The Digital Signage Insider

Digital signage best practices: 5 tips for your call to action

Published on: 2008-08-29

Whether your digital signs are supposed to be pitching a product, showing sports scores and trivia contests, or reminding students to visit the bake sale downstairs, you've probably realized there are two distinct challenges to making effective content for them. The first is merely getting people to look at the screen. With posters, fliers and displays inside, billboards and all kinds of out-of-home ads outside, and of course the TVs, radios, computers and mobile devices that we're constantly surrounded by, there are many things competing for our attention. So getting someone to stop and look at your sign is an achievement in itself. But once you do that, you're still faced with a second, even bigger challenge: getting the viewer to take action based on your content. As regular readers of this blog know, one of the most powerful tools for convincing a viewer to actually do something is the call to action (CTA). Today I want to talk about some of the best practices for creating powerful and compelling call to action statements.

The call to action should be clear, concise and compelling

As I started to think about scenarios for testing out different call to action techniques, I once again turned to web marketing for inspiration. Like out-of-home advertisements, Internet ads have but a few seconds to grab a viewer's attention and try to get them to act. Also like the OOH folks, Internet advertisers have to contend with lots of other viewer distractions. However, unlike those of us in the digital signage space, web marketers have had a longer time to fine-tune their craft. And with the number of people using the Internet and the amount of money spent on e-commerce transactions, the stakes are higher too, which means that many more people have spent more time and money on research and development of best practices. After a lot of research and some trial and error, I found that there are three primary characteristics of good call to action text. I call them the 3 C's.

We've actually talked about the first two C's before. They are clarity and conciseness, and we covered them in an article about writing copy and call-to-action statements for digital signage. The rules from that article carry over directly to our discussion today. However, a successful call to action has to be more than just clear and concise, and that's where the third "C" comes into play. A successful call to action must also be compelling. A compelling statement drives viewers to take action. The more quickly and easily the action can be completed, the greater your "conversion rate" will be. If the purpose of your sign is anything other than to sit there and look cool (which admittedly is the purpose of some installations), converting viewers into actors is a very important thing -- maybe the most important.

5 strategies for getting people to take action

While there is no sure-fire formula for writing a compelling CTA, here are some tips and tricks that might help:
  1. Target common needs: Pulling a page directly out of Dr. Abraham Maslow's playbook, focus your text on some of humanity's great needs. Depending on what you're trying to accomplish, you might pick from basic needs like food and shelter, or extend all the way through the self-actualization needs that compel people to make themselves better. For example, if your campaign for the Carrot Grower's Association of America centers around the CTA "Buy Carrots", you might try changing it to "Stay fit. Eat healthy. Buy carrots." It's a bit longer, but it calls on physical and esteem needs to make the sale.

  2. Use trigger words to grab attention: Your call to action needs to be short (usually no more than six words), so make sure they count. Use trigger words like Money, Discovery, Save, Easy, New, Love, Health, Proven, You, Results, Guaranteed and Safety to evoke a need or grab attention from your audience.

  3. Test the "reading level" of the text: We sometimes use big or complex words in the name of brevity, but this can put a limit on the number of people who can actually read our signs. For example, "Buy carrots for a delicious, high-fiber, vitamin-rich snack" scores an 11 on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale (i.e., you'd need an 11th grade education to read it). Change that sentence to "Buy carrots for a delicious, healthy snack," and the grade level drops to 6. That opens your message up to a huge segment of the population that would have had trouble reading the first version.

  4. Use action words and be vivid: As copywriting guru Michael Fortin notes, "Don't stick with mere verbs. Use action words that help paint vivid pictures in the mind. The more vivid the picture is, the more compelling [and memorable] the headline will be. For example, a headline like 'zoom past the confusion' will be better than 'discover how to do it right'".

