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.

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!

Fundraising can inspire creative writing

Whatever you write must pass the litmus test – that is, it must cause an emotional reaction. A shudder. A lump in the throat. A memory of someone familiar. This is “disruptive advertising” at its best.

‘Tis the season to be charitable – and a time when non-profit writing swings into full gear. Whether you’re crafting words for a company campaign or soliciting donations for a religious organization, writing to raise funds can be tricky. Topics tend to be grim (poverty, cruelty, need) and the ask is blunt: send money.

The fundraising writer walks a thin line between sappy and sincere. Too cloying and sentimental, and you risk turning the prospect away. Too abrupt and logical, and the prospect doesn’t engage. One tip that works well is to create an individual appeal rather than tackle the problem at large. This is the basis for the New York Times’ “Ten Neediest Cases.” Better than asking for money to “feed the children,” it’s more compelling to say, “Mary is a quiet child with imploring eyes and pale skin. She’s small for her age because she rarely has enough to eat. This winter will be even more difficult because her parents will have to choose between food and fuel. When asked what she wants for Christmas, Mary says, ‘Lunch, a pair of mittens, and a doll for my sister.’ That’s really not asking for much, is it?”

So what has happened here? You can “see” Mary and “feel” her pain. By establishing humble qualities, you position her against others who may appear greedy and less deserving. By itemizing specific needs, you address various giving options: food, clothing, the joys of childhood. An understatement at the end goes for the gut without spelling it out.

Whatever you write must pass the litmus test – that is, it must cause an emotional reaction. A shudder. A lump in the throat. A memory of someone familiar. This is “disruptive advertising” at its best. The content is intended to make prospects uncomfortable but not so much that they can’t take action. You must always allow the prospect to be a hero.

This particular description lends itself to a memorable campaign name: “Mittens for Mary” — but it could just as easily be “A Wheelchair for William.”  Whatever you write should be transparent:  name the recipient organization, provide their charitable status (tax-exempt, 501(c)3 etc), describe how the funds will be distributed and used. Case in point:

A man was collecting donations at my local market. He belonged to reputable civic group, designated by his apron. He said he was raising funds for “children with disabilities,” but when asked about the recipient organization, he said it was “private.” So how did children receive these funds? “People apply.” Who decides which children benefit? He didn’t say.  How do people learn about the available funding?  No clarity on that either. I put a few coins into his bucket, but didn’t like it.

Lesson learned: the donor should feel good about giving, and demonstrating strong governance is a way to do that. A better approach would have been to provide documentation about the recipient group, facts about the number of children served, types of disabilities addressed, a list of board members, medical affiliations, credentials from Guidestar or the BBB stating % of overhead vs disbursement. Icing on the  cake would be photos of smiling children receiving help. Even better — a caption like: “Bobby says ‘Bless You.’”

As with any direct response campaign, the call to action must be easy: mail, phone, online or in person. A heartfelt thank you and a receipt for tax purposes should seal the deal. Not fancy writing there but good form. And don’t forget to capture the donor information for the database.