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Monday, May. 24, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Secondary Calls to Action: Unsung Heroes of Persuasion

By Brendan Regan
May 24th, 2010

Calls to Action: The Basics

We all know what a “call to action” is: a link or button that urges your prospect to take an action, and move forward in some sort of process.  According to the seminal book written by FutureNow’s founders, calls to action are “motivations for the visitor to move further into the sales process.”

I would say that, in recent years, the definition of a call to action has been expanded to include the interactive element on the website that the visitor clicks to take action, e.g. a text link or a button.  Much attention is paid to the design and testing of calls to action, especially on landing pages, and rightly so.  Focusing on optimizing calls to action will generally increase conversions.

However, are you ready to move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to calls to action, and focus on an overlooked aspect of these powerful conversion rate optimization tools?  Good!

Primary vs. Secondary Calls to Action

Let’s first think about a web page…any web page.  It should have a “Primary” call to action, which fits the definition above; it’s the thing the visitor should click if they’re ready to take the action you want them to take.  And they will, if they’re ready, but what if they’re not ready or confident enough to take the action you’re asking of them?

That brings us to the concept of “Secondary” calls to action.  Secondary calls to action are motivations and interactive elements offered to the prospect in case they aren’t ready to take the primary action. Visitors won’t do anything they aren’t ready for, so it’s wise to offer them alternate choices.

Some examples of websites, primary calls to action, and secondary calls to action:

eCommerce site | Add to Cart (Primary) | View Product Details (Secondary)

Lead generation site | Contact Us (Primary) | View Product Demo (Secondary)

Subscription site | Sign Up (Primary) | Take a Free Trial (Secondary)

In each case, you want the prospect to convert via the Primary, but the prospect may not be ready.  They may, however, be ready to take a Secondary call to action and stay engaged with your site.  And isn’t that better than them leaving and checking out a competitor?

As we’ll see, the Primary should always be the most visually prominent element, and the Secondary call(s) to action should be proximate, yet less prominent.

Examples & Pairings of Calls to Action

From Web Form Design by L. Wroblewski

From Web Form Design by L. Wroblewski

I’m going to share some of my favorite screenshots [click any to enlarge] of Primary and Secondary calls to action, but am going to start by recommending the book Web Form Design by Luke Wroblewski.  Chapter 6 covers this concept quite well from a usability standpoint.

The book illustrates how design decisions to use different HTML elements, colors, placements, and highlighting can cue users on which is the Primary Action and which is the Secondary.  My preference is to use buttons for Primary and links for Secondary, but that is a specific that’s easy to test for each individual site.

Another best practice is to use copy to create an environment where the prospect feels comfortable taking either option.  Structuring the labels of the calls to action as “either/or” or “yes/no” pairs is often persuasive; see the example from TripIt’s confirmation page as a primary-secondary-cta-tripitgood example.

This approach can be used almost anywhere, or on any type of page on a website.

One of my pet peeves is the giant “hero” image or slideshow that lives at the top of many, many homepages, yet offers no understandable calls to action to move forward.  Or, these hero images do offer a call to action, but leave no flexibility for those who aren’t yet persuaded to do what is being asked of them.  Why should I sign up for something if I just landed on your homepage?

primary-secondary-CTA.formspringSee this nice example from FormSpring, where the hero image on the homepage offers a structured Primary and Secondary call to action within the same graphic.  The Primary is obvious and overt, while the Secondary is subtle, but still useful to many.

As I look through my screenshot library (Yes, I’m a screenshot addict just like Bryan Eisenberg), I’m realizing I could write about examples all day, but you’d get tired of reading them.  So, I’ll just share one more from the lead generation and B2B environment.

primary-secondary-entelliumIn the complex sales environment common to B2B sites, offering Secondary calls to action is crucial since the site needs to nurture prospects through a potentially long conversion process.  This last example is from the bottom of a B2B page.  Notice how it explicitly structures the thought process in terms of “next step,” which is to download a white paper (and become a lead in the process), and “other options” which can still be tracked and which will nurture the prospect along.  The key to this approach is to make sure the calls to action are relevant to the page the prospect is on.

