Creating effective, ethical Calls to Action (CTAs): The Definitive Guide

by | Mar 13, 2023 | Ethical Marketing | 0 comments

Effective Calls to Action (CTAs) are an essential part of any online marketing strategy. They allow people to take action, and help you track your marketing efforts.

In this guide, I’ll provide you with everything you need to know about creating strong CTAs. I’ll take a critical look at some blueprints and so-called ‘best practices’ – and discuss important ethical considerations.

So if you’re looking to write and design CTAs that are both effective and ethically sound, be sure to read this guide!

Let’s stop the Button Spam, like, right now

Button Spam is when web pages and emails have more buttons than information about the product or service on offer. It is a nightmare for readers and conversion copywriters alike. (Indeed, a fellow ethical marketing strategist’s complaint about this practice first prompted me to write this post!)

But that does not mean that ethical marketers should avoid calls to action at all costs. It’s true: ethical marketing is about accepting our role in driving consumerism, with all the horrific consequences for people and the planet that entails. Taking responsibility for our part in changing the marketplace also means adopting sufficiency-driven business models.

Among other things, such business models “focus on influencing consumption behaviour, which involves for example, a fundamental shift in promotion and sales tactics (e.g. no aggressive or manipulative ‘over-selling’)” and fulfilling customers’ real needs instead of promoting artificial ‘wants’ (Bocken/Short 2016).

This resonates with the first part of the ethical marketing pledge, which asks us to put the person before the sale. So let’s consider the needs of our audience in determining the right number of buttons.

Don’t confuse your audience with too many Calls to Action

Whether they’re reading a web page, an email or a social media post, people want to know what it’s all about. As soon as they feel disoriented, they lose interest. This is where great marketing meets the needs of the audience as well as the needs of the business: one of the central tenets of conversion rate optimisation says that “A confused mind never buys”.

If you want to avoid confusing people, the Rule of One is a great place to start

Every time you create a piece of content, make sure

  • it’s designed to appeal to 1 specific reader (persona)
  • it makes 1 specific offer to them
  • it presents 1 clear value proposition

Determining the offer and value proposition for your page or email is much easier if you know whom you’re writing to (I deliberately choose to pretend I’m ‘writing to’ a reader, as if it’s a personal letter). Your ideal offer will be something this reader wants. And your value proposition is a promise of relevant benefits – a promise this reader believes we can keep.

Using this approach, you’ll naturally land on a CTA that your intended audience will want to click. Plus, you’ll set a single goal for the piece of content that you’re writing.

Sometimes, though, your goal will require more than one CTA. Here’s why.

What kind of Call to Action does your audience need?

Even if you’re writing for one persona, people might still come to your content at slightly different points in their decision-making process. You may want to optimise each touch point for a specific stage of awareness or a certain role in the process – but marketing is not an exact science (no matter what big data folks want you to believe).

That’s why offering more than one kind of CTA on the same page can reduce unnecessary friction for your readers. Pete Schauer, Digital Strategy Manager at SEMGeeks, recommends:

Give prospects choices if you feel that it will personalize their experience. If your company works with individuals and businesses, offer two CTA buttons—one for the individual and one for the businesses. If your offer is a free trial, present the user with 2 or 3 different trial packages. People are more likely to convert when they feel an offer closely matches their needs.

That’s especially true on the home page – the trickiest page on any site.

Use different CTA strategies for home pages vs. landing pages

For most businesses Calls to Action play a completely different role on home pages compared to other pages on the web site. That’s because the home page often acts as an entry point for all sorts of people: LinkedIn connections checking out your new place of work, prospects who’ve heard someone else recommend your company, journalists researching your organisations, potential new team members, and more.

With such a broad audience, CTAs can help everyone navigate your site and what you offer. You’ll still need to present one clear value proposition, and you’ll still need to be clear on what people should do next. However, multiple avenues and related CTAs will serve the needs of multiple audiences.

For example, you may want to use buttons that help people start a relationship with you near the top of the marketing funnel (follow you on social media, read an article, download an ebook, subscribe to emails) – and pair those with buttons that allow folks to take action near the bottom of the funnel (book a consultation, sign up for a trial, place an order).

That’s why I often recommend that businesses use their home page as a virtual ‘reception desk’ with content that showcases different kinds of services and buttons that direct readers to the right place on the site.

