Simply stated: no matter how much money people talk about or invest in marketing channels like App, Web, QR Codes, IVR, MMS, or short codes, success across all of them will boil down to the effectiveness of the corresponding CTA.

For those that don’t know, a CTA is any form of media, whether radio, print, or digital, that asks someone to participate in a marketing campaign. Without an effective CTA participation rates plummet toward zero, and all the dollars you spent developing cool websites, nifty apps or hyper-targeted opt-in communication will go to waste.

There are four key ingredients to keep in mind when creating an effective CTA: 1) incentives, 2) clarity, 3) compliance, and 4) strategy. There’s a secret sauce that can put you over the top, but focusing on the first 4 will get you 95% of the way there.


When I said “asks someone to participate” above, it was just a nice way of saying “get someone to do something” e.g.:

When thought of this way, the most important facet of CTA success becomes clear: you are asking consumers to do something for you, and as a result you need to do something for them. Ineffective CTAs are those that expect consumers to text/scan/like/sign up without providing any clear reason for them to do so. Email inboxes, Facebook accounts, and mobile numbers are sufficiently valuable that consumers will not share with just anyone. They need an incentive to establish trust, e.g.:

  • Scan this QR Code and receive 15% off your next purchase!
  • Download our app to receive exclusive backstage access to our next event!
  • Text a keyword to a short code to enter the Free TV Sweepstakes!
  • Visit us on the web to download unreleased tracks from our latest album!
  • Like our Facebook page to become a brand ambassador!
  • Sign up for our email list to get a buy one get one free coupon!

It’s pretty much a direct correlation between participation rates and value of incentives. As a result, A/B testing is crucial for figuring out the point where the additional money you are investing in your incentives doesn’t produce additional value.


One of the lowest hanging fruit you can grab is making sure that people who do want to participate can actually do so. People’s attention spans short enough that an overly complex marketing objective can turn a great campaign into an awful one.

Here are some classic examples of clarity errors to avoid:

  • QR Codes on billboards that are too small to scan from far away
  • App downloads without instructions for different operating systems
  • SMS keywords in quotes, e.g. Text “iPHONE” to “12345”, as you cannot tell if the keyword should be in quotes or not
  • Website/Facebook links with overly complex URLs nobody will ever type into a browser/phone
  • Facebook/Mobile/Email sign ups buried under tons of text/graphics

A good rule of thumb is making sure you try out calls to action on not just the super savvy people in your office, but also the relatives of people in your office who might not live and breathe marketing campaigns every day.


Compliance is key for participation rates because nobody can participate in your marketing campaign if a governing body cites you for an infraction.

Two examples: 1) Mobile calls to actions that don’t include some form of “Message and Data Rates Apply” will get you into trouble with the carriers or FTC, 2) Outbound email marketing messages that don’t provide instructions for opting out will result in significant penalties.

It’s fairly simple: know your industry and follow the rules. Ask if you don’t know or aren’t sure.


Admittedly, a catch all. The key is thinking about calls to actions in terms of a larger, organized marketing plan rather than as a single piece of a puzzle you don’t know how to fit together. Examples of common mishaps include:

  • Using a CTA to take somebody to a website. And that’s it. Yeah it’s great to get some traffic, but you basically eliminate any chance of driving up customer lifetime value when you don’t think about customer lifetime value plays such as capturing targeting metadata, opting a person in to a list, or getting a person to share details with friends via social networks.
  • CTAs placed in locations where people are mobile (e.g. public transportation, in venue) that forget to optimize for mobile devices (e.g. web pages, emails).
  • Not providing additional options for people who don’t have the technology you need to interact with your campaign (e.g. QR codes without SMS calls to action, mobile websites not optimized for feature phones, providing an iPhone app without options for Android/Blackberry users).

Once you have a handle on those four ingredients, you should be well on your way to success. And the elusive fifth ingredient? The it, the mojo? Well, it’s basically a combination of design, timing, and ability to incite an emotional reaction from your audience.

One good example is Anna’s CTA for her Cutest Vegetarian Alive Campaign:

Anna’s CTA works because of the sincere personal element she put in to a competition that requires this type of approach.

Another one is the Dolphin to 44144 CTA. Once the Oscar’s cut away from Ric O’Barry’s sign, everyone had to see what all the fuss was about – a perfect amount of intrigue to get people to participate. There are many other examples, but the secret sauce for your brand isn’t going to work for all others – which is why it’s fun to figure out.

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2 Responses to How to Create a Great Call-to-Action: 4 Ingredients & A Secret Sauce

  1. [...] For more great ideas, read How to create a great call to action. [...]

  2. Quora says:

    What are the most effective and creative uses of a QR code?…

    For me QR codes are not about how much data they can store. They are about four things (and a secret sauce): 1) incentive, 2) clarity, 3) strategy, 4) compliance (w/ secret sauce = ability to put them all together). QR codes are a call to action for ma…

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