Content, Conversion and Calls to Action: Untangling the Ugly Mess

You can’t write effective CTAs without first understanding your customer buying cycles and their associated need states. Joel Klettke demonstrates how to discover these paths and what calls to action they should lead to.

Let’s just come out swingin’, folks: Businesses have turned what should be a formulaic, calculated online conversion process into a jumbled tangle with a hairy mess of content at the centre.


They build a gorgeous website, create all kinds of resources (sometimes with a strategy in mind, often without) and then slap on a weak “Call us for more information!” call to action (CTA) at the end – not quite an afterthought, but not exactly a focal point.

So then, you’ve got this:


Of course, failing CTAs aren’t always so obvious. Many will convert despite themselves – just not at the level the business might have hoped for. For example, do you see anything wrong with this picture?


At first blush, this seems not bad. The CTA is big and clear, they’ve used “free” in the verbiage (a huge mental trigger) and they’ve described – at least in part – what will happen when they’re contacted.

But by the time you’re done with this post, you’re going to understand why this kind of seat-of-your-pants process and callous disregard for the CTA will absolutely cripple your content marketing efforts.

Personas, Need States and Customer head trips

Changing your approach means recognizing that customers do not operate like mindless automatons who will blindly follow whatever conversion path and sales funnels you’ve constructed for them. They may not want to “Buy Now!” – and no matter how good your sales letter or demo video, that may be unlikely to change.

Successful calls-to-action (and thus successful content marketing on the whole) are rooted in an understanding of not only who your customers are (your personas), but where in the buying cycle they are and – more importantly – what the need-states at that stage of the cycle will be.

Once need-states are understood and charted out along the buying cycle, it’s as simple as ensuring that your calls to action are tailored to your personas, contextually targeted to drive a customer into the next stage of the buying cycle and coordinated across your marketing channels.

See? It’s Simple! 

Just kidding – you didn’t think I was going to leave you hanging there, did you? Let’s break that loaded, wordy paragraph down into a more actionable process.

1. Understand & Separate Distinct Personas

As is quickly becoming a well-worn doormat to any content-related endeavour, a clearly defined set of personas is where this all begins. The reason this is important here is that your different markets will respond to different messaging and bring with them different needs.

Let’s use the divorce solutions website I showed earlier as an example: The company offers a pretty broad array of services, from divorce mediation to prenuptial agreements.

Those considering a prenuptial agreement are likely in a far different emotional state than those going through a divorce. Their needs are distinct and unique. Their buying journey will be far different, even as they cross through similar stages (which we’ll get to in a minute).

Messaging intended to alleviate the pain of divorce means worse than nothing to them –  it’s so exclusive that they’ll filter themselves out from the CTA altogether. So what about one, ubiquitous CTA like a “Free Consult”?


The first reason it falls flat is because it addresses a non-specific persona with non-specific language – and this same CTA appears on all the pages of this divorce website, right down to the blog.

Does someone who wants a prenup really need a “Consultation”? We shouldn’t be surprised when the uncomfortable ambiguity and inappropriate messaging thwart conversion attempts.

This doesn’t mean you need 15 different CTAs on a single resource to try and accommodate every persona; keep in mind that leads will self-select and guide themselves through your content, so long as options are presented clearly (i.e. someone in need of a prenup will naturally navigate to that services page).

The takeaway: Begin by understanding and separating your personas so that you can analyze the buying cycle and need states surrounding their journey to purchase. When you don’t, you risk presenting them with irrelevant messaging at crucial touch points and losing the sale.

2. Map out Customer Buying Cycles & Associated Need-States

Though every business and product comes with its own buying cycle, there are stages common to virtually every buyer transaction: Awareness, Evaluation and Purchase.

A common mistake is to hone in solely on “purchase” – the sexiest of the cycles, but also the hardest to get to. As you map out the average customer journey, recognize that there are other valuable events and micro-transactions to push your lead towards and track along the way.

Every piece of content at every different stage of this cycle will meet a different need-state, and as such deserves it’s own, custom-tailored CTA. 

People can move through these need-states at a rapid speed – even within the same piece of content (hello, direct sales!) – but you still need to understand and chart out the process before you fling them into a black box of content and pray for a conversion on the other end.

1. Awareness

At this stage, the customer becomes aware of their need. And while they’re full of questions, those questions are about their own need – not your business (yet).

