Don’t Ask–Call: How to Take a Call to Action from Lame to Badass

Why A Call To Action?

Have you ever ignored your check engine light?

Me too. Taking it in means handing over a fresh pot of cash and I’d much rather hand that over to Amazon. As long as there are no funny sounds or smells, I just keep driving.

Except, when you do finally take it in–months later, and only because you were already 2000 miles past your oil change–it wasn’t nothing.

It was a minor issue that is now a big fat hole in your checking account.

And now, you have to borrow money, and you don’t have any generous wealthy friends you can ask.


Yep. Now what?

Asking Is Hard. Rallying is fun–And WAY More Effective.

People get awkward asking for money. We get awkward selling ourselves. We talk around and around and don’t get to the point. We feel awkward/ashamed/embarrassed/unworthy/indebted/blah blah blah. Nobody wants to give you their money, okay? (And you don’t need their pity money!)

Remember that Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial we all hated? Just in case you don’t:

Ugh. It’s awful. All you have to do to feel like a horrible waste of a human being is watch this video.  Because we don’t want to feel bad about dogs! We love dogs! We want to adopt all the dogs!

But when we feel bad about ourselves, we don’t want to help other people. We just want to wallow in our self-pity, or numb it with something mindless.

So don’t ask people. Just sidestep that sand trap completely.

Instead, show people what you can offer them. Give people a vision for their future that is bright and lovely. Give people a way to feel good about themselves.


Because people who feel good about themselves are more generous.

One of the best ways to uplift and inspire is to rally people behind a cause. In life and in marketing, we all love a cause.

You go asking for money, you’re a charity case. But pull out a megaphone and rattle off to your parents the 10 things you’ll accomplish when that car is fixed, the places you go, the people’s lives you’ll change, the impact you’ll leave on the world–they want to be a part of that! We all want to be a part of that!

Unlike an actual cause, though, your VTAs don’t have to be big or grand. In fact, the more concrete the better.

Give them a reason to click. Make them say, Yes! Yes I do want to be/do/watch/get/be a part of/shop/read/download right now!

The Principles of Great CTAing

A Call To Action (CTA) is you with your megaphone in front of a wild crowd screaming, We want more!

You are calling them to action. Or, put another way, you are causing (them) to act.

1. Make a pushy button.

Think of a CTA as a giant red button labelled “push here”. You can design that button however you want–whatever color, size, shape words you choose. Your goal is to get them to push it. How will you make this the pushiest button in the history of buttons?


2. Make it the most obvious element on the page.

Make it easy to find. Delis have big signs, Order here. Pick up here. Doors say push and pull. Your microwave says start.

On a webpage, make it big and bright. It should be the first thing they notice. It may be the only thing they notice.

3. Now answer the question, So what?

The person is thinking, why do I care? What do you want from me? Why do I get out of this?

Give them the benefit up front. Remember, you’ve got a megaphone and a crowd. You’ve got a toddler and a pushy button. This is not an ask. This is is a cause! Make them want to throw money at you!

The Best Calls to Action…Cause Action

And if you’re going to get people to take action, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Keep It Clear

Search engines don’t exactly have a call to action. I mean, the whole reason you go to Google is to do one very specific action: to search.

But Google deserves mention because its super simple design is part of its success.

  • No distracting text or images. Everything on the page supports the purpose of the page (which is to search the internet)
  • You don’t have to read anything, solve any puzzles, do any clicking around to know exactly what to do.
  • It doesn’t even bother showing a magnifying glass, a symbol common to most search engines, because it doesn’t need to. And it doesn’t include what it doesn’t need.
  • There is one action you can take, and everyone who visits the page takes the action.

Keep it Simple

This is a beautiful design. The copywriting is compact and effective. The page has no purpose beyond getting you to join, and the page’s copy and design support that objective.

The CTA is the first thing you see, and the only thing you have to read. If you already know about Hulu, click the button to get what you’re after. But if you’re not clear about Hulu, or not ready to commit to a subscription, it’s easy to see what to do next.

There is one clear CTA and it dominates the page. Everything supports it.

Everything except for the other instruction and the arrow, and somehow they manage to be both noticeable and completely undistracting.

Pretend Your Readers Are Dumb

Isn’t the first rule of web design, Don’t make me think? It should be.

If it isn’t already tattooed on your psyche, let’s sear it to your brain: Don’t make your site visitors think! It is the absolute rule of a call to action (see next bullet for more).

