A call to action is too important to overheat

Twenty years ago as an undergraduate, I found myself being taken along to a rather strange church, run out of the front of a converted shop. The Gospel Hall was a small congregation of seven or eight people, plus a few assorted students. The preacher got up to speak and part-way through his sermon turned to the four of us students. And looking straight at us declared, loudly and pointedly, that “Ye must be saved!” and that we should “Repent!”.

I can’t say that I went back. I suspect that the churches that did better with attracting students were ones that gave out a cup of tea and a free sandwich, a bit like the churches in George Orwell’s semi-autobigraphical novel on homelessness, Down and Out in Paris and London.

Sometimes copywriters become a bit like that Gospel Hall. Because a call to action is such a key concept in copywriting, and as people know that all too often the call to action is absent or flaccid, people trying to be a good copywriter go too far in the other direction.

They think that emphasising the features and benefits of something, and littering the copy with calls to action, is right. And there’s nothing wrong with this if there are distinctive differences between your product and the competition’s, and if the calls to action are positioned to fit nicely in place with the flow of the copy.

On the other hand, there are times when how a company makes you feel is far more important than written-down benefits, especially when the features are not all that different between suppliers. Likewise, I am sure there are people when considering a new job who look closely at the pension contributions, days of annual leave or bike salary sacrifice scheme, but I suspect we mostly choose employers based on how they make us feel. If that’s the case, showing the culture and making people aspire to work with you is far more important than having four calls to action in a piece of copy rather than one.

Actually, I’d go further and say that it is always the case that how a piece of copy makes the reader feel is by far the most the most important factor in whether the copy is effective. Does it sound authoritative and expert, or is it patronising? Does it make me feel the vendor is offering quality, or is it cheap and risky? In short: how confident does the writing make me feel?

To get the tone correct when copywriting, it’s important to consider the customer decision journey from start to finish – and how long it typically takes from first contact to purchase. Many of the problems with copy come from either not caring about conversions (the copy is creative, apparently, but not creative enough to sell), or from assuming that copy can only be effective if it generates an immediate sale today. I have heard marketers in sinking businesses say that they “feel instinctively” that their marketing has been effective but that people just need to wait a few years for the results to come in.

I use multiple calls to action in copy all the time, but using them effectively means understanding the overall experience that the prospect will receive.