Calls to Action help users

Paul Boag

(S01:E04) Everybody seems to go on about calls to action. They offer obvious benefits to your business, but what about your users?

We all know calls to action provide business benefits. Calls to action are how you move a user from a passive state of mind into a more active role. Calls to action are also a way you can measure the success or otherwise of your website and track return on investment. However, calls to action do not just benefit your business. They benefit your users too. Let me explain what I mean.

As web designers we all love to praise Apple. However my first experience of an Apple store was not a pleasant one.

After months of listening to Apple fanboys tell me how great Apple products were I decided to buy my first macbook. All I had to do was walk into the store and buy it. Unfortunately this was harder than you would expect.

apple store

The problem was that the store didn’t have the normal visual queues I expected to find. There were no boxed products to pick up and take to the cashier. Worse still, there was no cashier! Where was I meant to pay?

After standing there looking like a fool for a few minutes I wandered over to the genius bar. No, that didn’t look right. People were getting tech support, not purchasing. What was I meant to do?

Eventually I asked an assistant and he dealt with my purchase. However, I felt foolish asking and left the store feeling flustered.

What I needed was some indication of what I was meant to do. I needed a call to action.

Why users need calls to action

You might think me foolish for being so confused by an Apple store. However, I can guarantee that at some point you have been to a website where you felt unsure what to do next. This is often because the site owner has failed to give you any guidance. They have failed to give you a call to action.

The web is meant to be a massive interconnected network of pages. However, in reality a large number of those pages are dead ends. This gives users only two option, leave or go backwards. As humans we hate going back over old ground. Therefore the consequence of no calls to action is obvious. Users leave feeling unsatisfied.

A good call to action makes your site sticky. It is draws the user onwards towards a final goal. However, calls to action are not just about avoiding dead ends that leave users feeling unsatisfied. It is also about helping users complete a key task. Take for example the browser manufacturer Mozilla. If users visit the website you can pretty much guarantee they want to download a copy of Firefox.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the website sports possible the largest call to action known to man!

Hopefully you are now persuaded that calls to action help both your business and your users. The next question becomes – “how do I decide on my calls to action?”

Deciding on your calls to action

A call to action is anything that asks the user to move from being a passive consumer to an active participant. This could of course include something as mundane as the common hypertext link. However, it could also include:

  • Purchase buttons
  • Signup forms
  • Download links
  • Checkout processes
  • RSS subscription
  • Vouchers
  • Telephone numbers
  • Email links
  • Contact us forms

the list could go on.

Notice that not all of those lead to a sale. There is often a perception that calls to action only apply to ecommerce sites. They do not. Calls to action can be transactional. However, they could just as easily be a user requesting information or signing up to a web app.

Also remember what I said earlier, every page should have a call to action. Users should never be left at a dead end not knowing what to do next. However, that is not to presume all calls to action are equal.

Page level calls to action

When writing a list of your sites calls to action you need to think about those for individual pages as well as site wide.

These ‘micro calls to action’ aim to do two things. First to keep the user on the site and secondly to move them one step closer to your site wide calls to action. Page Actions

One method to ensure every page has a call to action is to use a content template. A content template asks the writer of a page to answer a series of questions. These might include:

  • Who is the page aimed at?
  • What is the main message the page should communicate?
  • What will the user learn on this page?
  • What next step should the user take?

This last question will ensure the writer always thinks about what call to action a page should have. This ensures the user is always moving one step closer to your main objective.
Although these page level calls to action exist to move the user toward a site wide action, that does not mean you can only have one site wide call to action.

Prioritising your site wide calls to action

It is not unusual for a website owner to have several site wide calls to action such as buy a product and signup for a newsletter. In such cases it is important to prioritise.
Begin by establishing your primary call to action. What must users do above all else? Knowing this allows you to design the site in such a way that the user is in no doubt about what they should ultimately do.

