How to Write Highly Compelling Calls-to-Action for Email


BY  JOHN BONINI If you’re a writer, you may be familiar with the term “targeting”, wherein you place the most important word at the en...


If you’re a writer, you may be familiar with the term “targeting”, wherein you place the most important word at the end of a sentence and work backward to ensure every word that leads up to it builds momentum.

Roy Peter Clark, author of How to Write Short, describes it like this: “Imagine writing a long passage that looks like the flight of an arrow from a strong bow across a distance and into the center of a target. The bow is the subject, the bow string is the verb, and the arrow crosses the distance of the message but stops suddenly on some emphatic point.”
When it comes to email, there are no bigger targets than your calls-to-action.
That emphatic point, or target, could be to sign up, upgrade, read more, download, or any other action you’re looking for your subscriber to take.
But these words in and of themselves aren’t very compelling, yet most emails employ them as their targets.
In the first installment of The Email Copywriting SeriesAnn Handley had this to say regarding calls-to-action for email:
Handley continued, “So not ‘free trial’, but rather ‘end scheduling hassles.’” It’s a subtle shift, but it’s an important one. Because you suddenly realize this isn’t just about starting a free trial, it’s actually about what that free trial will do for the recipient.”
Let’s unpack this a bit.


First, let’s clarify why a simple “download” button may not be so compelling to your subscribers.
While it has become cool to talk about the “lizard brain” and how our primitive instincts affect our actions, it’s actually much more simple than that.
Dale Carnegie, author of the classic How to Win Friends & Influence People, puts it this way:
“The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.”
People are self-interested. The quicker we can come to this conclusion as marketers, the quicker we can start writing more compelling copy and calls-to-action.
Your subscribers didn’t wake up this morning looking to download or sign up for anything. Instead, they may have woken up, like many of us, either wanting or needing something. Your button text should reflect the latter.


Joanna Wiebe provides a great example when she says, “not ‘free trial’, but rather ‘end scheduling hassles.’”
“End Scheduling Hassles” speaks to a problem, and any call-to-action using text like this is simultaneously wrapping itself around a problem and the subsequent solution for anyone who reads it.
One easy trick for writing a call-to-action that amplifies the value of proceeding is by using the fill in the blank technique. First, think of an upcoming promotion you’ll be running through email. Next, trade places with your subscriber and, within the context of this promotion, finish the following sentence:
“I want/need to _____.”
You just wrote your button text. If this seems hilariously rudimentary, that’s because it is, so rather than belabor the point, let’s take a look at some examples of this technique used in the wild.


Uberflip is a content marketing software that enables users to pull content from a variety of platforms into one centralized content hub. This email, straight from my inbox, expertly amplifies the value of proceeding.
Short, simple, and effective, Uberflip is writing to let me know about a new tool, Grade My Stack, that could help me identify holes in my content strategy.
Well, I’d like to grade my stack. As a result, they’ve wrapped my desire for gaining something of value in with the act of proceeding.
This is such simple, yet extremely powerful copy.


In the following email, Trello, a project management application, puts on a clinic for writing value-driven calls to action for email.
Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 11.27.39 AM
Trello wraps each feature of its product with a call to action that amplifies the value of moving forward. It’s all about the subscriber here, as there are no “try it now” buttons anywhere to be seen.


Before you head off to rewrite all your calls to action in your next email, consider the following:


When it comes to writing calls to action for email, we’re working under some constraints that may not exist when writing button text for our homepage.
According to Litmus’ most recent market share data, mobile represented 55% of all email opens, meaning that we have less room to be indulgent with our words.
Each button from the examples above uses 2-3 words to convey the value of proceeding. This is a good rule of thumb to follow for email, as things tend to get a bit crowded if you include more than 3 words.

*The exception here is if your call to action is a text link. Since these don’t take up as much room as a button, you have more room to play with.
Each word you choose to include has an important job to do. If it’s not pulling its weight, cut it. Be succinct.


While this may seem out of place in a post on writing, it’s important to consider how your buttons are designed, as this could determine whether or not people can actually view, or even click, your call to action.
For example, because many email clients block image loading by default, designing your calls to action as images could result in broken buttons as seen below.
Losing impact when images are disabled.
Losing impact when images are disabled.
The solution is to create bulletproof buttons using HTML and CSS. Get the full tutorial here.
For color, size, placement, and a variety of other best practices for designing a call to action button, be sure to check out this infographic on designing the perfect call to action.


While this is a matter of preference, writing button text in the first person can be powerful when it refers to your subscribers’ worldview. This is an important distinction, so I’ll say it one more time: only use first person button text when it refers to your subscribers’ worldview.
What do I mean by that? Well, I know that if you’re reading this, you have a worldview that includes the aspiration for writing better emails. So if I were to promote a piece of content to you, like, say, an interview we did with Ann Handley, I might use something like “Improve My Email Copy.”
But be careful when using first person, as it can get misguided in a hurry. When referencing something outside your subscribers’ worldview, or something not currently in their possession, avoid using it. This is a tactic frequently employed by brands when promoting gated content, using variations of “Get My Guide” in order to fake the perceived value.
The guide is not theirs yet. Possession, in an of itself, is not valuable. Using copy like this is not only misguided for its faux value, but also arrogant, as you’re making an assumption that your subscribers want or need your guide before they make the decision themselves.
Amplifying the value of proceeding involves trading your aspirations for those of your subscribers. It’s simple, powerful, yet more often than not, it’s overlooked.



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#DIGITAL: How to Write Highly Compelling Calls-to-Action for Email
How to Write Highly Compelling Calls-to-Action for Email
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