In contrast, a sales page, landing page or ecommerce product page needs to use a more action focused approach because most visitors will be thinking about buying or signing up.

Offer CTAs for explorers and go-getters

The UX experts at Baymard Institute explain this principle in their study about consumables subscription services. Some people might come to you with an exploratory mindset: they’re gathering information and exploring their options. Others will come with a task-oriented mindset. These folks are ready to complete an action (sign up, purchase, join a community).

If you only offer a task-oriented CTA, you might lose the explorers. In their study, Baymard Institute found that

many users are likely to develop negative perceptions of the brand due to what they interpret as a “hard sell” by the site to get them to sign up for the service before they’re ready to commit. Forming a negative perception of the site can have long-lasting consequences as users simply write off a site from consideration (“If they’re so pushy now before I’ve even signed up, what will it be like when I need to change or cancel my subscription?”).

Instead, you may want to use two CTAs leading towards the same goal, just at different speeds. SaaS businesses often offer a trial or demo and a purchase option. Ecommerce sites tend to pair their “add to cart” buttons with an “add to wish list” button. Others include a customer service related CTA.

If you’re unsure about what CTA will resonate with your audience, ask them – and tailor your buttons to their decision-making process.

Consider offering two contradictory CTAs to help people decide

This one is worth testing: many marketers claim that offering a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ option leads to better engagement. The logic being that people like to express themselves via clicking a button, so if there are two opposing CTAs they’re less likely to simply leave the page.

Avoid confirm-shaming

There’s nothing inherently ethical or unethical about this practice. Unless you use the tactic of ‘confirm-shaming’. You’ve probably seen examples of confirm-shaming in your inbox or on the internet: the link or button text you would click to respectfully decline the offer is designed to make you feel bad (or even ashamed) about your choice.

Here’s a relatively gentle example from the 2021 version of Copy School by Copyhackers. Note how the ‘Yes’ button uses positive framing to make you feel good about clicking it (‘Yeah, I wanna kick-start my success’). In contrast, the ‘No’ button copy reinterprets your click as ‘Nah, I’ll go it alone’, which implies that you do not want to kick-start your success.

That’s why this tactic is so problematic: most people will feel uneasy stating that they don’t care about kick-starting their success – which may lead them to make a choice they wouldn’t make in a less manipulative environment.

Screenshot from the Copy School introduction video (April 2021). It reads: "Welcome to Copy School! Kick-start your copywriting success with a 90-second tour". The buttons underneath the video player say "Yeah, I wanna kick-start my success" and "Nah, I'll go it alone".

Mind your colour choices

Another, slightly more subtle, version of this deceptive design practice is colour-coding choices to indicate which is the preferred button. Even though colour psychology is mostly a myth (more about that later in the article), certain colours have assumed powerful cultural meanings. Traffic light colours (red, yellow, green) are the most obvious examples.

Red and green are commonly used in everyday life to denote ‘Do this’ (green) and ‘Don’t do that’ (red). Here’s an example from pre-school: the green and red choice board “teaches students the expected behaviors in all settings (school, home, community) and across the day”.

Lists of behaviours presented on a green board vs a red board with the purpose of managing kids' behaviour in pre-school
According to this example, “green” (desirable) behaviours include “kind words”, “work hard” and “follow directions”, whereas “red” (undesirable) behaviours include “yell”, “run” and “take everything”.

Similarly, many businesses use a green button to indicate the choice they would prefer – as opposed to the red button, which they deem the less preferable choice. Due to our life-long training in following these kinds of visual cues, everyone who’s not colour-blind needs to spend energy on thinking twice in such scenarios: Is the green button really the better choice?

But we also need to stay alert as ethical marketers. Sometimes, even well-meaning marketing platforms embed that kind of deceptive logic in their templates. Here’s an example from Mailerlite, the email marketing platform we use at my company, From Scratch Communications.

When setting up a new Unsubscribe flow, I found that Mailerlite had assigned ‘primary button’ (= most desirable) status to the ‘stay subscribed’ option. For someone who clicked the Unsubscribe link and landed on this page, staying subscribed is unlikely to be the most desirable choice… no matter how much I’d like them to stay on our subscriber list.