Leads in the awareness stage are at the top of the funnel. You are strangers; the level of familiarity between you and the customer is low. They don’t trust you yet, so you are not in a position to make purchase demands of the customer. Trying to sell to them at this point is akin to having a Best Buy employee assault you with questions and upsells the moment you walk into the camera aisle. It creates discomfort because the customer hasn’t yet reached the stage of evaluation – they’re just on an information hunt.

Your goals at this stage are to:

  1. Establish credibility
  2. Educate the client on their need
  3. Alleviate the agitation that comes with a lack of information
  4. Secure a means of follow-up (hint: e-mail)

Because these are your goals, CTAs revolving around a hard sale are inappropriate. Instead, your goal is to invite the user to engage and to offer up solutions to their informational needs.

Invitations to download an educational whitepaper, eBook or similar resource (blog post, podcast) would all be appropriate calls to action at this stage – but keep them specific to a specific persona in a specific need-state.

Revisiting our prenup example: The company might choose to focus on creating content surrounding the process of obtaining a prenup and creating an empathetic connection with the customer (e.g. a piece on avoiding conflict when asking for a prenup, or preparing to go through the process as a couple). Trying to jump straight into the consult leaves leads feeling uneasy.


A common way to obtain a means of follow-up is to ask for the lead’s e-mail in exchange for the resource – we see this with sites like HubSpot all the time. You now have the contact information – and confirmed need-state – of a once unfamiliar lead.


Important: Reaching the customer at this stage should be one of your highest priorities, because this is far and away the most formative stage within the cycle. The customer has yet to establish biases or create feature lists for the products and solutions they’re seeking. As part of the education process, you have the ability to help shape their perception of an ideal solution.

2. Evaluation

In the evaluation stage, the customer has moved past recognizing their need. Leads here are in the middle of the funnel. They’re looking for credible solutions to an already established problem.That said. you are no longer  just building up credibility as a voice who can speak to their need – you are now building trust in your specific solution.

This is the nurturing stage of the cycle. They’re aware of the need and know of your product, but they’re either not ready to buy, or they’re not totally convinced. Still, they’re more ready to hear your pitch and to read product-specific information at this stage – and they want to see social proof.

Your goals at this stage are to:

  1. Validate the user’s need for a solution
  2. Present your business as a means to satisfying the original agitation
  3. Provide social and tangible proof of the ROI of your prosposed solution (Build trust)
  4. Alleviate the lead’s aversion to risk

Your prospects are still not ready for a hard sell.  Invitations to learn more or compare will be more readily received. CTAs at this stage should push the customer towards persuasive assets, for example:

  • Product webinars & demo videos
  • Case studies
  • Testimonials (these can also be combined with other assets)
  • Explainer videos
  • FAQ’s

CTAs that surround invitations to a try a free trial, attend an event, view a spec sheet or watch a product demo would all be examples of appropriate calls to action at this stage.

3. Purchase

Welcome, friends, to the bottom of the funnel. Here, leads are itching to make a purchase. You’re no longer strangers – you’re well acquainted with one another. They want to be sold to.

They want feelings of risk to be obliterated.They want to know exactly how to convert, and might like to know what the process of buying your product or hiring your service will look like. They’re already convinced you’ve got a solution they need, so they want to move quickly – no more interruptions.

THIS is where you’ve got to close the deal with the hard sell.

Your goals at this stage are to:

  • Eliminate any lingering feelings of risk
  • Reinforce the benefits to the customer and affirm their purchase decision is a good one
  • Provide specific and detailed insight into the process and set the expectations for delivery
  • Close the deal!

The call to action here must be brain-dead specific and completely tailored to the experience at hand. Ask them to buy, hand them the contact information, get them to submit a form – but whatever you do, make it fast, easy and clear.

3. Identify Your assets – and Create New ones

The CTAs and content pieces I mentioned above (whitepapers, podcasts, landing pages, etc.) are all well and good – as long as they actually exist.

In order to make this advice applicable to your business, you need to take stock of the content assets you have and plot them out along the buying cycle according to the holes in information they fill and the need-states they help to address.

You are almost guaranteed to find gaps in your existing assets – whether that’s a failure to address a specific persona, a lack of purely informational assets or holes in your strategy surrounding social proof and persuasive assets.

The good news is, because you’ve already addressed personas, charted out the buying cycle and mapped need states to it, you can see what needs to be created plain as day – there’s no guessing.

And, bonus surprise,

This is how you ought to be planning your editorial calendar!

