Fear and Desire: Anatomy of the Call to Action

call to action

What’s the difference between great literature and great content? Great literature may entertain or move but great content compels the reader to do something. This is the power of an effective call to action.

The call to action, or CTA, has been around as long as marketing itself. In newspaper ads and on billboards we will often see a ‘call now’ CTA or ‘visit our nearby store’. Radio or TV ads may do something similar. These could also be used online but more often than not this online CTA will be used in a button or link, which invites the reader to click to buy a product, download resources or visit another page for more information. The CTA is therefore crucial to the success of the website, so how do we write a great one?

He shoots, he scores!

Let’s paint a picture with an analogy. In football, not every player shoots every time they get the ball. There is a build-up play of passing and movement before the team gets the ball to a player in a great position to shoot and score. The same can be said for the best content. It provides the build-up to allow the CTA to do its work. So the content we write should be seen in this context. It is not enough to write interestingly and well. We must take the reader on a journey designed to build reasons for the reader to click on our CTA. This is our ‘goal’.

What makes great build-up play?

Using our football analogy again, there are many different styles of play. Think about the passing of Spain, pressing of Germany or the pace of England. As writers, we are being asked to play in the ‘team’ of our client. So it is important to match the tone of their brand, product or service. There will often be briefing guidelines to follow and you can visit their website to get a feel for how they like to talk to their customers. You can also use your common sense as a writer. How would a professional services firm like to talk to their corporate clients? How would this differ from a youthful fashion label?

Fear and desire: accessing emotion to generate action

We have talked about understanding our client. Now we must understand their customer. Why do their customers buy? We can think about this in terms of two basic human emotions: fear and desire.

People often buy out of fear. This can be fear of missing out on a great deal; fear of being unfashionable; fear of being sick. We can build on these emotions in our copy and we can also use them in our CTAs. For example, we can use scarcity to create a fear of missing out in CTAs like ‘limited offer,’ ‘last few remaining,’ ‘offer ends tomorrow’ and so on. For our unfashionable fears we can talk about ‘this season’s must-have’ and for health fears we can invite readers to ‘click here for your healthier lifestyle’.

The other side of the emotional coin from fear is desire. Most of us desire improvements in some area of our life. We want to be healthier, wealthier, wiser or more attractive. A good CTA can play on these desires. We can immediately see how phrases like ‘Guaranteed weight loss,’ ‘secure your financial future’ or ‘create a new you’ might satisfy these desires.

What about CTAs for corporate customers?

There is no doubt that business to business (B2B) clients are different from business to consumer (B2C) clients. Corporate customers buy for different reasons compared to consumers. Broadly speaking, a corporation will buy to:

  • Increase profits
  • Decrease costs
  • Conform to legislation
  • Maintain or replace infrastructure

So does that mean we can’t use emotion? Not at all. Remember that even in companies it is people who make buying decisions. These people also have emotions, and we can play to those. For example, a buyer may fear legal action if he does not conform to legislation, or he may desire increased profits.

Fear and desire example: Apple & IBM

In the early days of computing, the market was fragmented with many confusing new technologies and companies. IBM were the early market leaders and they wanted to protect their position by dissuading customers from new companies and potentially better technologies. One of the ways they did this was by coming up with the catchphrase, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. Clearly this was playing directly to the fears of corporate buying managers.

One of the new competitor companies was Apple. Legend has it that their marketing people retorted with, “Nobody ever got promoted, either.” Apple was identifying its brand with more adventurous buyers and playing on their desire to be promoted.

Short, sharp and maybe even shocking: the phrasing of the CTA

We have looked at how the CTA must fit with the rest of our copy and how it is the final step in a journey towards buying. We have also seen how buyers are moved to action by emotions and how we can incorporate fear and desire into our CTAs to leverage those emotions. Now, what about those final few words themselves?

Be short

Remember the CTA is the final ‘shot at goal’ after the build-up of our copy. It doesn’t need to be long. Resist the temptation to be over-elaborate and instead simply think of a few words to sum up the benefits highlighted in the content.

Be sharp

Don’t use complex words. Use simple, easy to understand phrasing. We don’t want to confuse the reader at this vital point, so now is not the time to demonstrate your excellent vocabulary. Be sharp, also, by starting with a verb. These action words, such as buy, join, click, download etc. imply action, which is what we are asking for. They also bring into sharp focus the exact action we want the reader to take.

Be shocking?

OK, our clients may not always want us to shock. But if we can think of phrasing that stands out from the crowd, we might just attract more of those precious clicks. And that keeps our clients coming back for more!

Written by Derek M


  1. Dianemc - November 9, 2016 @ 5:04 pm

    Good article. Like the points about different customer types influencing content. And the way that you made it understandable.

    • greatcontent - November 9, 2016 @ 6:30 pm

      Thanks for your feedback Diane! We always love to hear what you our writers think and hope that we can give you food for thought 🙂

  2. Robert - November 9, 2016 @ 7:07 pm

    Excellent article Derek! I always try to keep in mind the old rules for any sales pitch. These can be remembered by the letters AIDA which form the four essential elements, those being:-
    In the past, great examples of this were found in some of those dreadful Readers’ Digest subscription offers which came complete with time-limited double value competition prizes and lots of peel and stick labels to show if you would prefer to win a house or a sackful of cash!
    Keep up the good work.


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