Mind control“Register”
“Buy Now”
“If you’re interested, call me back.”

Those are examples of a marketing call to action — a term and practice that’s been around for over 100 years. The first two work, the third doesn’t. This article tells you why.

What a Call to Action is Supposed to Do

A call to action is supposed to prompt people to do something.

In the old days, the action often meant popping a completed response card in the mail: Yes! I’d like a quote for car insurance. Yes, start my new magazine subscription. Yes, send me an official Roy Rogers ‘kerchief (five box tops enclosed).

These days, the action is usually to click a link from email or on a web page. Calls to action also play a big part in voicemail.

Lack of Action: No One Calls Back

One of the most common questions I get about telemarketing is whether leaving voicemail messages is worth it. “No one calls me back,” the questioner invariably says.

Typical voicemail response rate is 1% to 3%, the same response rate for old fashioned mail. If there is zero response that’s usually because the stated reason for the call is unclear and/or the call to action is weak or missing.

Here are two examples of a weak call to action:

“If you’re interested, give me a call.”
“Please call me at your earliest convenience.”

That little word – if – and the polite nod to prospects’ convenience, do not help prompt response.

In contrast, here is what works: “Please call me back.”  Or when used on a letter or email: “Please call me at 510 222 2360.”

No faux-urgency needed, just “please call me” — simple as that. Now let’s delve into why this and similar calls to action work.

Clarity, Survival, and the Cerebellum

We live in a loud and visually-distracting world. Fortunately, we always have. The ancient part of our brain not only helps us handle caveman-level visual clutter and noise, it helps us do that with today’s version.

Calls to action which use a compound concept blend into the visual and mental noise. This applies to things like, “If you’re interested, call me back.” Same goes for including, “at your convenience.”

Those kinds of compound messages do not prompt our brain to pay more attention. We easily ignore them and may even miss the message entirely because it blends in with the rest of our environment.

So what sticks out among all of the jumble? As Birgitte Rasine puts it so beautifully, it’s the “direct, unencumbered imperative.” Such statements strongly attract the attention of that ancient part of our brain — the cerebellum — the part where our “survival instinct” lives. It’s the same kind of attention we pay to unexpected, loud noises.

That’s why straight-forward statements which tell us to take some sort of direct action work best; including things such as: call, reply, click. Our initial reaction to such messages is automatic. However, that’s not the whole story.

Interest, Decision, and the Pre-Frontal Cortex

So…a direct, unencumbered imperative strongly attracts our attention. After you look it up, don’t let the word “imperative” make you think the call to action has to be bossy in order for it to work. Including “please” doesn’t hurt efficacy. What’s more, don’t let that word make you think there’s a call to action with special power to force response.

Our brains do not operate entirely on automatic survival instinct, we also have what philosophers called “free will” and today’s neuroscientists sometimes call “higher cognitive” processes. That stuff lives in our Pre-Frontal Cortex and it works this way: We pay attention to the straight-forward directive. Then, based on level of interest, we decide if we want to take that action, and follow through or move on. This all happens in a nanosecond.

In Sum

Luck, timing, and prospects’ level of interest impact prospecting and marketing. Embrace that reality.

Put luck on your side by using calls to action such as:

  • Please give me a call
  • Please reply to this email
  • Drop the card enclosed in the mail
  • Click here for more information

Do not use things like:

  • If you’re interested, call me back.
  • If you’d like more information, click here.
  • Please reply at your convenience.
  • Please accept my call. (That’s not an action they’d take, it’s a reaction – won’t work well.)

Birgitte Rasine

Birgitte Rasine is CEO of LUCITÀ,  a hybrid interactive design and communications firm specializing in content publishing, apps and web sites, and the power of the written word. For more about the brilliant team and their services, see Lucita.net.