Perfect your calls to action with the right words

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October 16, 2014
Perfect your calls to action with the right words.
thumbnailWords are hugely powerful. They are what mostly make up the Web. Without copy the Web would be nothing. Yet in many design projects words are seen as an afterthought when they should be the focus from the off. Jason Fired of 37 Signals fame says that “It was always you design this page and then you just pour the copy in later, and it never felt right to me.” Instead, good content should be what we apply our design skills to. When you mix great copy and great design magical things can happen. Great design comes from great use of words.

Calls to action

Every single site on the Web should have strong calls to action. In a e-commerce store the most likely call to action is "add that product into the shopping cart and subsequently buy it." Even sites with less apparent success metrics can use calls to action. It could be as simple as to read more content or sign up to a newsletter. Calls to action should happen on every page of the site. There can be altered calls on different pages and some sites may have dozens of varying calls to action scattered throughout their pages. Strong calls to action can mean the difference between success and failure.

That penny dropping moment

I didn't really believe that changing such small portions of the page could make such a difference until I saw an AB test which produced staggering results: Dustin Curtis changed his Twitter link from “Follow on Twitter” to “You should follow me on Twitter here”. This subtle difference in copy increased conversion of followers by 173%. That's almost doubling the amount of people following him. That was the penny dropping moment for me when I thought “Wow! There really is something in A/B testing”. I was astonished that such a small difference with a few extra words could make such a significant difference. My previous thinking would have been “if they are going to follow they are going to follow.” I thought that as long as it was clear to follow someone on Twitter there was no need for clever copy. That example proves that there is huge value to A/B testing and in particular words – microcopy on a page. Although that example worked for Dustin there is no guarantee that the term “You should follow me on Twitter here“ will work with your site, the thing to take away is that you need to test. A/B testing, also known as spilt testing, is straight forward and the premise is simple. You test 2 slightly different or hugely different pages and measure which one produces the better result. It's done using JavaScript which is easily set up with a service like Optimizely or Google Website Optimizer. These tools make it very easy to test out variants in your designs. Any hunches you have with colleagues or clients can be settled with hard evidence of an A/B test. This article isn’t focused on how to A/B test but it is a very important part of improving your website and knowing for sure that what you are changing works for the better. I would love to say there are magic words that win in every A/B test, unfortunately there aren’t. What may work for one site won't work for another. The crucial thing to do is to test your own hunches. Words such as “free”, “my”, “now” are good places to start. Once you have found a winning formula then the process starts again and you want to find an even better and stronger call to action. Testing never ends.

The $300 million button

There is the famous example of an e-commerce store firm that made an extra $300 million by simply removing a button. It was found that registering for the site put many users off from purchasing. Sometimes the best copy is no copy at all (or at least a different kind of copy). It shows again that relatively small changes in a site can yield incredible results. In GitHub's FAQ pages they have a lovely button which is labelled “Contact a human.” This is a great design element, as it not only describes exactly what to do, if the user is still unsure about their problem the button adds a personal touch at a frustrating moment. This is comforting and nurturing to the user. Resume Baking's main call to action has a strong shape and good use of colour. The sub description will also help conversion. What I would test there is something like “Create My Resume Now” Which would add urgency to it. In an example from the Google Analytics blog huge increases can be seen by changing the copy on the calls to action buttons. “Sign up” is very plain and although it describes what the call to action does, there isn't much in it from a user perspective. “Learn more” is a lot more enticing to the user yielding a massive almost 20% rise on conversion. That button test may have won Obama the 2008 election.


Words are crucial to design and if you have the wrong wording it can hurt your site and business badly. All sites should have strong calls to action on each and every page. That call to action may be to encourage users to view more content on the site or something more tangible as to buy now on an e-commerce store. As we have seen small changes in wording can make huge differences when dealing with calls to action and success metrics. There is no magic bullet however, you need to test your designs and web pages with hunches that you and your team may have. Featured image/thumbnail, writing image via Shutterstock.

John MacPherson

John Macpherson is a Designer / Developer based in the cold yet beautiful city of Aberdeen, Scotland. He works for Media Surgery who provide web design and marketing services. He also has a side project with video tutorials in which helps people build more successful websites. Personal ramblings can be found on Twitter - @johneemac.

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