
2. Call it what it does
The web is filled with bad calls to action. The reason is that most people don’t think for themselves but just copy others (or just don’t know any better).
Here are some you will recognize:
- Submit. Nobody wants to submit. Perhaps they want to subscribe to a newsletter, send a message, or post a question—but definitely not “submit.” Always call your form CTAs by the specific action they perform. What happens after the users clicks? If they sign up for something, make that the call to action!
- Read more. About what? Make it specific—what’s behind the link.
- Next. What comes next? I don’t know! This causes click fear. Say what comes next.
When calling the user to action, instead of vague words, use brief but meaningful link text that explains what the link or button does.
There is one exception—”Click here.” I’ve seen many tests where “Click here” performs really well. A MarketingSherpa study found the same. Also note that this applies only to the call to action. You should not turn “Click here” into a link in the general body copy—always use contextual wording.
This email capture box has “Subscribe” as the call to action. I think everybody gets what happens after clicking the button. (But they should work on the value proposition of the form).
Also, avoid CTAs like “Click here to discover X” or “Learn more about how we got started.” Take out the “Click” or “Learn more” parts—they’re unnecessary. Use “Discover X” or “How we got started” instead.
Be succinct. Use terms people understand.
3. Don’t rush commitment
Most people are commitment-averse. The bigger the commitment, the less likely we are to go for it.
Volunteer at a homeless shelter for a day? Hmm.. well, I guess I could… Volunteer three days a week for a year? No, thanks [some excuse].
Following the same principle, don’t ask for a commitment when you can delay it. The best example is “Buy now” vs. “Add to cart.” “Buy now” seems awfully final; “Add to cart” feels risk-free and leaves the door open for a change of mind.
When you write your next call to action, evaluate the level of commitment you’re asking and see if you can lessen it.
4. Add benefits
If the call to action isn’t just another link but one on your landing page (or another important page), add some punch to it.
You should definitely have great sales copy before the CTA, but since people don’t read, communicate some value next to the call to action itself.
Loom’s upgrade pitch says (unsurprisingly) “Upgrade Now.” It’s clear and offers a few benefits of upgrading between the pricing and the CTA button:
Ganttic addresses customer anxiety by adding “No credit card required” above their call to action and including the word “Free” in the call to action itself:
In short, there is more to a great call to action than button color or copy. The surrounding text makes a huge difference. The story you tell on your website matters.
Here’s what former CXL editor Tommy Walker had to say about call to action copy:
“I [don’t] want to mislead you into thinking that changing the button from “Buy Now” to “Sign up Here” at the bottom of a sales page makes a lick of difference when everything leading up to that final call to action doesn’t build some kind of anticipation in the reader’s mind.
[…] the best calls to action aren‘t effective just because of your word choice on the button. No no, the best calls to action are the ones that promise your story only gets better after you sign up.”
Before you start testing any combination of words, however, you’ll increase your chances of success by developing a research-driven hypothesis.
How to create a hypothesis for your call to action
There are two main elements to all CTA buttons: design and copy. We’ve covered the role they play; shared examples of how to use them; and detailed the importance of knowing who your potential customers are.
Now it’s time to nail down your own call to action hypothesis.
Michael Aagaard has run button tests for years. After seeing test after test, he’s come up with two questions to help you write the text for your call to action button:
- What is my prospect’s motivation for clicking this button?
- What is my prospect going to get when they click this button?
Answers to these two questions are the basis for the CTA button copy and the surrounding text.
Take out the guesswork with feedback loops
You don’t need to be a magician to answer those questions for your website. Instead, use feedback loops to get the data you need.
Don’t forget to segment your customers first. Different segments have different needs. What works for one group might not work for another.
And Remember: There is no point in guessing what your customers think, so please just go and ask.
Case study: The impact of research on call to action design
A Scandinavian chain of workout facilities wanted to increase memberships. They set up a PPC campaign to encourage potential customers to sign up. That process required clicking a button with a call to action.
In the control, the call to action text read “Get your membership,” while a variation read, “Find your gym & get membership.” The basis for the test was consumer research: The location of the gym, they learned, was a critical factor in decision-making.
The results speak for themselves: The gym got 68% more conversions by writing a call to action that addressed users’ immediate concern of location.
The call to action copy was also clear and succinct—after clicking the button, users knew that they could browse potential locations and, if they found a good fit, sign up.
Read the full case study here.
Where to put your call to action
Where should you put your call to action? There is no single “best” location, just as there’s no single best color, font, or language for every call to action.
However, understanding how people consume content and view websites can help you identify the locations that may work best. You’ll only get an answer, of course, by running a test.
Gutenberg, F, Z, and other diagrams
In the world of web design, there are several layout patterns that take advantage of users’ reading/scanning habits. The more common ones include the Gutenberg diagram, F-pattern layout, and Z-pattern layout.
Each offers slightly different information on where to place your most important information—like calls to action included—on a web page. These frameworks are not perfect, and they’re often misunderstood. Here’s what you need to know.
The reading pattern depends on the page
Each of the three frameworks emphasizes how users read/scan pages, and not just any kind of page. These patterns were built for designs that are dominated by large blocks of text with little to no hierarchy.
Below is an example of how Z-pattern reading works on such a page:
When you start adding elements of varying weight, color, and visual design, you break that natural tendency. Users’ eyes may follow other elements.
Jakob Nielsen, the father of F-pattern reading, made such a concession when he first presented his findings:
“Eyetracking visualizations show that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.”
