Beyond ‘click here:’ 4 rules for better email CTAs
"Click here" is a terrible call to action for email campaigns. Here are tips and examples to help you develop better ones.
I’ll get straight to the point: “Submit” and “Click here” are ineffective calls to action (CTAs) for your email campaigns. (I’ll explain why a few paragraphs down.)
If you need help with CTA samples you can test, language models like ChatGPT or Google’s Bard can be your best new copywriting tools. But you still need to prime the pump with a well-written prompt that recognizes the values of a good CTA.
If you don’t structure your request effectively, you’ll end up with variations on “Submit” and “Click here.” You’ll still be at square one.
Case in point: I asked ChatGPT to give me 10 email calls to action, each with five words or fewer, for a Mother’s Day campaign using an appeal to emotion. I’ll spare you the results, except to say each one included “Click here.”
The journey to effective CTAs
Developing a better CTA begins with understanding what a call to action means and why the quest to create a good one often falls short.
A call to action is like a subject line. There’s an art to writing one that persuades your readers to do what you want them to do. And, just as with subject lines, they often end up being one of the last jobs on a campaign creation to-do list, with little thought or creativity left over for creating a stand-out request.
An effective call to action tells your customers what will happen when they click. That’s one reason why “click here” is a terrible CTA.
Yes, you want them to click. But we don’t have to tell them to do it anymore. They’ve already figured that out. “Click here” focuses on the process of clicking, not the outcome or the benefit.
So instead of stating the obvious, you tell them what will happen when they click and, subtly or not so subtly, how they will benefit by clicking.
Remember that your email message is just the first step to a conversion. Its goal is to persuade customers to visit your website, where the conversion happens. That’s why the call to action is so important. It’s not the only marketing copy in the message, but it’s the nerve center where the action happens.
Dig deeper: The art of natural funneling: How to lead your readers without forced CTAs
4 rules for better calls to action
1. Focus on the relevant next step
This tells customers what will happen when they click on your website and hints why they should take that next step. “Download the whitepaper” is better than “Click here,” but only marginally so. What will they learn when they get your whitepaper? “Streamline your operations” might resonate more with time-pressed customers.
Ditto for “Read more” or “Learn more,” which are popular CTAs for publishers and content marketers who send newsletters with snippets of articles that lead to the full version on the website.
They aren’t awful but they don’t deliver that “oomph” that nudges a casual reader into action. Look for ways to incite your reader’s desire to read more.
2. Experiment with different content styles
Can a CTA be too long? Too short? The point is to write a punchy, attention-getting CTA in a brand-appropriate voice that tells the customer the next step to take on the journey to conversion while subtly conveying why they should do it.
That’s why it’s okay to go off-script sometimes. Call on what you know about your customers to help you write an effective one.
Consider these two suggestions:
Use sequential CTAs. Who says you can have only one CTA per email message? You can use one action-directed CTA and one benefit-focused one. Or have one CTA flow into the next. This takes the load off a single CTA and allows you to be even more persuasive without making readers read more.
Surround the CTA with an explanatory copy or supporting statements. This can amplify your CTA if your template or button style limits you to a set number of characters or words. Your copy could ask a question, and your CTA could answer it.
Email on Acid had a nice take on this example in a recent newsletter. The recap to a featured blog post reads, “OK, so your email landing in the Gmail Promotions tab. But is it really that bad?” The CTA below says, “Let’s find out.”
One traditional rule of thumb with a CTA is that it should complete this sentence: “I want to … ” That still applies, although you’ll have to experiment a little to ensure it doesn’t sound forced or artificial.
Should your CTA include a verb? Yes, but this is another copywriting rule that isn’t absolute. The verb can be understood. Or you could skip it if you can replace it with a clever alternative.
3. Be careful what you ask for
Email CTAs differ from those you use on your website because email is a push channel. You can push the messages to your customers without waiting for them to find you. But that also means they might be at the top of the purchase funnel and not as ready to buy as they might be if they came to your website through search.
Email is usually the start of your journey. It plants the seeds or creates or amplifies a desire. That’s why you have to be careful not to put a big ask, like “Buy now,” in your email. Customers who need to read the fine print, search all your available options, and compare prices among different vendors before committing will likely be put off by that.