  5. Use commands: We've talked about this one before. It's so elementary, but so important. Tell your audience exactly what you want them to do, and provided it's easy enough (or has a big enough potential upside for them), they might just do it.
Finding the right combination

Are there more than five tips for writing compelling content? Sure, we've come up with dozens (and you can probably think up a bunch more on your own), and CTAs are just one aspect of best practices for digital signage. The point here is that your call to action is perhaps the single most important thing that will appear on your digital signs. It will probably be only a few words long, but those few words have a big job to do. Don't be afraid to try different calls to action, and don't assume the first one you come up with will work best. But do spend some time thinking about this: if you could use only five or six words to get your entire message out, what would they be? Those are the ones to focus on.

What's your favorite method for writing a call-to-action? Have you discovered any other formulas that work virtually every time?

Leave a comment and let me know. Email and RSS subscribers, click the link below to access the comment form.


+1 # Eric Dytzel 2008-09-05 14:16
This is an excellent article. One word I did not see however was "emotion". (I hope I didn't miss it). I started my advertising training and career in 1977 attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and I have seen a lot of changes in how advertising is produced from old camera ready illustrations to todays digital signage. One truth has always been there througout the years. People buy when an emotional trigger has been touched. Yes people weigh the cost and the need and try to justify their purchases, especially for big ticket items. But in the end when it comes down to it the thing that makes them buy is to satisfy a desire and desire is one of the most powerful emotions there is to tap into. Just like the article says, find a trigger word then pull that trigger to shoot into that emotion. (that sounds kind of cheesy but you know what I meana) Great article..........eric
+1 # Bill Gerba 2008-09-08 13:49
Hi Eric, If you're talking about finding the word on Maslow's needs pyramid, I'd argue that "emotion" fits nicely in either the love/belonging or esteem needs categories. If you're talking about using emotion effectively in digital sign content, that's a different, though very interesting discussion. For "glance media" like digital screens in shopping aisles, there's little time to tell a story, let alone make an emotional connection. Can it be done at all? Of course. I could throw a static image of the Twin Towers up on a screen for a second and make a powerful connection with virtually everyone (in the US at least). But as that example might suggest, doing so is not always a smart thing, and it's probably very difficult to control. For digital signage content that has more of an opportunity to tell a story (screens placed in waiting areas, for example), emotion has a chance to play a greater role.
0 # Leonard Karake 2008-10-08 12:28
What do u think about digital signage inside buses. I believe this is a captive audience and there can be accurate measurement by the number of commuters. Why is there no digital signage network for the long distance buses like greyhound.
0 # Bill Gerba 2008-10-09 14:36
Hi Leonard, I've seen a number of networks for short-haul commuter bus lines come and go. Like taxi networks, they offered a captive audience and the ability to provide useful information paid for by targeted ads. However, in every case that I'm aware of, the networks were eventually killed due to customer backlash -- those passengers disliked being unable to escape the screens. It probably had a fair bit to do with the implementation of these networks (e.g. always using sound, showing annoying content, etc.), but that's the history as far as I'm aware of it.
0 # Leonard Karake 2008-10-31 11:23
What about TransitTV in the US and VisionMedia in China? From what u say, these networks failed because they showed bad content. In the case of long distance journeys, I would imagine, interesting content on TV screens would be a welcome distraction and a way to pass the time thus making the journey more bearable.
-1 # Bill Gerba 2008-11-11 15:23
Hi Leonard, TransitTV failed, I think, because nobody wanted to buy ad time. No revenue = no way to continue to work out the kinks in the network. I can't speak to the Vision situation as I don't follow the China market that closely, but I'd suspect it was something similar. While everybody thinks "oh, if I show cool content people will watch," that doesn't seem to have worked out for transit networks so far.
0 # Leonard Karake 2008-11-15 04:43
TransitTVTMs content is placed on TV screens in public transportation systems in five major U.S. markets. In seven years of operation,the company has grown from having one market in Orlando, to numbering 8,000 screens on 4,000 vehicles in cities including Los Angeles, Atlanta,Chicago, Milwaukee and Norfolk. Transit TV is enjoying the success of attracting major advertisers such as McDonaldTMs, TNT and General Mills

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