Do CTAs Even Work Anymore?

This Week In Writing, we explore the “necessary evil” of calls to action and ask if they are any better than tacky banner ads.

Do CTAs Even Work Anymore?
Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia / Unsplash

I've been frustrated with calls to action (CTAs) for some time. Typically at the end of online articles, CTAs encourage the reader to do something -- typically in the writer's best interest. It's usually a subscription request, affiliate link, or another way to try and capture information. The CTA that I use most often is a share button.

Over the years, I've seen people try to dress up CTAs. Some tried to focus on the value for readers, but that usually results in a downloadable guide or workbook. Is that of value to the reader? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here's my hypothesis: CTAs are just ads, and, like other forms of online advertising, our brains are being trained to ignore them.

I often get submissions to The Writing Cooperative, where CTAs are as long (sometimes longer) as the article itself. In an age where people read less and skim more, what's all that for? To make things worse, the never-ending explanations about why someone should click a CTA often feel akin to a pyramid scheme.

Thankfully, Medium announced it's terminating the referral link program next week. This will help reduce the number of spammy CTAs, but they'll likely just get replaced with something else.

Over the last few weeks, I've asked about CTA effectiveness in multiple places. Across all of the places, including My Writing Community on Discord, I received most impartial to adverse reactions. The only positive responses about CTAs I received were from full-time writers who consider them essential to their business. One of those writers said they consider CTAs a mark of professionalism, and articles without them feel amateurish -- an interesting perspective.

I'm not impressed by CTAs, and they are not a necessary evil, as one commenter called them. I think CTAs are effective for already successful writers, and everyone else follows suit, hoping they'll find equal success.

Last week during a bout of insomnia, I read all 70 comments on the Medium announcement. Not one person lamented the loss of referral income but multiple people worried about the soon-be-broken links at the end of all their stories. This tells me that the number of people earning from referral links is likely low, another reason why CTAs are ineffective. And, while I love Medium and applaud this decision, it reinforces why writers should control their content and links.

The only clever use of CTAs I've seen is in Platformer. At the end of each issue, Casey Newton customizes a request for tips based on the issue's content. For example, in a February issue about Elon Musk firing an engineer over his tweet's view counts, Casey's CTA read, "Send us tips, comments, questions, and view counts for Musk tweets: [email protected] and [email protected]." Like I said, clever.

It's time for some CTA experimentation. Instead of writing unsolicited ad content, it's time to get creative. I'm still determining what this looks like, but I know there needs to be intentionality behind every CTA we write. Maybe, instead of trying to get people to buy a toolkit or subscribe to a list, we think about what might be in the reader's interest?

As a reader of This Week In Writing, what kind of CTA would you like to see? What would encourage you to click? Let me know. And, yes, I totally see what I did there.

Speaking of CTAs, there is a very slight policy change for The Writing Cooperative submissions:

Effectively immediately, we no longer permit a list of links to "read next." Those lists of embedded links are entirely unnecessary since Medium already includes recommended articles. Plus, they're pretty spammy.

Further, I've been lenient on CTAs, especially when combined with author bios. I'm going to stop being so forgiving and hold people to the requirement of "three or fewer lines of unbolded text."

Medium Day Is Coming

My Medium Day Q&A was accepted, I'm just waiting to hear what time it's scheduled for. Medium Day is August 12 and includes live panels and discussions across the platform. Want to get notified as soon as my session has a time slot? Pre-register and pre-submit your questions. This will help me plan the session and ensure I can answer as many questions as possible.

AI-Based Search Has A Niche Site Discovery Problem

A few weeks ago, I explained how AI-powered search could be a significant problem for content discovery. While it will provide answers, it will remove the ability to find unique websites. I ran into the perfect example this week.

While watching a Cubs game, I wondered what font they use on the scoreboard at Wrigley Field. Searching Google, the first result was a terrible, SEO-laden bit of nonsense that didn't answer the question but provided a lot of useless facts about Wrigley Field.

Two or three results down, I found a fantastic website called Fonts In Use that answered my question in style. Sure, the pivot to AI could likely answer my question, but it would not have introduced me to an amazing website. That'd be a shame.