The Pros & Cons of Choices in CTAs


A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful experience of going to a small town ice cream shop – one of those corner dairies reminiscent of the 1950’s, a wholesome place where the entire family would go after the beach or at the end of a  hot summer’s day.

Instead of typical vanilla and chocolate soft serve flavors, this establishment had 200 varieties. The menu also offered 80 hard ice cream flavors plus a variety of sherbets and yogurts, cakes and pies. My head was spinning by time I settled on a small Expresso soft serve in a cup. (Yes, I could have also had it in several types of cones, dipped or not dipped, turned into a sundae or festooned as a banana split.)

This experience made me think about the guidelines for Calls To Action in direct response.

I have always liked providing several options on the premise that marketers should make it easy for the customer to do business: send back this coupon, order online, swing by our office, call this toll-free number. But after my ice cream quandary, I can certainly see the point of keeping it simple, especially if you’re trying to track response.

In an ideal situation where on an online form (more info, register for webinar, request a demo) integrates with a database for lead capture, the last thing you want to do is send your prospect down the primrose path. You want to funnel them, nurture them and keep an eye on them whether you do it manually or through marketing automation.

If speed is important, then offering a “Click Through” button is a smart way to go. Click to register, click to learn more, click to vote.

But not everything is black and white when it comes to triggering response because psychology and emotions come into play. Here are some effective variations:

* In an email from the CEO or Sales Director, it’s nice to say, “I’d welcome a chance to personally answer your questions/discuss this opportunity. Feel free to contact me directly at XYZ email address.” If providing an individual address is risky, set up an alias – but do monitor and respond. Benefits: person appears interested and accessible; prospect feels important; response mechanism cuts through red tape and encourages spontaneity.

* For phone room sales or telemarketing, I’ve seen success in consolidating response time, i.e. create a “window” for response to suggest urgency. “Call between 7 and 9 to receive this special subscription offer.” That also maximizes manpower and does not tie up phone lines.

* Mobile offers/text messaging can brilliantly play to timeliness and geography. “Come to the pub at the corner of Main and Maple for a free beer tonight between 9 and 11.” (You already know your prospect is in the vicinity.)

* When you want a more engaged response – say, someone who is willing to pursue subsequent action –offer dual options: the first one, in response to the immediate offer/question and then a second option to allow for follow-up. For example: “Yes. Please contact me with future promotions.” “Yes. I would be interested in participating in a market study.”

* Let your call-to-action work double-duty with a ‘get a gift, give a gift’ tactic, especially where a free offer is involved. Provide additional lines to refer a friend or simply, a link (to email or social channels) to easily share the deal.

Regardless of technique, there are several ‘musts’ that a direct response writer should follow:

1. Include an offer or strong incentive with an expiration date
2. Secure a clean, quality list or targeting source
3. Be clear and transparent – no ambiguity about pricing, terms, delivery, or availability
4. Use disclaimers to avoid future problems (“while supplies last;” “rain checks available”)
5. “Satisfaction guaranteed” or “extended warranty” are phrases that add value and comfort
6. Repeat powerful words in a PS or on the mechanism itself: new, free,  exclusive
7. Code your response mechanism for tracking (mouse type for print or custom URL for web)
8. Provide language to those who handle responses; script multiple scenarios
9. Capture valuable information but be honest: “your personal data will” or “will not be shared with third parties”
10. Test response mechanisms by varying language for features, benefits, pricing, and restrictions

That means, try a bunch of Very Berry flavors as well as plain vanilla.

Subtle Choices = Big Differences


If someone said to me, “I have red roses and yellow daisies in my garden,” I would think of red roses as the focal point and daisies as ground cover.  However,  if they said, “I have yellow daisies and red roses in my garden,” I would think of yellow as
dominant with red as mere highlights.
The order of information can dramatically change interpretation and perspective.


I was recently working on an email campaign, and as all responsible freelance writers do, submitted it for review. The edits were minor but one stood out. The call to action had been changed on one of the targeted pieces. This altered the motivation from empowering (I’m smart; I want to do this) to obligatory (We, the authority, strongly suggest you sign up) Now, there was nothing wrong with that statement, but did it belong here?