Screenshot from the Mailerlite platform, showing the Unsubscribe page setup. There are 2 buttons: "Yes, unsubscribe me", pink, labeled "secondary button" in the editing pane. "No, stay subscribed" is green and marked as "primary button" in the editing pane.
You’d think that the ‘primary action’ on an Unsubscribe page is… well, unsubscribing. Seems MailerLite don’t agree!

Use equally prominent CTAs for all options

Before closing out this chapter, there’s a related tactic I don’t want to omit: offering a button for the choice the business desires, while using visually less prominent links for choices benefitting the reader. This unethical practice is particularly frequent in cookie bars.

In the following example from the Thomann website, the cookie notice explains:

“With our cookies we would like to offer you the best shopping experience possible with everything that goes with it. This includes, for example, suitable offers and remembering preferences. If this is okay for you, simply click on “Alrighty!” that you agree to the use of cookies for preferences, statistics and marketing (show all).”

Screenshot of the cookie notice on the Thomann website. The copy in the image is summarised and explained in the text.
Note how the “Alrighty!” option attracts clicks by virtue of being a big green button with a check mark. In contrast, the “Reject cookies” and “Further info” options are smaller text links using less casual language.

How to write CTAs that help your business and your audience

Spoiler alert: there’s no magic bullet when it comes to writing Calls to Action, no matter how many conversion optimisation consultants claim to have the secret sauce. Yes, some copywriters swear by using 1st-person wording (“Show me…”, “Send me…”, “I’m in”) – but it may not work for everyone or every business.

As a rule of thumb, I always recommend testing other people’s blueprints. Because much like everything else in marketing, the success of a button depends on the context, the offer, the audience – and what came before in their personal journey.

Nevertheless, there are a few fundamental copywriting tips that will help you increase the effectiveness of your CTAs, ethically.

Ask people to take action directly

OK, we’ve already established that we don’t want to confuse people. Being direct and not beating around the bush helps you achieve that. If you’re not sure whether you’re direct enough, use a verb at the start of your Call to Action. That will also make your copy more readable.

For example, here’s how we’ve worded the CTA to join The Ethical Move Community on The Ethical Move website: “learn more + join TEMC”. The CTA starts with the verb “join” and asks people to take action in the most direct way possible.

Screenshot from the TEM website reading: "The Ethical Move Community is only available to those who have pledged, so head to our pledge page first if you haven't yet." The button says: "learn more + join TEMC"

How do you know if your Calls to Action are clear and easy to understand?

One of the typical problems I come across in optimising our clients’ CTAs is that they may seem clear to the business – but they’re not clear to the audience. The Baymard Institute study on consumables subscription CTAs includes striking examples of such lack of clarity:

… there was a clear misalignment between what users expected to see after they clicked the CTA [“Get Started”] and what they actually saw — a form requesting their personal information.

This misalignment had a severe impact on many users — with some deciding to abandon the site rather than supply the information requested. … For most users, a generically labeled CTA like “Get Started” implies that the following page will introduce them to the site.

Indeed, many users expect that, after clicking the primary CTA, the site will “get them started” exploring the products and services.

Describe the exact action in 2-4 words

The Baymard example “Get started” shows how easy it is to believe a CTA is clear, even when it’s not. As boring as it sounds: Often the best button copy is not all that cute or clever. It tells the reader exactly what to do. And it’s relevant to the content – what came before as well as what’s happening next.

Fellow copywriter Kim Kiel gives a fantastic example in an anecdote she shared in her newsletter dated 8 January 2023:

If you’re not a skier or rider, you might not know that marketers are getting very good at selling to people while they’re “trapped” on a chair lift. The front safety bar often has tiny billboards or ads to promote things like real estate in the area, local restaurants, or other activities.

On the towers supporting the chair lift cables, you’ll frequently see signs, often promoting ski/snowboard brands and safe riding and skiing.

On the Champagne chair lift at Panorama in B.C., I saw a BRILLIANT ad on one of those tower signs. It read:

Elkhorn Cabin LOOK RIGHT Open 10:30 – 4:00

Just 3 simple lines.

Guess what everyone who rode that chairlift did?


And when I read the sign and LOOKED RIGHT, I saw the most charming, cozy log cabin with a spiral of smoke wafting above the chimney. Outside was a rack filled with skis and boards, showing me it was a popular rest-stop on the mountain.

