Your Brain and Effective Calls To Action: What Works Best and Why


Do you ever read the Buffer blog?

If not, you should. Here’s why.

When I was originally planning this article, the idea was to dive really deep into the psychological research behind calls to action that work.

Originally, the plan was to get quotes and snippets from people who’ve tested hundreds of calls to action—people like Bryan Eisenberg, Michael Aagaard, or Peep Laja—and it would have made a perfectly reasonable post, but I scrapped the idea in favor or something better.

See, I realized looking at  just the call to action is too narrow a focus if I wanted this article to actually bring you some value.

I didn’t want to mislead you into thinking that changing the button from “Buy Now” to “Sign up Here” at the bottom of a sales page makes a lick of difference when everything leading up to that final call to action doesn’t build some kind of anticipation in the readers mind.

Then, I read “What listening to a story does to our brains” on the Buffer blog and my entire perspective changed.

It hit me that the best calls to action aren‘t effective just because of your word-choice on the button.

No no, the best calls to action are the ones that promise your story only gets better after you sign up.

Do You Remember Why You Signed Up For Facebook?

To put this in perspective for myself, I tried to think back to a time before responding to a call to action that dramatically changed my life.

That moment was when I registered for Facebook, but that it wasn’t the “Sign Up” button that made me take action. It was the story that leading up to it.

It was 2005. I was in my final year of acting conservatory and a proud user of Myspace (Fortress of Venerability, I believe, was my screen name at the time. Hey, don’t judge. College—and Myspace—was a weird time for you too.)

But, I heard about this site, “Facebook,” that my Ivy League friends from high school had been using for months. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, but

1.) I didn’t have a .edu email address and

2.) When they finally opened to high-school students at the end of 05, none of my friends from my rinky-dink town knew anyone who had Facebook. Nobody I knew was getting invited to use the social network, which meant in turn, I would also not be getting an invite.

So, I had to wait.

It wasn’t until 2006 that they lifted the .edu address/invite ban and made the site available to everyone—at which point, I signed up, looked around, saw absolutely no-one I knew, and dismissed Facebook to go re-arrange my Top 8.

In 2007, I started paying more attention—like you probably did—because I heard about a handful of businesses gaining traction by interacting with customers in branded groups and developers getting tons of VC money to build apps.

Though Facebook didn’t make sense for my business at the time, I watched and paid attention to what the best companies were doing.

Then, in 2009, after I went freelance and got my first real client, I grew a page from 0-28,000 fans in the first month of being live. Within a few months, the company opened two additional locations to keep up with demand.

My client had become one of those success stories that made Facebook so appealing to business people—most of all, their competitors.

Within the following months, I noticed more and more competitors establishing a presence on Facebook, trying to get a foothold, and with varying degrees of success… but that’s not the point of this story.

Looking back, I realize none of them clicked the “Sign up” button because of the text, font, color, size or placement of the button.

Unlocking The True Power of Storytelling

If you’re still reading, I hope it’s beginning to make sense when I say the burden of action doesn’t fall squarely on the text of the button itself.

It’s not about unlocking the right combination of two or three words.

Oh no, it’s far deeper than that.

How have you made your prospect feel? Do you, through every step of your marketing funnel, incite some kind of emotion, that bestows a sense of airiness, confidence or empowerment (or whatever emotion would best correspond with your brand)?

See, what I didn’t know until I read that post I was telling you about earlier, was that when information is presented in a “just the facts ma’am” kind of way, it only reaches the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain, areas used for decoding language and interpreting the meaning of words, but not much more than that.

calls to action can activate the brainimage source  

It’s only when information is presented through story that even the most boring of facts can have a visceral impact on a reader.

According to a study by Spanish researchers, sensory areas of the brain will activate when seeing sense-related words.

“When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark…

[Likewise] metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.”

Considering how numbing CTA testing is, I wonder if the call to action is really what’s holding you back?

When Was The Last Time You Went To The Movies?

When I think about what makes good online marketing, I often look at what gets me to take action in the real world.

Perhaps the most painful to justify yet pleasant experiences for me is going to the movies. If you want to get on my good side, send me movie passes. Seriously, I’ll be your friend forever.

Anyways, the way movies are marketed fascinate me. Primarily because they hinge on few things:

  1. Creating a successful trailer
  2. Getting that trailer in front of the right people
  3. Getting directors, actors, musicians and anyone relevant in front of press, media and blogs to raise awareness

Now, I realize boiling it down to three steps may be over-simplifying things a bit, but the truth is most of what goes into movie marketing depends on you seeing the trailer and thinking it’s interesting enough to go.

I believe the reaction they’re looking for is “Oh, I can’t wait to see that.” If the trailer really stands out, you like the Facebook page and check for updates. In some cases, the man with the graveled voice tells you to “order your tickets on Fandango now,” but mostly it’s up to you. Or is it?

Above, you’ll notice I’ve embedded a trailer for the upcoming movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I have every intention of seeing when it’s released in the theaters on March 7th.

Evaluating my own desire to see the movie, I decided to look up “The Psychology Behind Movie Trailers” to see what filmmakers are doing to get me—mostly unprompted—to spend upwards of $ 50 dollars for a night out at the movies.

As a consumer, I was surprised. As a marketer, not so much. Here are a few snippets from the article:

“Trailers will also use music to relate the movie to movies in the past.

Often movies will draw from similar famous movies or from established classical music so that a viewer will relate the potential of the new movie experience to the experience they had with the original movie.

Movie trailers, like movie posters, will alter colors within the trailer to adjust the moods of the viewers. Darker colors for more intense action-oriented pictures or more depressing movies and lighter, cooler, brighter colors typically communicate more humorous, lighter fare.”

The structure, tendencies, color, and sound are all related to the energy that is created by the trailer.

The reality of the situation is, the trailer for Grand Budapest Hotel is so good, I won’t need a single call to action to encourage me to see it.

The decision has already been made, so the “call to action” is inconsequential.

What about you? Do you respond to the wording of a call to action, or has your mind already been made up by the time you see it?

Check out other Crazy Egg articles by Tommy Walker.

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