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Any small business worth its salt already has a website, where people can find out how to get in touch or where to order your product. But while getting visitors to check out a web page is hard enough, converting that visitor into a lead or sale is an incredibly tough nut to crack.
That’s where the call-to-action—in the form of buttons, banners, and sliders, among other graphics—comes in.
A call-to-action shouldn’t be confused with pop-up ads, because since nearly the day the internet was born, users have rued the ad that opens a new tab on their browser, provides them with little value, and takes away from their visiting experience.
Instead, a good call-to-action (or CTA) is an essential part of inbound marketing, helping to funnel people towards the parts of the website that bring in the most business or aid in creating recurring visits, like an email signup form.
This is a delicate line to walk:
Too much clutter in the way of your website’s content, too quickly, can drive visitors off the site. But small business owners have seen real results from using CTAs.
“With traffic for our site on the rise, we wanted to make sure we were creating as much recurring business as possible,” says Eric Brantley from BloggerElementary.com. “One thing we’ve done to increase email sign-ups is to add a pop-up form. I’ll admit these things get on my nerves. But data suggests that you’ll see a 50% increase in signups with a pop-up form. So we gave it a try, and our email sign-ups have increased 250% through the form.”
Generally, many websites that implement CTAs see similar results, despite the perception that no one wants anything on a website except exactly what they came for.
To that point, the trick might be to design your CTAs to remain on-message, with the right brand voice, and to provide customers with relevant information or a way to stay informed in the future with minimal effort.
The original pop-up ads were anything but friendly and unobtrusive, which is why internet users everywhere hate them with a passion. (In fact, 68% of searchers would want to block a site entirely if it served them too many ads.)
In the early days of the web, advertising was found to be the most effective revenue stream for websites that were still feeling out the best way to stay solvent. The pop-up ad has been called nothing less than the Internet’s original sin by the creator of the concept itself, Ethan Zimmerman. His reasoning for making the ad “pop” up into a new window was valid at the time, however:
“It was a way to associate an ad with a user’s page without putting it directly on the page, which advertisers worried would imply an association between their brand and the page’s content… I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I’m sorry. Our intentions were good.”
This is where pop-ups of the past (and the present—though most browsers now come with built-in ad blockers, billions are still generated every year) and the CTAs of today diverge:
While pop-ups are supposed to separate the website’s original page and the advertisement, a call-to-action serves to link one part of the brand with another. And if someone has already demonstrated interest in your brand, serving them more information is more likely to be seen as a bonus rather than a curse.
The difference between a call-to-action and a pop-up ad is more than just the content. It’s also a question of presentation—and how much the CTA interferes with the site’s usability.
Since pop-ups are often blocked by browser add-ons and have basically become so unpopular that, when they do get through to the user, they’re generally ignored, it’s important to use a design for your CTA that’s both attention-grabbing and actually serviceable.
This is where the lightbox or hover-style ad is most effective.
These CTAs hover over the rest of the webpage and are usually on the homepage or other often-visited areas of the site, making it impossible to ignore them. They can present a good opportunity to show off your stand-out copy and design, too.
The mission of the lightbox can be varied: maybe you just want to capture email addresses for a mailing list, or you want to drive users to the site’s product page and get their eyes on your available merchandise as quickly as possible. The design of the lightbox depends mostly on how complex an action you want your users to take.
There are a few options for small business owners who want to get the most out of their CTA. Here are some examples of increasing user interaction:
Don’t serve the call-to-action right away!
Let users read for a few minutes or allow them to get all the way to the end of the page before asking if they’d like similar articles delivered to their inbox, for example. This method is less likely to scare off first-time visitors right away.
If your company has come out with a new product or is selling inbound-friendly content behind a paywall, getting people’s attention off of your “free” pages is a good way to create a bridge between visiting and paying.
Give users something for their time.
CopyBlogger found that making tons of free content available to readers, contingent on their opting-in to a sign-up list, was a compelling offer that upped their opt-in rates by 400%. Give people something for their time and they’ll give their time more easily.
The only way to know if your CTAs are working or driving off potential customers is to test them out.
After seeing his site’s opt-ins skyrocket, Brantley had to be sure it was the CTA—and not another, unseen variable—doing all the heavy lifting.
“We turned the form off for a week, just to see if maybe the increased sign-ups could be attributed to recent traffic increases, and the numbers dropped back down to status quo,” says Brantley. “After turning it back on, numbers quickly climbed again.”
Services like Google Analytics, Salesforce, and even WordPress plug-ins let businesses run “A/B” testing on their hover CTAs.
An A/B test is when you run an experiment that has only one variation.
For example, you can design a call-to-action with a button that says “Get Started Here” or “Click Here To Learn More”, and then see which one is more effective. You can also compare site activity with a CTA or without one and see if user behavior is drastically altered.
Plenty of sites and businesses have the numbers to show that a good CTA single-handedly increased the number of people receiving an email newsletter or traffic to a particular page.
Those numbers can vary greatly, however: Blu Skin Care reports a 20% increase in traffic to their product page, while Entrepreneur.com says sales rose 162% with a hover ad.
It all depends on what you’re using your CTAs to accomplish:
Some sites use “Exit CTAs,” which promise discounts to users who look like they’re about to exit the page. Others will simply ask you upfront if you want to subscribe to their newsletter, which will increase their readership and hopefully their ad revenue.
The goals of your business will dictate how to design and implement your CTAs—from there, it’s just about providing quality content and information to keep your readers engaged and not feeling as though they’ve been tricked.
The main takeaway for many small business owners is that they’ve been lead to believe, mostly through pop culture and past customer behavior, that pop-ups of any kind are awful.
But hover or lightbox ads generally have a slightly higher clickthrough rate than other types of pop-ups, and for some users, their experience just isn’t marred by the occasional intrusion—especially if that “intrusion” actually provides value.
“Just because something is not your preference, doesn’t mean it’s not effective for others,” says Brantley, on what he thought was an “annoying” practice of implementing ads. “But you can’t argue with results.”