I’ve always felt that direct response requires a delicate balance between inspiration and persuasion. A subtle suggestion can alter the impulse to act and turn it into a dead stop. Too much information can kill the spontaneity by making the decision weighty. Not every writer — and certainly not every client — can appreciate these subtle differences,  but we can at least be aware of the choices we make.

Here are a few ways to shape the message:

Placement – is your statement the major thrust of the message or used as a reminder?
For example, does your email announce an event as the lead: “Greetings friends, Be sure to mark your calendars for Wednesday, February 25th at 2:00 when we will host a webcast about XYZ” OR does it intentionally present product news up top with a PS that says, “Don’t forget our webcast about XYZ will be held…” Both are right. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

Punctuation – do commas identify key information in a way that is irrelevant or important?
For example, does your press release play it straight: “Big Enterprise CEO, Mr. Jones, announced today that they have acquired ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere” OR might your inset information lend color and credence? “Mr. Jones, CEO of Big Enterprise and also an avid diver, pledged to acquire ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere, once he saw the blue waters and coral reefs.”

Aggregation – can the way you combine information work to your advantage?
For example, is your contest copy bland because you are trying to meet legal requirements, or could you say it differently to create excitement? “A $1,000 cash prize will be awarded to each of the first five correct entries drawn” OR might you say, “$5,000 up for grabs! Be among the first five correct entrants drawn, and you could win $1,000.” You’re not making any promises, you’re still explaining the winning process, you’re keeping language legal, but you’re aggregating the total prize value for more impact.

Details – do your descriptive phrases intentionally add value or are they used as “throw aways” to draw attention elsewhere?
For example, does your ad say, “This hand-woven hammock, made by expert craftsmen from the Village of Ropeville, is guaranteed to last for life.” OR – do you shift the emphasis from the guarantee to the workmanship? “This lifetime-guaranteed hammock was carefully crafted by Ropeville artisans who enjoy a 300-year legacy of hammock-making. “ Neither is wrong, but it’s your choice as a writer, to control the benefit you promote most prominently.

With that, I’m going to step away to focus on some other work… or might I say, “Stepping away from her desk, she paused to look at the sunlight dancing off the snow.” The latter is far more interesting.

Amazing cure-all wonder drug: Direct Mail as Magic Elixir for Sender

Let me start by saying that I’m a strong believer in direct mail. When done right, it’s a powerful sales and marketing tool. When done wrong, it’s a huge waste of time and money.


I was reminded of this the other night in talking with someone who specializes in direct response writing. I have tremendous respect for people who can drive action with just a few words. We chuckled over the requirements that go unnoticed by those not in the field — understanding emotional triggers, getting quickly to the point, having a clean list and strong offer, timing, tracking, and of course, easy response mechanisms.

Ironically, a few days later, I encountered an associate who was Hell-bent on sending out a postcard to reinforce an email. Now, there’s an immediate disconnect. Email is timely, postal mail is not, so either the postal mail should have be timed to dovetail with the email, (perhaps via overnight delivery) or the postal mail should contain enough information to trigger an independent response. It did not.

Aside from serious graphic violations,  this well-intentioned card did not identify the company that sent it, other than to display a logo new to the brand i.e. little recognition. The copy did not name the product or show it in use. There was no phone number, e-mail address, location, or URL. There was no incentive, price, or offer. The announcement was actually wrong – it implied that this service was new when in fact, only the product was new. (Yes, accuracy counts). To their credit, there was a conscious attempt at cleverness.

Unfortunately, the universe was so small, that with a typical return of 1 – 2%, only 3 to 6 people would be engaged.

I asked gingerly why they were doing this and was told they thought it would be “nice” to send out a postcard. Now, “nice” is a lovely word for puppies, sweaters and pies, but “nice” is not justification for doing a direct mail campaign. Descriptors like “strategic,” “timely,” or “tactical” would be more fitting.

The misconception that it would cost “only $300” further exacerbated the crime. How easy it is to forget the cost of talent, list prep, sorting, labeling and of course,  postal expense, which would be surcharged here because the concept ignored postal ratio.

