What Is a Call to Action?

Melanie Balke
July 10, 2023

Every email marketing campaign has it, but you might not know what it’s called!

The call to action (CTA) is the core of your marketing.

So, how do you master it?

The Basics of a Call-to-Action (CTA)

Handwriting on a postcard from 1920. Overlaid text reads, “The Basics: What Is a Call to Action (CTA)?”

A CTA is a link that leads customers to the desired location. They tell users what to expect, where they’re going, and why they should go there.

Simple, right?

Well, not so fast!

CTAs are easy to understand and difficult to master. In fact, many still consider creating effective CTAs a form of marketing art. After all, it’s not enough to encourage users; you must guide them to the desired action.

Moreover, there are three distinct types of CTAs, starting with…

The Classic CTA Button

A wall of backlit buttons. “The Classics: Basic CTA buttons work well on any device.”

When it comes to creating effective CTAs, you can never go wrong with tried-and-true CTA buttons. These embedded elements work on any device, making them the perfect solution for your mobile email marketing. Better yet, a bit of behind-the-scenes coding can turn these genericized squircles into gorgeous on-brand eye-catchers!

After some digging, I found the perfect example from our Collection Lounge work!

An example of a CTA button. The button is black with white text, "Prepare to Bounce."

That black rectangle is just one of the many ways to format your CTA buttons.

Feeling daring?

Savvy designers can use additional code to create unique CTAs.

These buttons may have fun effects when a user hovers over the text (e.g., fades, gradients, style changes, and similar distortions). Such visual distinctions draw attention to the text and entice more prospective customers to act immediately! Note, however, that such fancy digital wizardry will not work on most mobile devices.

Image-Based Calls-to-Action

Overlapping Polaroid photos on a wooden table. “Images: A properly described image offers creative freedom for your CTAs.”

Alternatively, you may opt to use an older method of linking. As you’ve probably guessed from its name, an image-based CTA asks users to click on an embedded image.

While this practice has fallen out of favor, it’s far from extinct. Many popular brands continue to use image-based links in digital marketing materials, regardless of the medium. The multimedia elements are simple ways to cut down on a page’s file size — particularly when custom fonts are used — without sacrificing visual appeal.

Nonetheless, this approach has a few drawbacks.

First and foremost, you must attach an appropriate description (officially known as “alt text”) to these essential images. Such accessibility properties help users with disabilities and those who prefer to receive plain-text email campaigns. Potential clients also receive this pre-determined description whenever an email fails to fully load, as is common in areas with poor connectivity.

Note that any text included in such a call-to-action must be transcribed in the description. As such, you’ll want to keep your images’ text brief.

Secondly, continuing from the plain-text point, you must still find effective call-to-action words for the fallback version.

Secondary Calls-to-Action

An archival photo of 1980s computer training. Overlaid text reads, “Secondary: Use one or more secondary CTAs to keep customers engaged.”

Finally, we have so-called “secondary” CTAs.

I’ll preface this section by pointing out that these aren’t necessarily less important than your primary CTA button; they’re equally critical to your marketing success! However, they tend to take up less space than your primary link.

Secondary calls-to-action tend to lead users to less immediate goals. You may, for example, direct readers to buy a new product and provide an optional blog post about its qualities. Or, perhaps, you ask users to leave feedback on a recent purchase and offer them a guide on how to care for their new product.

In both cases, you’ll still be following all the CTA best practices. You’ll still need appropriate call-to-action words, an actionable link, and well-designed landing pages. However, your secondary link is serving an alternative purpose. Rather than asking for an immediate response, these CTA buttons give customers a way to continue interacting with your brand.

Think of them as supporting text! They’re there to gently guide a user to take a specific action through less direct means. Some may even say it’s like leaving the back door of your digital marketing open for business!

What Makes a Good CTA?

Text from a 1964 report. Overlaid header text reads, “The Good: How to Make a Great CTA.”

Great! We’ve answered the first question.

But what comes after “What is a call to action?”

Now, it’s time to get into the marketing strategy.

As with anything in marketing, it’s not enough to slap down any old CTA; you must craft a good CTA.

A quick online search will show you countless CTA examples. You’ll even see websites claiming to have the de facto best CTA examples. But those sites rarely tell you the secrets behind the magic.

That’s my job!

Action Words Work Best

Text from an intinerary for June 1948. Overlaid text reads, “Get Active: ‘Action words’ encourage more engagement.”

First and foremost, you want to use action-oriented words in your CTAs. Examples of such phrases are numerous, commonly including phrases such as:

  • “Act Quickly”
  • “Enroll Today” (common for emails that offer access to a free webinar or similar content)
  • “Increase Sales”
  • “Shop Now” (and that’s a verified classic, by the way!)
  • “Start whatever-ing Today!”

Some business leaders kick this up a notch with a question-and-answer format. For example, the email may ask, “Do you love saving money?” Then, it hits you with that whammy of a CTA, something like, “Yes! Sign Me Up!”

… But Don’t Get Too Weird

A pastoral scene. “Be Honest: Tell users what to expect when they click on a CTA.”

