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.

Emphasizing the Right Word


I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny. Maybe it was because I had just walked 10 city blocks and had 10 more to go that I needed a rest and some comic relief. Maybe it was because I read it wrong… or then again, maybe I had read it right. With the phrasing “Lunch with Wine,” I envisioned the prospective customer rushing in, highly stressed and in need of a drink, with some food tossed in on the side. That would have made wine the primary dish.

That got me thinking about the way we pair words. “Bacon and eggs,” “spaghetti and meatballs,” “peanut butter and jelly” all get equal billing. But with an ever-so-slight shift in the word arrangement, an entirely different meaning can be conveyed.

“Heidi, along with her dog Tofu, stolled down the center of Main Street, oblivious to the possibility of a passing car.” Here Heidi is the main character. “Tofu, a floppy-eared mutt, went bounding down the center of Main Street, with Heidi in close pursuit.” Here the main character is the dog.

“With Tofu on a long leash, Heidi and her dog explored the width of Main Street, she pulling to the right to peer into a candy store, the dog pulling to the left to sniff around the butcher shop.” Here Heidi is leading the action but by creating parallel outcomes, there is some equity in the pairing.

“Before Heidi headed to town, she tied Tofu to the porch, ignoring his doggie whine as she kicked up the dust.” Here Heidi is the primary character, taking the secondary character (her dog) out of the action by “setting him aside.” As a writer, you have multiple choices: let Heidi continue on her way, or create a simultaneously scene.

In the first scenario, the dogless Heidi can embark on her own adventure. “By time she got to the General Store, her braids had come undone. It wasn’t until Mr. Herbert asked if she wanted some lemonade did she realize how parched she was.”

In the second scenario, we intentionally lose sight of Heidi so the author can construct a parallel plot: “Tofu, who had blatantly failed Obedience Class, immediately began tugging at the rope, circling the porch pillar counter-clockwise until the rope relaxed. With a strategically placed paw and a good pair of canines, he pulled once more and created a gap that allowed him to escape.”

While quite apparent in narrative writing, we should remind ourselves of this technique when business writing. Ask: What is the primary selling point or objective, what is the point you intend to “throw away” as not to confuse?

If product is most important — you could say, “Let me tell you about the blue and green widget that will help you complete this task because it has fixtures that can be added as you need them.” Perhaps more direct would be, “Announcing the new widget with auto-fit fixtures to help you solve XYZ task. Blue and green available.” Here, the colors are secondary, and fixtures are an integral part of it.

If colors are critical — you could address the demand for color selection by switching the emphasis:  “Now in fresh blue and green colors for spring, the new add-a-fixture widget can be ordered online or with a quick phone call to 000-000-0000.” With a subtle change in content, the call-to-action replaces the feature benefit.

If the priority is direct response — rather than education — flip the order of things further to create urgency: “Order your new blue-green widget now. Don’t be the last to know the secret of how to solve this problem.” Or on a more positive note: “Be the first to know how to solve this problem by using the new auto-fix widget.” Colors are not important.

This poses an interesting challenge when working with a client team with different agendas. The engineering rep may want to emphasize product because he/she is proud of the technology.  The designer may choose to emphasize color because it was chosen with deep psychological analysis.  The Sales Manager will likely favor the call-to-action because that’s the fastest path to a commission.

While the differences are subtle, a good writer must fight for the phrasing that’s most effective and appropriate for the assignment. All words are not created equal.

How to Set the Stage

story-intro-graphic-sm-c-2013-wordsontheflySometimes the story begins by itself:  a tidal wave, an explosion, a scream. Other times, it isn’t as easy. Likewise for copywriting. Sometimes there’s a strong premise: XYZ company is pleased to announce a new product. ABC company moves.

As writers, it’s our job to set the stage in a way that draws the reader in. It’s easy when the task is centered around something that is first, free, or new. But what if you’re struggling for that hook, that lead?

Here are a few tips when traditional approaches don’t work:

(1) Invite the reader to imagine… Imagine a world without traffic lights… imagine a child who can’t speak… imagine what the next ten years will bring in your industry of choice

(2) Use a person to set the stage. What better example than “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick)  Try your own scenario: “When I was a small child, we had no e-mail. No faxes. No smart phones. But we did something extraordinary – we talked. “ (And now you can transition to talk about anything.) Another variation: “My name is Mary, and I am one of 42 people who sleep at the local shelter … that is, when there’s a bed available.” (Great way to begin a fundraising pitch)

(3) Make a false statement, then refute it, or offer up a disruptive fact: “On December 21st the world will end” … then start the first paragraph with “…or so some believe.” Try another approach: “Never before have more disagreeable people agreed on anything.” Continue with the unexpected: “ We gathered up the most demanding, cantankerous, curmudgeonly consumers we could find, and invited them to test the Fritzelstick. Unlike past popsicle experiences, the Fritzelstick brought tears of joy to their eyes. Some remembered ice cream trucks rolling into their neighborhood. Others recalled county fairs.” You get the drift… use something unlikely, then flip it to make a case.

