Calls to action are important, but know when to shut up!

Paul Boag

We all know that calls to action are a crucial component of any website. But knowing when to make those calls and when to remain silent is just as important.

Speak to any salesman about the art of selling and he will tell you timing is everything. Push a customer to buy too early and you will drive them away, wait too long and the moment will have past. It’s a careful balancing act and it takes years of practice to master.

We face a similar dilemma as web professionals. Ask somebody to complete a call to action before they are ready and you risk irritating them, wait too long and they will leave without taking the next step. Unfortunately I think we have a bias towards asking too early and that can drive users away.

Take for example those annoying popups you seem to get in pretty much every iPhone app these days – Do you like this app? Then rate it on the App Store. They inevitably interrupt whatever the user is doing in the app and so do nothing but alienate them.

Rate this app dialogue in Twitter App
Present the user with a call to action at the wrong time and you only succeed in irritating them.

Asking a user to subscribe to a newsletter or follow on a social network can generate similar feelings on a website. Users rarely come to a website to do these things and yet we metaphorically shout these requests the moment they arrive on the site.

The reason we feel in such a rush to make these asks is that it is constantly drilled into us how little time users spend on our sites. For example a BBC news story announces:

Internet users make up their minds about the quality of a website in the blink of an eye, a study shows.

This maybe true, but that doesn’t mean you need to scream at them the minute they arrive. You have time. Just look at your analytics, the chances are users stay on your website at least a minute or two.

They also might not complete your call to action on their first visit anyway. And you know what, that is okay. Instead of expending all your energy shouting at them at the first opportunity, maybe put some effort into giving them good reasons to come back.

Like a good salesman, we need to pick our moment to ask the user to do something. iPhone app developers, take a leaf out of Feedly’s book and ask me to rate your app when I am between tasks. Alternatively add a little banner at the bottom of the screen. Anything other than stopping me dead in the middle of a task.

Feedly request to rate their App
Feedly waits until you have finished reading a post before asking you to rate their app.

The same goes for websites. If you want somebody to follow you on Twitter, don’t ask them before they have signed up for your web app. Wait until they have registered.

As for newsletter sign-ups – maybe it’s a good idea to allow users time to look at your content and decided if its interesting before mentioning your newsletter. You might even only want to show that call to action to returning visitors.

Beware of those secondary calls to action

Knowing when to keep your mouth shut is important when it comes to your primary call to action, but its even more crucial when it comes to those secondary actions. Sure, a premature call to action can be annoying for the user, but if a secondary call to action distracts from the main action you want users to complete, that can damage your business.

Take for example ecommerce sites. More than once I have been trying to make a purchase on an ecommerce site only to be prevented from doing so by a popup window asking me to subscribe to their email offers! How ridiculous is that! I am trying to buy something and they are stopping me in an attempt to sign me up for emails so they can sell me stuff. It makes no sense! Instead they should wait until I have completed my order and then ask me if I would like to receive their emails.

Example of newsletter popup on an ecommerce site
Don’t prevent me from buying on your ecommerce site with a secondary call to action.

A fear of declining conversion

Now I know what you are thinking – surely waiting to ask will cause a decline in completed calls to action. Not necessarily.

Like most charity websites The Norwegian Cancer Society used to focus their site around the goal of raising donations, despite the fact that was not users primary reason for visiting the site. Those coming to the site were more interested in learning about the symptoms and treatments of cancer than supporting the organisation financially.

Eventually the charity took a brave step. They focused on user needs rather than organisational objectives. They decided to raise the profile of cancer information at the price of reducing the prominence of donations. Instead they chose to wait until users had found the information they needed before asking them to donate.

Instead of seeing a decline in donations, they actually saw a 70% increase in one off donations and 88% increase in ongoing monthly giving. By waiting until their audience had found the information they came looking for, they were much more receptive to supporting the charity. The time was right.

So before you next plaster a website with calls to action, ask yourself whether you are asking at the right time. It might just be that the best way to increase conversion is to wait until the user has completed their own agenda before introducing yours.