Of course on an extremely large site with a diverse audience it might be necessary to have multiple primary calls to action across different sections and sub sites. This is fine as long as they are not competing for users attention. If the user is faced with conflicting choices they often choose not to choose.

Your secondary calls to action should be less prominent so as not to distract from the main goal. However they do play an important role. They exist to move the user towards the ultimate objective. For example asking people to signup for a newsletter is a much smaller step than purchasing from the site. Once a user has signed up for a newsletter they are more likely to make a purchase later. Just don’t allow the newsletter signup to overshadow purchasing.


This problem of overshadowing is more common than one would think. Sometimes we add these secondary calls to action onto our site without even thinking about it and inadvertently distract the user from what you want them to do. For example, have you added a retweet icon or facebook button to your site? These are calls to action. However, what would you prefer users to do, tweet or buy your product? Don’t put actions on your site that will draw the users attention away.

Once you have decided on your calls to action the next question is how do you make them enticing enough to encourage users to click?

Motivating users to take action

There has been a lot written about how to make somebody complete a call to action. The truth is that you cannot make somebody do something they don’t want to do. It is however possible to nudge users in the right direction.

Personally I use 5 techniques that encourage users to complete a call to action. These are:

Carefully wording calls to action

How calls to action are worded makes a huge difference in how users respond. Use active language such as learn, place, add, submit, get, modify, edit, etc. Also ensure it is tangible. Use something tangible that users can relate to in their own lives. For example instead of writing “Save a child’s life for only £2” write “Save a child’s life for less than a starbucks coffee”. Finally make it personal. By using the words “you” or “your” users are more likely to apply your call to action to themselves.

Focusing on feeling and benefits, not features

Describing your product, service or call to action is not enough. You have to make users want it. To do that you need to describe the benefits it will have to them personally. It is not enough to say how it will benefit their customers or business for example. You have to talk in terms of benefits to them individually.

E-Sytems Organizers

However, you can go even further and engage with people’s emotions. Instead of just talking about benefits, talk about feelings. For example: “Do you hate dealing with customer complaints? Our product will increase satisfaction so reducing the stress of dealing with angry customers.” This focuses on how your product or service will make the user feel.

Remove any sense of risk

One of the major reasons users are resistant to completing a call of action is because they associate a risk with it. Associate with your calls to action promises that address users concerns. Whether it is outlining your return policy or giving a clear statement about your approach to privacy, make sure the user has no reason to worry.

Offer a carrot but also wield a stick

Website owners have successfully been using the carrot and stick approach to encourage users to complete calls to action for sometime. The carrot is incentives and the stick is limitations. For example an incentive might be a discount and a stick might be limited availability.


Use the power of peer pressure

We are highly influenced by the behaviour of others and this can be a useful tool in encouraging people to complete calls to action. Everything from testimonials to tweets can influence our behaviour. Reviews, ratings and ‘what others have looked at’ content also have an effect on our decision making. Look for opportunities to reinforce calls to action with recommendations from others.

outlook is broken lets fix it campaign website

Editors Note: This article is covered in considerably more depth in Paul’s latest book ‘Building websites for return on investment‘. Buy two copies today… actually make it three ;)

What next?

Hopefully I have clearly demonstrated the importance of calls to action on increasing your sites ROI. Admittedly that is probably not a surprise. However, more importantly I have outlined ways to identify your calls to action and ensure they are effective.

Now for the important bit. Here are the actions I want you to complete.

Action 1: Establish your main actions

Begin by writing a list of your sites main calls to action. Next prioritise this list so your designer can ensure users focus on the right actions first. Also consider how one call to action can lead to the next.

Action 2: Carefully craft your actions

Once you have your main calls to action, work with a designer and copywriter to ensure they are both engaging and immediately obvious to users.

Action 3: Give every page an action

Make sure that your content authors add a call to action to every page. Users should never be left at a dead end so consider implementing the content templates I mentioned in this chapter.

By following the advice here you will increase the number responding to calls to action and so boost your ROI. However, there is always room for improvement.