I saw the cabin.

I saw how quaint and welcoming it is.

I knew exactly where it was.

And, later in the day, I stopped in to check it out and allow my youngest son to use the outhouse.

I saw and smelled the delicious aromas of the food they were serving and I know I’ll be back to enjoy a special coffee or a fondue with a view.

The sign could have read It’s on your right, or mid-way down the Rollercoaster Run.

But instead, it had a clear call to action: LOOK RIGHT.

And people did what they were told.

It was a brilliant and simple example of a solid call to action – or CTA.

Great CTAs tell your reader what you want them to do.

LOOK RIGHT is specific rather than generic. Here’s are two more examples to demonstrate the difference. They’re from the Arvon Foundation home page:

The main button at the top of the page may be a bit difficult to read because of the busy background. And at 6 words, it’s rather long. But readers know exactly what happens when they click it: “Browse online and in-person writing courses”.

A screenshot of the Arvon Foundation homepage above the scroll in early 2023.

In contrast, the following text is used a bit later on the same page:

ARVON AT HOME Our online programme of courses, events and writing support Virtual versions of our famous Writing Weeks, plus Masterclasses, free How I Write events, Online Writing Weekends, Writing Days and more . . . all accessible from the comfort of your sofa.

Find out more

Screenshot of a middle section of the Arvon Foundation homepage (taken in early 2023), where the call to action is much less clear than aove the scroll.

The exact same CTA “Find out more” is used several times on the home page. Generic buttons like this one are a first sign that people may struggle to complete their task on the web page.

A note on testing your CTAs

Many businesses A/B test their Calls to Action to find out what works. But these types of test won’t tell you WHY certain CTAs perform better than others, and they only work if you have enough traffic coming to the site during the test period. As a result, many small and medium-sized businesses won’t be able to glean any meaningful insights from A/B testing their buttons.

Instead, I recommend running user testing sessions with representatives of your intended audience. You only need a few sessions to uncover 80% of the UX issues with the experience you’re testing, which makes this approach super affordable even for microbusinesses. Plus, your test participants are aware that they’re part of the test; they make a conscious decision to take part.

Far from skewing results, this eye-level relationship allows them to speak their mind and think aloud about what they see on the page and what decisions they take.

That information is a gazillion times more useful in optimising the UX so it benefits both your business and your audience.

Can a Call to Action be both clear and emotive?

The short answer: Yes! Ethical marketing can be entertaining, gripping, delightful and fun. In fact, it should be all of these things. After all, being tricked or manipulated into a purchase sounds like nobody’s idea of fun, does it?

Consider writing a Call to Value instead of a Call to Action

There’s a subtle but essential difference between filling in a form and booking a restaurant table. But strictly speaking, on many restaurant websites filling in a short form constitutes the exact action that people take when reserving a table. So you could argue that the best, clearest CTA should read “Fill in the form”.

Problem is, who wants to take that action? I’m an organised person but even I can think of more enjoyable things to do.

In order to make the CTA more appealing, it can be helpful to name the result that clicking it will achieve: “Reserve a table”. As long as you’re truthful in selecting the result, there’s nothing unethical about this copywriting technique. And it helps with infusing the humble button with a bit more emotion. Whether that’s a sense of achievement, relief, or anticipation.

Rant: Stop calling your newsletter a community

Much like writing “investment” when you really mean “price”, this practice really, really, REALLY pisses me off. For a number of reasons. One being that far too many people keep spreading the misunderstanding that “one word can change the way you feel about a button” and that it’s therefore worth finding that secret word that will magically unlock a 7-figure-month for them.

I call this a misunderstanding rather than a myth because it’s true: word choice matters.

But there is no secret recipe that works independently of your audience, context and intention. When people like Kevan Lee (former VP of Marketing at Buffer) promote the idea of the “magic word”, businesses all over the world – and the internet itself – suffer. Which is why I sincerely hope that he finds his 2016 recommendations… well, a little 2016:

I subscribe to the copywriting school of thought where every single word is absolutely worth stewing over and A/B testing because one single word can change everything. The difference between “joining” and “signing up” is the difference between fellowship and enlisting. A word changes the meaning, the mood, and the motivation. … 3 words to encourage community Join Become a member Come along These community phrases provide a sense of togetherness to the user; they feel like they’re taking part in something larger than themselves. (You’ll notice that we use the word “join” in our email newsletter form.) Where to try these words: Email signups, trial offers, in-app messaging

So, why do I despise this tactic so much?