Imagine that your users can’t figure anything out unless it is spelled out and decorated in bright flashing neon arrows.

Because otherwise, you might end up like a government website (oh no!).

I’ve chosen a few government websites to make this point because government websites are, historically speaking, the worst.

Take as an example of you should absolutely never do if you ever hope to have a successful business (or government entity).

Don’t do this:

Why do I feel like this website it simultaneously yelling at me and beating me with fake feather pillows? I feel assaulted and confused and ready to flee.

You created your website to drive a certain action (like getting money, for example). There’s one you want more than all the others, so make that one the most obvious–make it the shiny red button that says PRESS HERE.

This site has no button. It has no sign posts, and suddenly I’m lost and forgetting why I came here in the first place….

And  just as I was getting frustrated and beginning to orient myself, I got a pop-up. How many problems can you point out?

If you care at all about your site visitors, if you want your business to be at all successful, don’t be like Help your visitors get to where they want to go.

And don’t give them “Next Step” without telling them what the next step is. I want to at least know where my information is going.

Do This: FAFSA,

We can all agree that medicare is kind of a disaster, but there is hope, even for government websites!

In fact, here are two other federal websites that, love ‘em or hate ‘em, are beautifully-crafted with clear, effective, compelling calls to action.


I’ve talked in this piece about having a single CTA. But what about having two?

If you can do it as effectively a these guys, proceed with two. Notice that they followed all the rules. Their buttons are pushy; page hierarchy, color, and design points you directly to the buttons; you don’t have to read anything else to understand what the buttons do.

Important note: Limit your options to two. I have yet to see anyone pull off 3 options effectively. Why?

It goes back to our rule up top: don’t make people think. Picking between two options is pretty easy, but three requires some decision making, and that scares people off. Make it simple, clear and easy.

Remove Barriers, Remove Barriers, Remove Barriers

I signed up to do surveys for WNYC , which does some really great podcasts. I love public radio. I want all stations to make great programming and to get lots of listeners.

And so I want to point out a few things that WNYC–and any other stations seeking feedback–can do to be more effective.

  1. Get me on board! You’re not interested in my thoughts. My thoughts shape your programming! Tell me that the future of WNYC’s programming is in my hands!
  2. Wait, I thought you were interested in my thoughts. Now I’m supposed to be interested in finding out–yours? What will I find out by taking a quick survey?
  3. “Quick” is usually code for “not quick” and now I want to know which quick you mean.
  4. Displaying the hyperlink distracts from the purpose of the hyperlink. Embed it in the text, make it prominent, make it highly clickable (like a generic“Start Survey” or a punchy “ It’s Survey Time!”)

You have a cause, WNYC and other radio stations. I want to be a part of it–that’s why i signed up tfor your surveys.

Just because I signed up doesn’t mean I’m going to take your surveys, though. It’s the internet and I get distracted. Keep me engaged. Keep rallying me to your cause. Keep showing me it’s worth my time to help you. Make it easy for me. Make it so easy that before I can think about not doing it, I”m already done.

Now get some sharp copy and a shiny red button.

When All Else Fails, Clean Out Your Inbox

Email marketers know where it’s at. They have to. They depend on you opening their emails. When you unsubscribe, they lose a customer.

As a result, they’ve got the CTA down to an exact science. The best emails are image-heavy, perfect for skimming, easy to click.

This one from Banana Republic puts the cause front and center (40% off) and gives you two options. It puts the fine print in white which obscures it just enough to keep you focused on the shopping.

This donate button is from a political campaign. I didn’t bother reading the preceding text, and I don’t doubt the email was designed that way.

For those who needed a little convincing, the campaign offered a cause to get behind.

For those already convinced of the cause, they got right to the point.

It’s the perfect button. It not only calls me to action (donate!) but tells me how much. I was worried about how much to give, but now I know that $3 doesn’t make me a cheapskate.

WNYC, I hope you see this one. The booking site wants my feedback, but they know most people have no incentive to give it. So what have they done?

  • Offered the pushiest of buttons (starrrs!)
  • Removed all the barriers
  • Made it basically impossible NOT to give feedback. I mean who can resist those stars?

“Leave your feedback” is a straightforward invitation–I know exactly what it means–and if I don’t feel like accepting (many won’t), they still get the feedback they want.

Time For The Megaphone

You know why you started your business. You know all the good it can do for your customers.

Now get out there and tell them about it.

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