What a Call to Action (CTA) Is and How It Works

What Is a Call to Action (CTA)?

A call to action (CTA) is a marketing term that refers to the next step a marketer wants its audience or reader to take. The CTA can have a direct link to sales. For example, it can instruct the reader to click the buy button to complete a sale, or it can simply move the audience further along towards becoming a consumer of that company's goods or services. The CTA can suggest that the reader subscribes to a newsletter that contains product updates, for example. To be effective, a CTA should be obvious and should immediately follow the marketing message.

Key Takeaways

  • A call to action (CTA) is a marketing term that refers to the next step or the action that the marketer wants the consumer to take.
  • Calls to action can be as direct, such as a button that says "Buy Now," or a softer CTA such as "Read More."
  • Through practices such as A/B testing, marketers can learn which CTAs are most effective in getting the audience to do a specific action.

Understanding Calls to Action (CTA)

The nature of the CTA varies by the advertising medium. For example, a television ad for a charity organization may end with a CTA that directs people to call a 1-800 number or to visit a webpage, whereas a charity's monthly e-newsletter may just contain a “donate now” button in the body.

In that vein, there are both hard and soft calls to action, depending on where the customer is in the journey to buy a product. For example, a softer call to action as a customer is simply learning about a new product or brand that may invite them to learn more. Other more direct CTAs have language such as "buy now."

CTAs and A/B Testing

Advertisers have found that data from the CTA represent a prime opportunity for A/B testing, which tests the effectiveness of marketing methods. Wording and appearance matter for conversions. People who shy away from the term “free trial” sometimes react differently to “give it a try” or “access now.” In digital marketing particularly, it is possible to run tests in near real-time, tweaking the CTA as data on click-through rates comes in.

A CTA can be the culmination of an advertisement or merely a step in the process. Sales filters where leads are collected, cultivated, and converted will have multiple CTAs. For example, the process may begin with a CTA for the prospect to try a trial subscription and then continue with several midpoint CTAs to encourage an upgrade. This could be followed with a “final” CTA to maintain access if the lead has not been converted. Next, there may be an additional CTA sent within a certain period after the “last” CTA with a discount or other enticement for the prospect. Each CTA action can be worded differently based both on the last CTA the prospect ignored and the feedback from all potential customers from AB tests.

Digital marketing uses analytical feedback to adjust both the appearance and frequency of CTAs. Print and other traditional media lack feedback mechanisms that can match such immediacy, but there are still audiences that can be reached using these traditional channels. Whether digital or traditional, it is difficult to turn the audience into customers if an advertisement lacks a clear CTA.