That said, you don’t want to confuse potential customers. A good call-to-action tells users what to expect.

Our STEM Kids email is the perfect example of such calls.

A STEM Kids email with a blue CTA, "Shop the sale."

“Shop the Sale” is a standard phrase. Sure, it’s not the most exciting call-to-action example, but it does its job. More importantly, it acts as a digital signpost, telling users what to expect with little more than a short phrase.

Imagine if we tried to be overly creative with this well-crafted call to action.

“Magnify the Future” is a great example of something that sounds perfect. It’s a short phrase with action-oriented wording. It conveys a sense of urgency and implicitly describes how STEM toys can improve a child’s educational prospects. In a way, that implied benefit also adds some incentive to take action immediately.

So, what’s the problem?

Let’s break it down:

  • No Interactivity: This may seem odd, but this example doesn’t give readers a sense of interaction. There’s nothing to drive them to your site beyond the implied promises.
  • Vague Wording: For all its creativity, “Magnify the Future” just isn’t descriptive enough! New customers will likely be confused by such a phrase, and many may opt to avoid clicking the link.
  • Where’s the Sales Funnel? Finally, you must consider a customer’s individual journey. This sort of phrase lacks a target audience, making it less effective than many comparable call-to-action examples.

Ultimately, that generic “Shop the Sale” blurb is a more effective call to action than the “quirkier” counterpart. It’s short, simple, and straightforward. And, speaking of generic call-to-action examples…

If It Works, Use It!

An undated photo of a European mountain range. “Use What Works: Don’t be afraid to use generic CTAs.”

There’s no reason to avoid tried-and-true calls to action!

Sure, some marketers may scoff at you. They may claim that you’re wasting your time, or perhaps, they say that you’re not putting out a truly compelling call to action. But that doesn’t really matter! Results matter, and those generic click-mes may be your best bet!

(They’re also a great way to reduce your marketing campaign costs. If a CTA appears to be working, don’t knock it; keep it in your rotation. You may even want to add it to a running list of your top-performing CTAs.)

Some examples of timeless calls to action include:

  • Browse the Sale
  • Buy Yours Now
  • Read Our Blog Post
  • Reserve Your Seat
  • Save the Date
  • Shop and Save
  • Shop Now
  • Subscribe Today

Each of these examples is a strong CTA in its own right. Each condenses the relevant information into a snappy bite-sized link that appeals to a broad audience.

However, if you’re looking for something more intimate (and, perhaps, more compelling), you may want to consider adding some feeling to your email marketing.

Improve Your Calls-to-Action With Emotional Language

Now, I’m not saying to make every email marketing campaign blast your users with sad music and shivering puppies!

But you can infuse your emails with some personality. Changing even one word can have a massive impact, and that connection can help you meet your business goals. It may even help you nurture your relationship with your audience.

Remember what I said about question-and-answer formatting? Well, here’s a VeloxBot example written by my team…

A re-engagement email. There are two different CTAs: "Yes, Please" and "Unsubscribe Me."

See how there’s a sense of familiarity in that email? The casual wording and conversation call-to-action examples put readers at ease and make them more likely to engage with the content.

I’d also like to draw attention to the friendly addendum at the end of this email. “You can always re-subscribe in the future, too.” This simple sentence adds so much depth to the re-engagement campaign. It’s the perfect way to tell the audience they can unsubscribe without guilt, and that positive interaction is sure to pay for itself in the future. (After all, how receptive are you — as a member of a list’s audience — to those guilt-trippy re-engagement email campaigns?)

What to Avoid in Your Marketing Materials

So, what makes a bad CTA?

As with anything in digital marketing, there are a few best practices to follow when you craft a CTA. I’ve covered some of the positives; now, let’s dig into the negatives. These are the things you should not do when crafting a CTA!

Don’t Ask People to “Click Here”

First of all…

It’s not 1996 anymore. Stop asking people to “click here” in your CTA button. We already know you must click on something to make it work! At the end of the day, those two words are little more than a formalized remnant of a bygone era. (Yes, “Tap Here” is just as bad.)

Few places will ever find a reason to include such phrases in their CTA, especially in emails.

Avoid Decision Fatigue

Here’s another marketing term for you: Decision fatigue is the tendency for consumers to avoid choosing something when presented with too many options. It’s commonly seen in grocery stores and marketplaces, particularly in sections with dozens of choices.

So, why am I telling you this?

Well, multiple CTAs are like an overcrowded supermarket shelf.

In other words, you want to limit your CTAs. Generally, two is considered the maximum. Otherwise, you’re often confusing customers.

That’s not to say you can’t have multiple links, though!

You can have 1–2 CTAs and some linked product images.

Continue Interacting With Your Customers

Overlapping leaves. “Find a Pro: Let Us Handle Your CTA.”

That’s all the time we have for today’s lesson, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve!

If you’ve been struggling with your email marketing, now is the perfect time to invest in professional assistance. At The Email Marketers, we understand the art of the call to action. We’ve already shown you several examples of our own CTA copy, too!

So, what are you waiting for?

Schedule a call today to see how we can help you! And don’t forget to check the rest of the blog!