Call to Action: The 10 Most Effective Techniques

Paul Boag

Every website should have a call to action, a response you want users to complete. But how do you encourage users to act? How do you create an effective call to action?

Calls to action are a huge part of my work. I talk about them when coaching digital agencies. I fixate on them when building prototypes for clients. They continually come up in my expert reviews. That is because an effective call to action is an essential part of any website. A call to action is not only limited to e-commerce sites. Every website should have a goal it wants users to complete. Whether it is filling in a contact form, signup for a newsletter or volunteering their time.

A call to action provides…

  • Focus to your site
  • A way to measure the success of your site
  • Direction for your users

How then do you create an effective call to action? Here are 10 techniques which help achieve that.

1. Focus on the value your call to action provides

Before a user is willing to complete a call to action they have to recognise the need. Infomercials do this well. Before they ask people to respond, they first identify a problem. They then present a product that solves that problem.

You also need to communicate the benefits of responding. What will the user get out of completing the call to action?

Take for example Skype. Above their download call to action they make the benefits of doing so clear:

Skype make the benefits of clicking their call to action clear.

But beware! Sometimes in our rush to create compelling calls to action we lose clarity. At the top of Skype’s homepage it is not immediately obvious what Skype does. It’s copy is emotional, but not obvious. You need both.

In an attempt to sell the benefits, Skype fails to describe what their product is and does.

2. Address the user’s questions about the call to action

Completing a call to action is often a step of trust on behalf of the user. They may have to make a payment or give you personal details. This means they often have questions and concerns. Concerns they will want addressing before they take action.

Customers shouldn’t have to go hunting for delivery charges or a return policy. You will need to reassure those signing up for a newsletter about how often you will email them. They will also want to know it is easy to unsubscribe.

This newsletter call to action doesn’t only sell the benefits of signing up. It also answers user questions about number of emails and unsubscribing.

3. Have a small number of distinct calls to action

It is also important to focus your actions. Too many and the user becomes overwhelmed. Studies in supermarkets have shown that if the shopper sees too many options they are less likely to buy.

By limiting the number of choices a user has to make we reduce the amount of mental effort. You guide the user through the site step by step. This applies to everything from navigational options to calls to action.

The number of appropriate calls to action will vary from site to site. But, it is not so much the number of calls to action as the distinctiveness of each.

Take for example this recent preorder I tried to make on Amazon. I was only presented with two calls to action. The problem was there was no clear distinction between the two. Which option was I meant to click to buy?

If you have more than one call to action, make sure they are distinct. If they are too similar users will not choose.

4. Think about how you position your call to action

Another important factor is the position of your call to action on the page. You should place it high on the page and in the central column, as shown in the example below.

Place calls to action high on the page and central.

But be careful. This does not guarantee success especially when there are images of faces on the page. Faces draw our attention away from a call to action, as you can see in this eye tracking heat map.

Consider the position of your call to action in relation to other screen elements. Especially when there are faces.

Fortunately we can use this to our advantage too. If the face and call to action are associated, it will help focus users on the call to action. Alternatively if the person is looking towards the call to action, this will draw the users eye.

By associating images with a call to action it can help to draw the users attention.

Consider position in the journey too

Don’t only consider the call to action’s position on the page. Also think about the right time to ask the user to respond.

Consider how you position your call to action in the user journey. Ask too soon and users won’t respond.

When I visited Bonobos to buy a t-shirt they presented me with a popup. A popup that promised me a discount in return for my email address. The problem was I hadn’t seen any t-shirts at this point. I didn’t know if I wanted the discount because I didn’t know if I wanted one of their t-shirts. They had asked me to complete a call to action at the wrong time.

5. Use negative space around your call to action

It is not only the position of your call to action that matters. It is also the space around it. The more space you place around a call to action the more attention you draw to it. Clutter up your call to action with surrounding content and you will lose it in the noise of the page.

A simple comparison of the Yahoo and Google homepages shows how negative space draws the eye to calls to action.

6. Consider using an alternative colour on your call to action

Colour is an effective way of drawing attention to elements. This is especially true if the rest of the site has a limited palette.

This example does it well. While the rest of the site uses muted blues and grey, the call to action is a vibrant green. This extreme contrast leaves the user in no doubt what they should do next.

A strong contrasting colour can be great for drawing the attention to a call to action.

Of course, never rely solely on colour because many users are colour blind and will not see the contrast.

7. When it comes to a call to action, size matters

As web designers, we often get annoyed with clients who ask us to make things bigger. It is true that size isn’t everything. We have already established that position, colour and white space are also important.

But we cannot deny that size does play a large part. The bigger your call to action, the more chance users will notice it. Also, a large call to action enables us to add more compelling copy.

When it comes to calls to action, size does matter. Make it bold, make it obvious.

8. Use scarcity to encourage action

An understanding of psychology will make a big difference to how effective your calls to action are.

For example, creating a sense of urgency by limiting supply will encourage people to act. People hate to miss out! To create a sense of urgency and a need to act now, consider:

  • Offering limited time discounts.
  • Limiting supply.
  • Highlighting how quickly you are selling out. uses the idea of scarcity well. They show you how few rooms are still available. Then they tell you how many other people are viewing that hotel. This spurs you into action. You fear that if you do not book the room it will be gone. This is the power of scarcity. use scarcity to motivate people into booking now.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. To learn more about the power of psychology I recommend Susan Weinschenk’s book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People.

9. Follow through on your call to action

Consider what happens when a user does respond to your call to action. The rest of the process needs to be as thought through as the call to action itself.

After all the journey rarely ends when the user clicks the call to action. There might be a sign-up process, email communications, or any number of different steps. You need to streamline these to avoid distractions. Distractions which might stop the user finishing the process.

Notice how Amazon remove any distractions once you click their checkout call to action.

10. Have a call to action on every page

Make sure your call to action is not only found on your homepage. Every page of your site should have some form of a call to action that leads the user on. If the user reaches a dead-end they will leave without responding to your call.

My main call to action is to encourage you to signup to my newsletter. To make sure you don’t miss it, I have placed it at the bottom of every single page.

My call to action appears on every page of this blog.

Your call to action does not need to be the same for each page. Instead you can use smaller actions that lead the user towards your ultimate goal.

Beware of annoying people

A good call to action will make a big difference to conversion. But these techniques can be dangerous too.

We can use them to manipulate users into taking action. This is especially true when we delve into the world of psychology. But this often creates buyers remorse. Users feel tricked and that can often lead to negative comments online. Comments that damage long-term sales.

Attempting to manipulate users only annoys them.

But the problem does not stop there. In our desperation to convert we often shove our actions down the user’s throats. We annoy users with overlays and popups. Although these techniques do work, they come at a price. For every user you convert, you alienate ten more.

When it comes to calls to action, proceed with caution. Don’t only focus on conversion. Also, focus on perception. How does your call to action reflect on your brand? If you do, then they will help improve your bottom line over the long term.