(4) Observe what is around you and use it as a launch pad. The phrase running over the photo illustration in this post is based on a true experience, yet the experience wasn’t nearly as ominous as the text implies. In fact, it was New Year’s Day in Oranjestad, Aruba…  a time when people line the streets to see fireworks. The air gets smoky in a loud, wonderful way, and the crowds move in unison to usher out the old year and welcome the new. Because this city is in development, streets a few rows back are under construction, and yes, appear very sparse compared to the colorful main drag. In circumventing the crowds, we took a back street to our destination, noticing just two men on a stoop and no one else: no cars, no birds, no dogs – the entire scene made eerie by the smoke drifting overhead. The stores were closed; buildings were deserted. There wasn’t even a note of music which usually punctuated the air.

Finally, the silence was broken by an elderly man using canes with hand-holds to propel his braced legs along the sidewalk. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Slow and painful. The sound seemed to echo in the stillness. I fully expected Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds) or Will Smith (Independence Day) to appear, to fight off aliens. As it turns out, the elderly man went one way, and we, another… but that image left an indelible mark in my brain. Surely there was a story waiting to be written. It was the perfect setting.

(5)  Step out of your comfort zone — your age, your time, your environment. Look at a map. Stare at an old photo. Observe the starry sky. Transport yourself to another dimension, and make it anything you want.  The nice thing about writing is that it provides the ultimate freedom, able to remove physical boundaries and take you places. Once you do that, you can bring your readers along for the ride.

Don’t Bury the Lead… Except…

burying-the-lead-illust-c-wordsonthefly-smA few days ago I was working on a direct response campaign for two offers. We’ll call them Super Deal and Super Deal Plus. My gut instinct was to tout them in the headline, but when I saw the design, I realized an inherent flaw: I knew what these deals meant but nobody else would. These were not household words.

I ended up flipping the emphasis by calling them New Customer Offers (another slight deviation from the actual headers) and then described what they were. I figured if I didn’t grab the prospect at the outset by saying, “this is a deal just for you,” they wouldn’t stay long enough to figure it out.

That’s made me think of the adage, “Don’t Bury the Lead” – or should you?

LEAD WITH IT: Most of us who write for commercial purposes know that words like “New,” “Free,” and “Announcing” are critical components of the header (or at least should be used in a graphic call-out.) It’s important to feature words like these for product launches: “New gizmo. Free trial.” OR “First Remedy for This Affliction.” Those who test copy may learn that combining the key phrase with a price incentive adds power to the punch: “Announcing Blue DooDads: Buy one, get one free.”

But there isn’t a hard, fast rule. The writer has to be intuitive.

MAYBE BURY IT: One good exercise is to imagine several scenarios from the prospect’s point of view: “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time – I’m intrigued – so what’s it all about?” OR “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time — I haven’t a clue what it is so I’m moving on,” OR “I know this company/product and they always have interesting offers, so let me look,” OR, “I don’t know what this item is but it’s 50% off so I that interests me.” OR “I don’t need this thing, but I’m intrigued by the hologram on the front/the goodie inside/the black on black design so I’ll remember this company in the future.”

LEAD WITH IT FOR COPYWRITING: Sometimes a plain vanilla lead is best, especially when the client is all business and you have to get to the point quickly: “XYZ 2.0 now available” OR “Legal Amendment.” But sometimes copywriting is most effective when you tease: “Hands-free driving” OR “Ever hear of Gritzlefritz?” Kind of makes you want to read further.

BURY THE LEAD: Sometimes saving the punch line or potential lead for the end is the way to go. I find this particularly helpful when writing for fundraising. Don’t tell the whole story but create an emotional connection at the outset, roll out the facts, then seal the deal with a tug at the heart strings: “Timmy really isn’t asking for much, is he?” OR “When we finally met Samantha, she held out her hand with a shy smile.” Probably more effective than saying, “Timmy and Samantha want your spare change.” (But then, you could do that. It’s just a different technique.)