How to Start Optimizing

Assuming you get this concept and want to try it out for yourself, you can apply a continuous marketing optimization system like we use with our clients.  If you use your own system, get started by following these steps to optimize pages for Secondary calls to action, and for conversion rate in general.

  1. Document what your Primary and Secondary calls to action should be.  Where would a visitor go if they clicked on them?
  2. Audit your site to find pages that are missing secondary calls to action.  Once cataloged, prioritize them so you know which pages to work on first.
  3. Develop a “look and feel” for your Primary and Secondary calls to action.  It could be as simple as using buttons for Primary and links for Secondary, or it could be more elegant like some of the example sites.  Either way, it helps to be consistent so that visitors learn, over time, how your calls to action work.
  4. Start testing. The real value of Secondary calls to action is to keep your prospects engaged and nurture them to an eventual conversion.  So, don’t expect that adding Secondaries will immediately lift conversion rate.  Pay attention to bounce rates and exit rates on the pages you add Secondary calls to action to.  Those KPIs should improve by going down.

Happy optimizing, and keep us posted on the secondary calls to action you’re testing, and the results your tests yield!

Add Your Comments

Comments (44)

  1. That’s a very interesting article, Brendan. Secondary calls to action are often over-looked and, like you say, are very important to keep a visitor on your site, rather than going to a competitor’s. A good way to test the effectiveness of these is with the Website Optimiser and AdWords Search Funnels, as well as with the Analytics goal funnels.

  2. As an ecommerce site, we are using link secondary call action. And we are presenting two secondary call to actions, one is “sign up for price alert” another is “email to friend”. When the product is out of stock, we use “sign up for stock alert”.

  3. [...] View full post on Conversion Rate Optimization & Marketing Blog | FutureNow, Inc [...]

  4. Learned a lot of insights from this post. There should always be a backup plan and the secondary calls to action is the backup plan. If visitors are not yet ready to buy then it just makes sense to give something that can cause them to buy. Thanks for sharing this post!

  5. Thanks, Brendan.

    Very important to have secondary CTAs on a landing page – otherwise people who aren’t ready for a home run have nowhere to go and nothing to do except press the back button.

  6. Often the seondary call to action can keep a visitor at the site just long enough so that they eventually take the primary call to action. Offering something free and of value is a good way to do this.

  7. Visitors do stay more time in your website if you offer some free trial or something like that.

  8. Too few sites use a secondary call to action. Reader engagement is all you have.

    Not using an ‘option B’ allows the customer to leave without engaging.

  9. Based on your examples I employ multiple primary and secondary calls to action on my site, namely product details, demo, signup and contact.
    However all call to actions do not deliver if the page you want to take the prospective customer action on is not optimized for the call.

  10. While much attention has been paid to primarily calls of action, secondary calls have been all but ignored. It is these secondary call to action which gradually convinces the viewer to take the leap and press the button.

  11. Interesting article. I like the way in which it gives the user a 2nd option. However that said if these 2nd call to actions are not written clearly ie what the 2nd call to action does, dont you run the risk of confusing your visitors?

  12. Somebody mentioned in the comments that visitors stay more time in your website if you offer some free trial or give away freebies and I completely agree with that.

  13. @KC: Absolutely. The same logic/rules of any call to action or link apply. E.g. the link should explicitly set the expectation of what you will deliver after the click. Then, you have to actually deliver it!

  14. Looks like you gave me some serious new insights I didn’t consider beforehand. I am losing a lot of customers cause they are not yet ready to click purchase and I seem to force them into something.

    Always great reading your articles!

  15. This is a great idea that i haven’t quite heard of before! Having a secondary call to action would definitely increase conversion rates! It’s an amazing business tactic that i think everyone should use! Thanks for the eye opener! great information!

