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.

143 and Other Nonverbal Communication

I had never heard of “143” until I saw it written in a good-bye book for a colleague. Upon searching it, I learned that it became nonverbal shorthand in 1894, long before friends ever texted BFF or LOL. As described in this post, the digits represent lighthouse code for “I Love You” or “I Miss You,” with the numerals indicating a sequence of flashes.

That’s made me think how often we convey meaning with no words at all –a stern glance, a wink, a roll of the eyes, a tapping foot. The translation is easy: “don’t you dare,” “yeh, sure,” “you’ve gotta be kidding,” and “is this ever going to end?”


From the first days of infancy, a child learns to communicate without speaking. A baby quickly discovers that a smile begets a smile, a touch begets a touch. I found it interesting to learn in talking with a new mom that she was using American Sign Language in tandem with voice to communicate with her eight month old baby. It makes perfect sense. Just because the baby can’t articulate doesn’t mean he can’t express his needs.

So it is with writing – we don’t always have to be blunt. As writers, our words are a touch… they can be a gentle caress, an accidental brush, or a suggestion of something more.

Mimes, of course, are masters at nonverbal conversation. “Help, I can’t get out of this box,” is a message that comes across loud and clear… or rather, silently and clear. Dance conveys emotion with nary a word. A symphony raises the spirits and conjures up images of victory just as easily as it instills a sense of fear and chase. Graphics that dissolve slowly or pound and pulsate create very different messages without language.

Those of us who use words could learn from our nonverbal counterparts. Perhaps comics do it best – with that intentional, prolonged pause… what professionals call “timing” in order to maximize the punch line.

How does this apply to writing? We might think of it as restraint.

Some of the most effective writers craft their messages as one would fishing… letting out the line, reeling it in. Letting it out, getting a bite, reeling it in – but not before a little play.

I happen to be reading The Magus by John Fowles.  Not sure how it escaped me all these years, but somehow it landed in my hands and sucked me in like quicksand. I see this technique at work and am enjoying the nonverbal tease. The main character meets a mysterious millionaire and finds himself at the fellow’s estate. There are hints at unusual activities, but nothing is certain. There’s the vague scent of a woman’s perfume and footsteps on gravel, but no immediate reveal. There’s talk of war, philosophy and classics but without hard edges. What a joy for the imagination. All so subtle.

While this technique would fail in online writing where we have to convey information fast, we could use it in a long form fundraising letter or in an image ad. For example, “every day 1 in 4 children” etc… “once a month, 3 out of 5 employees.”   Here we set the stage and then stretch it out:  this is the situation… this is how the situation feels … can’t you just empathize with the victims in the situation?… and then we bring it on home: “And that’s where we come in.”

Sometimes it’s hard to give a nonverbal cue in writing. A nod or a nudge doesn’t translate well in e-mail. But behold the parentheses! Give your recipient an “aside.” For example: “Here are the facts, Joe. (I’ll tell you how I got them, later)”or “Let me tell you what happened today. (You know I’m smiling, right?)”

And then of course, let’s not forget the ellipsis: … (dot, dot, dot)… As writers, we can create time to pause, to ponder, to leave room for thought. So rather than impose our definitive conclusion, we can give readers a gentle hug that says, “go on… you can do it … take a moment and read between the lines.”

Descriptive phrases can fill in where words fall short. A narrator or interpreter can carry the plot when a character is silent. In press releases, authors used to signal the conclusion with a simple number:  -30- (two digits that in old newspaper days meant “end of story.”)