Because it’s super misleading and therefore, unethical.

“Joining a newsletter” may at some point have meant signing up for an email chat list in which everyone gets to email everyone else on the list: a functioning, if primitive, form of digital community.

But in 2023, most companies’ email lists have the purpose of marketing and selling to the email recipients. As such, they are designed to function like one-way streets rather than the orchestrated mess of a community talking to one another all at once.

Using a sense of togetherness as a thin disguise of marketing broadcasts is a common thread in many branded communities (see my previous post for The Ethical Move for more on that).

It’s also reminiscent of John Patrick Leary’s book, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, and indeed I’m surprised “community” isn’t listed there. But the misleading word choice “community” has much in common with his observations on the capitalist usage of “conversation”. The chapter is so juicy that I hope you won’t mind a longer quote from it:

Indeed, the more remote the possibility or improbable the productivity of a face-to-face chat about an issue becomes, the more likely it is that the public treatment of that issue will be described as a ‘conversation.’ …

A literal conversation—as when you talk to another human—is ideally collegial, friendly, and direct, unmediated by social rank or medium. It takes place between peers, at arm’s reach. Taken literally, therefore, a conversation has very little in common with any individual’s actual relationship to any bureaucratic institution, much less the modern mass media and advertising industries. …

As a marketing term, the conversation seeks explicitly to counter people’s alienation from advertising by pretending it isn’t advertising. In Joseph Jaffe’s Join the Conversation: How to Engage Marketing-Weary Consumers with the Power of Community, Dialogue, and Partnership, ‘conversation’ is a synonym for ‘marketing,’ but a particular variety of marketing in which the consumer is doing much of the work for free.” (Leary, p. 48)

In conclusion, let’s tell it like it is.

Unlike real-life communities and clubs, email marketing offers no membership badge, no representation, no ability to influence the content (apart from unsubscribing or segmenting). And there’s nowhere to “come along” to – other than blogs, landing pages and marketing webinars.

In my Welcome Email Audit for Coromandel Coast, a UK coffee brand, I go into more detail on how to get clear on what you intend to build.

There’s no shame in aiming for an email list. People love signing up for emails that they enjoy.

Don’t undersell your emails.

Don’t undermine the power of community.

Infuse the headline above the CTA with emotion

In copywriting, clarity is everything. Your offer description and Calls to Action must be crystal clear, so let’s not muddy the waters with puns, jokes or clever metaphors.

But there’s one place where you can let your imagination run wild: headlines. Pour all your creativity into your headlines and people will want to read more. Your buttons will bask in the glory of your headlines, so you can pare things back to a direct Call to Value.

I learned this in one of Joanna Wiebe’s courses and have never looked back.

Provide reassurance with certificates, trial periods and guarantees

When it comes to making a purchase, the number one emotion most people seek is trust. Now, writing “Trust us” on a button is probably the least successful way of inspiring that sense of confidence. Instead, you want to work on what’s immediately next to and underneath your CTA.

In his article for Copyblogger, Aaron Orendorff lists three useful questions to help you check whether you can do more to reassure readers:

Trust: Does the CTA have a trust certificate to relieve the fear of converting? Trial: Does the CTA have a trial period to relieve the fear of committing? Guarantee: Does the CTA have a guarantee to relieve the fear of buying?

Again, as long as those certificates and policies are true and transparent, there’s nothing unethical about naming them.

Provoke readers to decide their next step

Finally, let’s not underestimate the emotional power of a bit of provocation. You know whom you’re writing to, so you know how to push the right buttons – without pushing things too far.

As you might expect, my friend and colleague Lucy with a Why, aka “The Personal Brand Provocateur”, is a virtuoso at the art of provocation. So I’ll let her speak (taken from her very first email newsletter, “Being Provocative“):

I’m assuming you have a business with a call to action.

How strong is that CTA – what kind of reaction is it getting? Could it, maybe, just maybe benefit from injecting a bit of provocation in there?