  16. I tried freebies… and free content. Worked perfect for my clients!

  17. [...] Secondary Calls to Action: Unsung Heroes of Persuasion [...]

  18. ive tried giving away freebies an special offers its worked for me in the past but not always to the effect i wanted

  19. Persuasion comes from many different sources, sometimes it is the unlikely suspects that bring it home.

  20. Again, an obvious but overlooked usability touch that can get great results. Remember though that techniques that work in some environments don’t always cut it in others so test, test, test!

  21. Very useful. We’re just developing the ecommerce element to our site and we are just looking at the best way of ‘encouraging’ customers to convert

  22. Secondary calls to action – I guess a lot of people are so lazy with their primary calls to action it’s not hard to see why secondary calls to action are often left out completely.

    Seems to me that too many people have bought into the fantasy that Internet marketing = easy money that they really don’t treat this Website stuff in the same way as offline marketing.

    I guess we all need to get it imprinted into our brains that Internet marketing is a business just like any other.

    More quality articles like this one can only help with our much-needed education.

    Thanks for all of your hard work.

  23. Hey never thought about it. I just have a form on every page to fill in… maybe I need to look at CTAs in more detail.

    BTW the WEWE test is really great!

  24. [...] Secondary calls to action, the unsung heroes of persuasion [...]

  25. Very good points. I also find that if you have a lot of quality secondary calls to action, it does not come off so pushy in terms of selling.

  26. I guess for a blog the primary would be the obvious banner ads but what would be the secondary? The subscribe button is usually as big as the banner ads. I usually use links as primary within my posts also so would that really be secondary?

  27. Nice article. I think that secondary cta are important as primary! The most important thing for me is the fact, that call to action is always availabble for the user even while scroll down!

  28. This is a great post! It’s common to see that Secondary calls to action are typically overlooked, but are probably the one thing to help guarantee success with that motivation or interactive element that’s offered to them.

  29. I never used secondary calls to action but this article convinced me to try changing and optimize my website like that. The “visual” examples are interesting.

  30. It is important to note as well that the secondary calls do not distract the primary calls as the primary calls is the one that is usually converting a customer to a paying customer. The wallet votes ultimately and the primary call must be tailored for that.

  31. secondary calls to action must match the tone of the other persuasions present, otherwise good read!

  32. [...] [...]

  33. [...] your prospective affiliates, or those of them that may not be ready to to take the primary action (concept explained here). Are you inviting them to contact you anyway, providing them with enough of contact info and [...]

  34. [...] your prospective affiliates, or those of them that may not be ready to to take the primary action (concept explained here). Are you inviting them to contact you anyway, providing them with enough of contact info and [...]

  35. secondary calls to action must match the tone of the other persuasions present, otherwise good read!

  36. [...] [...]

  37. It is important to note as well that the secondary calls do not distract the primary calls as the primary calls is the one that is usually converting a customer to a paying customer. The wallet votes ultimately and the primary call must be tailored for that.

  38. that’s true that if you need visitors to stay longer to Ur site then you need to provide then with some cache material provided some free trials options……

  39. Using secondary call to action always seems to work far better!
    Basically because the target has already committed once before so goes again to purchase :)

  40. When using secondary call action always seems to work much better!

  41. Over time, I’ve learned this hard way. Deliver value in whatever you are doing. When you keep delivering great value, eventually, you will start to see positive changes.

    If you can implement these CTA techniques and all, it would be the best blend, indeed :)

  42. Very good insights which many of us dont consider attentively. I’ve personally never used secondary calls on my sites as I was worried they could distract the visitor from the primary call.

  43. Interesting.. I generally always have a secondary call to action, but never really thought of it as a CTA

  44. Very useful. We’re just developing the ecommerce element to our site and we are just looking at the best way of ‘encouraging’ customers to convert

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