Give your customer something to anticipate, such as “Discover your best new style.” This invites action and offers a benefit and is front-loaded with a verb — those sexy action words which capture our attention.
You can switch to a variant of “Buy now” after your customers click on your landing page. They’ve self-qualified themselves as prospects, so they’re already farther down the purchase funnel. After reading your well-written product education, asking outright for a commitment makes more sense.
4. Talk to a person, not an audience
The best CTAs sound like you are asking a friend for a favor. Would you hand someone a book and say, “Learn more?”
This is extra important if you are working in B2B, where the “B” in B2B often stands for “boring.” In B2C email, it’s easy to picture the customers we’re talking to. B2B emails, where the human connection can feel more tenuous, often sound more “institution to institution.”
But you’re not emailing a company. You’re speaking to people who requested your email and have needs or challenges you can help with. Speak to them with a CTA that can motivate them. Even if they aren’t the decision-makers, they likely are influencers.
CTA examples to learn from
Who Gives A Crap: ‘Where can I buy TP?’
That’s the actual name of a consumer brand which supplies bamboo toilet paper and consistently wins the CTA game. Their emails are a joy to read — well designed, completely serious and yet enjoyable insouciant about the wonders of proper loo roll. They take carefully considered licenses with the rules about CTAs. This one is much more interesting than “Find a store.”
Chipotle: ‘Order and earn’
The Chipotle brand of quick-serve restaurants uses email to drive online ordering, build engagement with brand storytelling, and promote its rewards program. This CTA on an email promoting a new product accomplishes two goals — telling customers to order and reminding them they will earn a reward if they do.
McDonald’s UK: ‘Sign up and get more,’ ‘Grab it on our app,’ ‘Unlock on our app’
Many of McDonald’s UK’s emails promote their mobile app. This set of sequential emails comes from an email campaign asking non-users to download, install and order on the app. The first CTA focuses on the benefits, while the follow-up CTAs show customers their rewards when they use the app.
Pitch: ‘Start with this template’
I love this CTA because it’s a textbook example of how to ask your customer to take the next step while also explaining the benefit of that next step. This B2B brand leads into the CTA with copy extolling the benefits: the templates are free, have a minimalist design, and help the user “craft the perfect pitch faster than ever.” The CTA is the logical next step.
eMarketer: ‘Read more about Apple’s hold on the market’
eMarketer’s newsletters rely on CTA buttons labeled “Read more” and “Download now” as much as other publications, but occasionally they switch it up with a text link that gives you a reason to click, like this one. This style can give you extra engagement options if you can’t shake the “Read more / Learn more” format.
When my team and I are working on email campaigns for our clients or publishing our twice-monthly newsletter for email marketers, we spend lots of time working on the calls to action.
Our newsletter is a bit of a laboratory for us because we are focused on building our brand along with persuading our readers to read the full versions of the news stories we’ve chosen to keep them up to date on the latest email marketing news and trends. We often use sequential CTAs to nudge readers into clicking, express our brand voice and add interest.
For one newsletter that went out shortly before Christmas, we used a series of three CTAs, each of which was relevant to the article recap that went with it but, when taken in together, added a playful holiday touch:
- “Making a list” — About a list of email experts to follow
- “Checking it twice” — About trend predictions
- “Arose such a clatter” — About an article by fellow MarTech contributor Ryan Phelan that talks about “earth-shattering kabooms.”
Yes, they break the call-to-action rules I mentioned before. But in context, they make sense.
Testing CTAs: Use a holistic approach
Your CTA should work in concert with all of the elements of your email message to deliver the greatest impact and persuade your customers to click. That’s another reason why “Shop now” or “Read more” are less effective. They cost you an opportunity to amplify your message, even if it’s subtle.
Your email platform likely includes a simple A/B split testing platform or module that pits one element against another. That might give you some insight, but you’ll learn more if you test two campaign variations. For example, one could focus on cost savings and the other on urgency. Your CTA should change to reflect the campaign focus.
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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.
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