… not an arbitrary list of topics based on keyword search volumes or pulling a content format out of a hat (“Hmm, videos sound good this month!”) but by actually taking a look at where your customers are being forced to take leaps of faith between cycle stages and need-states.

You’ve probably got some work to do, so let’s wrap this up with one last, mission-critical bit of strategy.

4. Create Logical Pathways

Remember that ugly tangle at the beginning of the post? That’s what happens when you don’t map out the customer’s buying journey.

Across the assets you create, there are natural pathways between need states along the way to conversion. Your calls to action within every piece of content along the way should serve to help move the lead into the next stage.

Here’s a rough example:

  1. A business owner is frustrated by the difficulty of filing their accounting – specifically filing taxes. This event triggers a search for solutions surrounding how they should go about filing their taxes.
  2. The business owner comes across an informational guide specifically tailored to small businesses who need help filing their taxes, presented by an accounting software company. The landing page for the guide invites him to download the guide for free in exchange for his e-mail.
  3. At the end of the guide, the owner is invited to check out a product demo video for the software that could make managing the entire process that much easier – leading him further down the funnel into the evaluation of solutions. He checks out the video, but it’s not buying season – so he stores it away in his memory (along with thousands of other to-do’s)
  4. A few weeks before the next quarter, an e-mail marketing campaign follows up with the business owner, sharing more informational assets and inviting him to demo the product for free during this tax season. He clicks through on the invite and…
  5. Is taken to a landing page chock-full of social proof, testimonials and persuasive copy, all pointing to signing up for a free trial. When that free trial is up, he receives an e-mail inviting him to purchase the software at a special seasonal discount.

That’s fairly oversimplified, but the point is this: each asset in the chain had a call to action that pointed towards the next logical stage of the buying cycle. We’ve created a logical path for him to follow down instead of chucking up content in hopes that it will somehow meet the business owner where they’re at and convert them into a new customer right then and there.

This visual from Tom De Baere illustrates everything we’ve been talking about quite nicely:


Untangle the mess

We blitzed through that – but what you should be walking away with right now is a methodology for not only better calls to action, but a better overall content process:

Start with personas. Understand the stages they go through when buying, and the questions and needs they have at all stages. Tailor your content and messaging to solve those specific needs for those specific personas. Customize your CTAs to push customers into the next level of the cycle, without requiring a leap of faith.

And if nothing else, just walk away with this: Don’t EVER rely on a single touch point or universal call-to-action – unless you’re allergic to conversions.

responses to “Content, Conversion and Calls to Action: Untangling the Ugly Mess”

  1. […] Content, Conversion and Calls to Action: Untangling the Ugly Mess, http://www.iacquire.com […]

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  3. Olga says:

    Hi Joel,

    I guess you’re really nailing the point here with the importance of connecting helpful content to CTAs.

    If we speak about software (like in the example you give), gone are the days when you could simply set up a site with features, trial and about page. People need content that will help them make better use of this particular app. Even beyond that, they need content that resonates with their interests on a deeper level, and it’s the job of marketers to identify these needs and interests and to ask for the privilege of following up by an email for a start, forgetting about the hard-sale mode.

    I see the increasing number of sites to use the hubspot model: a free and extremely helpful whitepaper in exchange for an email address and other personal info.

    Joel, thank you for this insightful article. I think it’s great you take the example of this prenuptial agreement site and explain how exactly CTA can be improved in this case.


  4. […] Content, Conversion and Calls to Action: Untangling the Ugly Mess, http://www.iacquire.com […]

  5. […] Content, Conversion and Calls to Action: Untangling the Ugly Mess […]

  6. […] Start with an understanding of well-defined personas, including where they are in the buying cycle. […]

  7. […] funnels, so I created this worksheet to help me with the process. I expanded on these posts from Joel Klettke and Rand Fisk to create an excel doc that helps me easily visualize marketing funnels. Why take […]

  8. […] iAcquire we like to map out different types of content for each stage of the consumer decision journey. Then, we determine where in this process each persona would […]

  9. […] iAcquire we like to map out different types of content for each stage of the consumer decision journey. Then, we determine where in this process each persona would […]

  10. […] As you can see the current meta descriptions hardly encourage potential visitors to enter the site. I would change the descriptions to include the following three aspects: A quick summary of the content, a reason to read the content and be no longer than 155 characters. I would also consider including calls to action such as “SIGN-UP FREE TODAY” as suggested in this post by the guy with the hat, Joel Klettke.  […]