Action! What Action?

One of the most perplexing developments in B2B communications over the past several decades concerns something we refer to as the “call to action.” The perplexing development is that most ads today don’t have one.

In devising the call to action, you ask yourself, “what do we want the reader (or viewer) to do as a result of seeing our ad?” When I started in this business, it was the first thing you considered. Today, it scarcely receives a moment’s notice.

Our advertising forefathers must be spinning in their graves. One of the earliest books on our profession, titled “Scientific Advertising” by famed copywriter Claude Hopkins (published in 1923), was primarily about ways to optimize results from ad placements. Hopkins’ view was that advertising practitioners were like scientists, changing formulas to create the ultimate best result. A pinch more of this, a touch less of that, and voilà – the recipe for success is created.

Of course, the media options were pretty simple in 1923, but Hopkins advocated some fairly sophisticated techniques, such as split runs with optional headlines and visuals exposed to different segments of a publication’s circulation.

Another famous ad pioneer, David Ogilvy, started his career in research and was fascinated to observe which approaches worked better as he tried to figure out why. Marion Harper, former chairman of McCann-Erickson who created the first large ad agency network, Interpublic, rose to fame through that agency’s research department. Harper earned his spurs by creating metrics and defining characteristics for successful ads versus less successful ones.

The point of this is that early ads actually had a point. They were designed to achieve a specific result, and the better they were at doing that, the more successful they were judged to be. Today, it seems like running the ad is the point, and “log on to our website” is the only suggested action the reader is required to take.

Many years ago, I was privileged to speak at a Direct Marketing Association annual conference and take part in several of their seminars. You learn very quickly about the importance of “the offer” in direct marketing. They prioritize it. They maximize it. They obsess over it. Of all the possible enticements you could dangle in front of prospective buyers, what is the most likely to produce the desired result? That’s what direct marketers want to hit you with, right between the eyes. Nothing left to chance.

Think how much better B2B advertising would be if we did that, too. Instead of just saying “we’re the best,” we could present compelling reasons why prospects should truly believe that. What a concept!

No more ads that show the “full product line” without mention of why your line might have something extra to offer. No more borrowed interest headlines and visuals that imply you’re faster (race cars) or more reliable (sleep better tonight), or more multi-purpose (swiss army knives), or more innovative (light bulbs).

Instead of all that, we’d have to write a specific statement about why we think you should select us, and then come up with a visual concept to stop you from turning the page or scrolling down too quickly.

In my opinion, effective advertising should start with the end result in mind. Decide what action you’d like your prospective buyers to take, and then work back from there. The ad you end up with will probably be a lot different than the one you thought you were going to create.

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