Note that Nielsen states that users read web pages in an F-shaped pattern. That initial interpretation has become an assumption about how users view any web page, even one without much text.
These are are the original eye tracking screenshots that he published along with his research—text-heavy pages:
Other patterns have the same potential limitations. Yes, they can help, but in the context of landing pages and calls to action, they may not be relevant, or at least are less relevant than many assume.
The key to choosing the right location for your call to action is about flow.
Set up a design flow for users to follow
There simply is no one way to view a website.
We’ve already written about page flow. It really comes down to using data to direct visitors’ eyes through the story you want to tell.
Let’s take a look at how people see different websites with a little help from a heatmap:
1. What happens when your call to action doesn’t stand out? No one clicks on it.
2. What happens when there’s clear call to action copy and a high-contrast button? The button gets clicked.
3. What’s the impact of arrows or a human gaze? They generate more attention (usually).
Pictures of people on landing pages create familiarity, provided you don’t use cheesy stock photos. But did you know that you can also use images (as well as arrows or other visual cues) to direct visitors’ eyes where you want them to look?
In the first one, as the heatmap shows, there’s almost no “heat” on the product. By changing the woman’s gaze to focus on the product, users’ attention shifted there, too.
Things got more interesting when ConversionVodoo decided to test this effect with a picture of a woman who is smiling, looking, and pointing toward the call to action. They compared that treatment to nine others. This is the control:
And these are the other nine:
So which one won? Were any better than the already “good” control?
Some converted better than others. The two images in red decreased in conversion rate relative to the control, while all others did better. Green ones showed the best lift.
In this case, pictures where the subject was clearly excited and pointing toward the CTA did the best, and, for the most part, forward-looking subjects did the worst.
But the top performer is looking right at me. What’s going on here? Could her body language match the enthusiasm of the rest of the page more effectively? Split-testing alone can never tell you.
As humans, we’re wired to seek out faces first. However, we do it less often than we think. This is exactly what EyeQuant found:
Yes, faces are nice. But as the heatmaps show, the headline and call to action don’t always get more “heat” because of them.
Remember: The call to action is part of a bigger picture, not the whole picture.
For your call to action, you can test the placement, copy, color, size, and whatever else you can come up with (provided you have the traffic to run tests).
But don’t just follow what someone else does. Or make assumptions about why users are doing something based on data that tells you only what they did.
Use the guidelines in this post to come up with a strong hypothesis for your call to action based on user research and principles of copywriting and web design.
Go check out what your call to action looks like, and make it better now.
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I’m running websites since over 10 years, but just recently started a blog about all the knowledge I’ve acquired throughout the years and I have to say, that I have A LOT to learn. But articles like this one make it easy to learn a lot of stuff in one run.
Going to implement a few of these things, once I release my eBook and the landing page for it.
That’s really awesome to hear Wenzel, can’t wait to hear how it goes for you :-)
Excellent article. I design a lot of landing pages for clients and I have always wondered about the significance of button color. Thanks for posting!
I read an article the other that being direct with your cta copy can help conversion. Like blatantly telling users to CLICK HERE and use arrows and such. In terms of color I just go with what’s clean and pleasing to the eye. Really helpful article.
Yeah, with copy it might work or might not. No substitute for testing still – let us now what you’re own testing reveals – could be something that we can use in future articles.
Good case studies are always good ;)
Great post, Ott. Very comprehensive and helpful. I have one question. At the beginning, you cited data from Wingify. But when I went to your links to find the source data, I landed on the Wingify home page. The data or the report from which the data came were nowhere in sight. Can you please cite the source more accurately? I’d like to read it. Thanks!
Hi Ott, i have the same question as Dave Vranicar. Can you please send here link to Wingify data? Thnx a lot and thnx for this post.
This was actually early access data they provided us with and have not published it yet. However, I spoke with Paras, their founder, and I believe they will be publishing it this week.
I’ll be sure to update the links as soon as they do :-)
Another brilliant article – I am an avid fan.
As a graphic designer creating marketing (and web design) for my clients this is soooo helpful.
I am just a freelancer (mum) in a big ocean of competitors and my own homepage is a bit busy at the moment (June 2014)
Hopefully with my limited resources (and help from my web developer accomplice) I can implement some of these things and make a difference. (New designs are in progress)
What a great article, just right to the point. No doubt its the best article we´ve read about CTA in a very long time. Thanks for sharing.
Peep, I love your work man, but these blog posts are far too long. You should consider splitting them up over 2 articles instead.
Great Article….very helpful…Thanks for sharing
Excellent article Ott. Have you found any differences between paid & organic traffic, or do they all act similarly?
Great article thanks – I am in the process of changing to my site and call to action so this have very useful!
This article is amazing.
As a Web Designer I have to give you a HUGE Thank You! for understanding the role good design has on CRO.
Now, I’m going to let Tim Ash (I’m sure some have heard of him) know this article exists after hearing him say in one of his conferences this low-level comment: “Graphic Designers are frustrated artists”. True story.
I have become a fan of yours since seeing you on Page Fights with Oli G. I believe you very recently sent an email about updating your site…so having just happened to land here now via SERP results I wanted to give you a heads up that many of these image links are broken.
Kirsten, thanks for the heads up. This was a slight database migration and image regeneration glitch with the redesign launch. Large majority of the images should be back in action already.
Thanks – we’re on it.
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