May 19, 2017 Kevin Erb

Who’s the boss?

Call to action. Perhaps the three most important words in marketing – important because they should clearly define why it is we’re doing what we’re doing – be it an ad, brochure, circular, email, etc. What do we want people to do when they see/hear/read this? What’s our call to action? And while prevailing industry wisdom is to keep calls to action simple, straightforward and to the point, a new academic paper shows that something else marketers take for granted may actually backfire on them – especially with their most important customers.

For brands, the tendency to be direct (and even assertive) in their calls to action is obvious, especially in our increasingly fractured media landscape. Nuance is no good when you only have a few seconds – if that – of a consumers’ (relatively) undivided attention. Instead of nuance, brands often emphasize “now” – Buy now! Call now! Order now! Visit now!

And that’s where they can run into trouble, as the paper, publishing soon in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, argues. Simply put, consumers don’t like being told what to do – or even the feeling that they’re being told what to do. Instead, they have an instinctual need to feel like they are making their own choices. The challenge for marketers, then, is to make that choice easy for consumers – but in a way that makes them feel as if they’re making the decision themselves.

Of course, this is a very fine line; one that can be constantly shifting and must be constantly minded. The best results, the paper shows, come from ads that are “informative and hint at action” for the consumer. Informative is easy, sure, but “hint?” How do marketers determine between a hint and a harangue? As we say often, this is where understanding your audience and your customers to an extreme degree is so important. The better you know them, the better you know just how far to push that hint without becoming overly assertive and off-putting.

As if marketers didn’t have enough to fret about, this is something new and not insignificant. The good news, however, is that it’s also a reminder that brands who work consistently to create an ongoing dialogue with their customers are much better positioned to avoid being too assertive – and instead hit home runs with their hints of action.

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