Instead of saying ‘we’d like to help you’, what about ‘we know fine well we can help you – in fact, I’ve just looked you up on Companies House, and we know you NEED us to help you’.

I admit that’s not the tone that works for everyone, but I know you get the drift.

Provocative is powerful. Yes, it has the potential to rile, YES it has the potential to alienate, but being provocative isn’t all about being offensive, it’s about being confident and bold, cos who the f**k likes boring?

Debunking the myth of design secrets for Calls to Action

Earlier in this article, we already established that there are no “magic words” that somehow make all your CTAs achieve a 100% conversion rate.

Guess what? It’s the same with design.

Yes, there are blog posts praising the power of buttons with rounded corners. And some people claim that colour psychology reigns supreme, and that you should never use a yellow CTA because men don’t like it.

Putting it kindly, this kind of advice is esoteric at best. That’s why reputable blogs like UX Planet call out the fake science and focus on facts. I shall do the same!

Use your first button late on the page

Probably the most frequent area of disagreement between copywriters and designers concerns button placement. In my experience, many designers like to place a button high up on a web page – in the top navigation or the hero section, definitely above the scroll.

As a conversion copywriter, I politely disagree in most projects. Copyhackers taught me to view “early buttons” with caution, so I’ll let them explain:

This is huuuuge for conversion copywriting: don’t put a button prematurely on a page. First give people the info they require… then make the button / target easy to [click]… and then ensure your visitor desires what the button promises.

In his article for Inside Design, Founder & CEO Walter Chen agrees. He suggests creating “a user flow that allows your content to first build the user’s trust, and plac[ing] your call-to-action boxes more strategically.”

I have nothing to add!

Use just enough buttons to make things easy for readers

Ever seen a sales page that had a button after every paragraph? For some reason, coaching and online courses seem to suffer from button-itis. Too many buttons can feel disruptive, overly pushy, or simply make your content more difficult to understand. UX consultant Matt Isherwood explains:

If you’ve decided that your most important CTA is to send people to search, it can be tempting to repeat it multiple times. But with every extra link, you’re creating more things for people to understand.

Each repeated link increases the complexity of your page, which makes your site harder to use.

I understand the temptation to increase click-throughs, but it’s better in the long-term to simplify your landing page and construct a clear primary CTA.

On the other hand, just a single Call to Action per page may not be mobile friendly. Readability Guidelines recommend putting CTAs close to their context: “This saves users from scrolling across and down or searching around for the link and getting lost or frustrated. It also helps users who have a small area of visual focus.”

Make your CTAs big, bold and beautiful

If you think you might have too many buttons on your page or in your email, you probably do.

Test the design with members of your audience and opt for fewer, better visible CTAs that people will easily find.

  • Make them visually obvious to avoid frustrating people. Big enough to stand out, not so big that they distract from the context.
  • Use a contrasting colour. Often, people find it helpful when a website or email uses the same colour for all buttons, but for nothing else in their field of vision. So it may be a good idea to define a button colour in your brand’s design system.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Following design or layout conventions is not always bad: people know what to expect and can focus on your content. It’s all about avoiding confusion and inspiring readers with confidence.

Summary: There’s no secret ingredient in ethical, effective CTAs. But this checklist may help.

  • Follow the Rule of One every time you create a piece of content. Make sure:
    • It’s designed to appeal to 1 specific reader (persona)
    • It makes 1 specific offer to them
    • It presents 1 clear value proposition
  • Use different CTA strategies for home pages vs. landing pages
  • Offer CTAs for explorers and go-getters
  • Consider offering two contradictory CTAs to help people decide
    • Avoid confirm-shaming
    • Don’t colour-code buttons to indicate the action that most benefits your business (but not the reader)
    • Use equally prominent CTAs for all options
  • Ask people to take action directly
    • Describe the exact action in 2-4 words
  • Run user testing sessions rather than A/B tests to optimise your CTAs
  • Consider writing a Call to Value instead of a Call to Action
    • Don’t call your newsletter a community
  • Infuse the headline above the CTA with emotion
  • Provide reassurance with certificates, trial periods and guarantees
  • Provoke readers to decide their next step
  • Use your first button late on the page
  • Use just enough buttons to make things easy for readers
  • Make your CTAs big, bold and beautiful


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