And yet, this person felt so good about sending it out, I hated to dash his spirit. That made me want to figure out what makes direct mail such a wonder drug for senders? Maybe it’s because direct mail is tangible, empowering, and provides a sense of reach — regardless of the fact that unless it is done right, senders are talking to the bottom of a trash can. I did venture to suggest that the logo be placed on both sides of the card because one can’t predict how a piece of mail will land, and not everyone will bother to turn it over.

Interestingly, I once worked for a doctor who recognized the phenomenon of sender gratification.  He published a health letter for employees that made employers feel good.  OSHA violators were particularly receptive because distributing the newsletter allowed them to claim they were doing something to remedy the situation whether it was true or not.

So back to the postcard… It will no doubt deploy in a couple weeks. Without a code or link, there will be no way to track response. A designer (hopefully called in) will make a few dollars. That’s good. The printer will kill a few trees. That’s bad. The Post Office will collect a penalty fee. Unfortunate, but they need the money.

I’d be embarrassed if somebody thought I produced the card, but maybe there’s something to this cavalier, magic elixir attitude after all. Enjoy the direct mail high! Who cares if it works? It’s a small investment compared to a Ferrari. Besides, if you don’t seed the list, no one you know will even see it!

Saucy Words to Mash Apple’s New Subscription Rules

Like many connected to the publishing ipad-photo-illustration-with-burst-smer2industy, I’ve been trying to understand Apple’s new rules to regulate subscription sales within their mobile devices. I’ve read industry articles, analysis by The Wall Street Journal, attended meetings and talked to peers.

Maybe I’m encouraged by years of working within the confines of ABC (audit) regulations, but it seems like there must be ways writers can play by the rules – and yet work around them.

In the newspaper business, if a circulation copywriter were to say, “Monday through Friday FREE,” that newspaper would lose credit for the circulation for those weekdays because “free” would negate the definition of “paid circulation.” But if the writer said “$2.99 per week – a price so good it’s almost like getting Monday through Friday free,” that would be OK.

Running a contest is another example. Unless licensed, you can’t run a lottery. “Consideration” (fee to enter) is part of the definition. That’s why we usually see “No Purchase Necessary.” Another element is “chance.” If you pick a name at random, that’s “chance.”  You can remove “chance” by requiring “skill” (and be able to charge an entry fee) as long as all entries are judged. You get the idea.

Apple’s announcement that they will force the in-app purchase of subscriptions and deter out-of-app purchase raises the hackles on my back.

  • So if the criteria is all about the sale of print or digital subscriptions, why not make all apps and content free but sell advertising and sponsorships like crazy.
  • The same stringent rules do not apply to Associations.  Hello?!  Then why aren’t magazines becoming member-based associations?  I worked with a newspaper that changed its entire circulation model from Customer Services to Member Services to encourage loyalty and retention.
  • I’ve read that an in-app ad can’t link back to a publisher’s website.  Does that mean, “can’t link back specifically to the Subscribe page” or “can’t link back to the entire site?” If the former, then why not link back to a “Non Subscribe page” of related information but without a subscription form, a page that in turn links to the subscribe page?  If the latter, then promote like crazy on your home page to steer readers to become subscribers.
  • Apple is making it difficult for publishers to capture subscriber data by using an intercept form to dissuade readers from providing it.  So where is the rally cry? Where is the industry campaign that appeals to readers? “We think Apple’s great and hope you will enjoy our content on their fine devices, but please do business directly with us so we can serve you directly.”
  • Is it true that app pricing must be the same  in the Apple Store and on a Publisher’s website? If so, where’s the idea of “value added?” If a publisher can’t offer a monetary discount, couldn’t they add other benefits like 3 bonus months of print or a fuzzy toy? Newspaper circulators have been doing this for ages! (Sure, newspaper circulators have had to abide by a total discount-plus-incentive limit, but I’ve not seen anything from Apple on that yet.)

There are now rumblings about anti-trust. Finally! I remember being read the riot act about the dangers of anti-trust to the point where advertising reps couldn’t have lunch with friends in competing media. So how is this different?  What I’m hearing is, “We’ll control your commerce model,  we’ll hinder your ability to do business, and we’ll suppress competition.” What just happened to free enterprise?

(This blog is the personal opinion of the author and not of constituents, customers, or colleagues. Please let Wordsonthefly know if you need help crafting language to save your sales.)