LEAD WITH IT FOR NARRATIVE WRITING: Sometimes you can achieve a “wow” moment when you start strong and use the lead to establish the premise. By doing this, you are letting the reader in on a secret, helping them feel smart as the plot unravels. That kind of lead might sound something like, “As Clifton sat alone in the Boardroom, night fell over the city, turning his penthouse view into a laser light show. His pinstripe suit and shock of white hair reflected oddly in the polished table as he ran his fingers absent mindedly over the surface. A slow, halting sigh escaped from below his moustache. How he arrived here is a story that’s hard to believe.”

BURY IT AT THE END: When looking for that perfect close to a novel or editorial piece, your lead can become the clincher. While you could certainly start by saying, “Rachel left Tiny Town, USA, when she was just sixteen,” you could also lead up to that moment, then end with a line like this: “She shut the door behind her and never looked back.” OR “She said good-bye to Fido and walked into the wee hours of the morning, tapping the mailbox as she went by.” When you want an ending open to discussion, create some doubt: “As the car drove away, a small voice could be heard coming from the field. It was hard to tell whether those muffled sounds were cries of sorrow or ironic laughter.” Doesn’t that just leave you wanting a sequel?

As a writer, you usually know when you have nailed it. You get a chill, a shudder, a fist-pumping “yes” moment that tells you there’s nothing else to say.

10 Ways to Write Better

Every once in a while even we prolific writers need some tough love. So here’s a quick refresher course. For those challenged by writing or just entering the field, hopefully these points will serve as practical guidelines.

1. Don’t write as you speak.
Even in speech writing or scripting, it’s important to parse words and focus thoughts. No room for stream of consciousness here. Start at the beginning, make a point, come to a conclusion, and propose a call to action.

2. Write what you know.
Most of us realize there’s a clear benefit to drawing from personal experience, but if you haven’t lived it, you have to learn it. There’s little room for B.S. Pick the brain of someone who knows more. Ask questions. If not possible, research, source it, and check your facts by using a second reference.

3. Edit Yourself – Be ruthless.
Most of us  proofread to catch typos and poor punctuation. It’s harder to edit ourselves as we would a film – in other words, leave beautiful scenes and treasured phrases on the cutting room floor. But advice is to do it and do it often. If you’re good enough, you can afford to lose a few words. You can always use them in something else.

4. Remember Your Audience.
This hits me over the head every time I encounter press releases. Some are well written, but too many talk to the end user. Remember, you’re not selling your product or achievements to the consumer. You’re trying to entice an editor to be interested enough to cover your story or at least run your PR. Load the important facts up top; leave quotes for the end.

5. Be Aware of the Delivery Channel.
What might be right for a blog or family newsletter is most likely not appropriate for business writing. Skip the cutesy comments. Eliminate the “I’s” and “we’s.” Talk business and use terms that sell. For fundraising, opt for kinder and gentler phrases. Tug at the heartstrings but don’t beg. It’s still business.

6. Say Something Useful.
We’re all guilty of it. When we’re on a roll, we love to hear ourselves talk (or more appropriately, write). But make sure you’re not spouting industry jargon because it sounds smart. We used to joke about seeing how many times we could get “synergy” and “paradigm” into one paragraph. Great that we know these buzz words, but sometimes Plain English is better.

7. Track Your Results.
The nice thing is, except for a few Commandments, most words are not engraved in stone – and thankfully, the web allows us to replace them easily. So if something is wrong or isn’t pulling response, no need to suffer. Fix it. Change it. Try something new.  A bit of tracking code on your online campaign can work wonders.

8. Sit on the floor. (Huh?)
You heard me. Get a fresh perspective. Once I had a Sociology professor who made us sit on the floor the first day of class. He wanted us to see the world differently – not in terms of positive or negative influences but in terms of the dynamics that played between them.  That’s a good trick when looking for a positioning line — or certainly a child’s viewpoint.

9. Write Visually.
That almost doesn’t make sense… but remember that words translate into images…both mentally (those conjured up by great description) and physically (as those words layout on a page or screen). Leave some breathing room… a place for the eye to roam or the mind to wander. Think about how your words will look or sound to the reader or listener when accompanied by bright visuals or by nothing. Big blocks of dense text rarely succeed.

10. Show Your Writing to Someone You Respect.
This is a tough one; none of us likes criticism, but it can be helpful to share a draft for concept even if not for tight editing. Rather than share it for approval, assume the presumptive stance, “I’m about to submit this proposal. Does it make sense? Is it too long? Do you feel like anything’s missing? I’ll copy edit it later.”

Run yourself through this exercise, then go boldly forward – and mouse on!