You’ve Got a Story. Now What?

Why a call to action is an essential part of your story—and how to create one online.

Also co-authored by Julia Clunn, Hattaway Communications.

As communicators, it’s easy for us to get lost in a story. We can spend hours finding the right tale that illustrates our organization’s mission and goals. But we sometimes forget that stories are meant to do more than just be told. Once you have your audience’s attention, you need to give them a reason to go out and act on the information they’ve just gained. The story itself isn’t an end; it’s just the beginning of an equally important process—creating a call to action.

RJ Bee
hattaway.com

RJ manages day-to-day operations at Hattaway and leads project teams to create research-based strategies, content and campaigns for U.S. and international organizations. Before joining Hattaway, RJ consulted for technology and clean energy startups, political candidates and nonprofit organizations—including the National Democratic Institute, Borrego Solar and Chellie Pingree for U.S. Senate.

A call to action should prompt your audience to act immediately. This requires three objectives on the communicator’s part:

  1. Motivate your audience to act.
  2. Create a sense of urgency to get them to act in the moment.
  3. Communicate clearly what you want them to do.

Motivate people to act.

The best way to motivate people is to communicate what will be gained by acting–as well as what will be lost if we do nothing.

When describing the benefits of action, be specific: studies have shown people are more motivated by tangible, concrete outcomes than by vague, general goals. For example, an environmental call to action about clean air could invoke the specific benefits of fewer children having asthma. You should also highlight what will be lost if nothing is done— by citing, for example, the number of new cases of childhood asthma each year (or day).

Create a sense of urgency.

You can’t count on people to remember to act on a later date, so asking for action immediately is the best way to ensure that they follow through. Use active and time-sensitive language in your call to action. Make it clear what you want people to do, whether it be “call”, “donate” or “sign this!” And be explicit in describing the immediate future to make the action palpable (“Call today so this little girl can eat tomorrow.”)

Communicate clearly what you want them to do.

What you need your audience to do depends on your goal. But regardless of your cause, social media is a great place to start. At its heart, social media is just another form of word-of-mouth communication—one of the most effective ways to build a following because your audience hears your message from friends they know and trust. And online activities tend to have an impact in offline lives (see this study that shows that people who take online action are more likely to take offline action.)

Luckily, social network sites also tend to be perfectly designed to help users go from story-readers to action-takers. Here are some of the best actions you can ask your audience to take online:

Contribute to the conversation. Asking your followers to engage with you and others by commenting on a post helps them feel involved with your organization and more deeply engaged with your cause—so ask your audience to comment on your Facebook posts or YouTube videos. Or ask them to reply to something on Twitter, which is such a real-time medium that it feels like a face-to-face conversation.

Become advocates. By asking your audience to retweet or share your posts, you are turning your followers into advocates and helping your story spread. Your followers can amplify your message across their own network—raising awareness about the issue and increasing your organization’s reach. Just keep in mind that you are asking your audience to post something on their own wall—so your content has to be something that not only speaks to your audience, but is something they want to be seen interacting with.

Build a community. Encourage your fans to get updates on your new content, or to watch your older YouTube videos. By asking users to subscribe to your channel/page/feed you are not only adding them to your future audience—you are inviting them to become acquainted with your full content library. Just be sure to post new content regularly so that your audience sees that you are adding value.

Encourage collective action. The real power of social media is in its ability to connect people, so use that to your advantage and give your followers something tangible that they can works toward as a community. Ask people to Tweet @ someone in an effort to get them to respond to a pressing issue, or use a specific hashtag to build a community around a campaign. Find forums on Facebook that talk about your issue and rally them to your cause.

Take advantage of platform specialties. Certain platforms have skills and assets that others don’t, so become an expert in whatever platform you chose to use their own secret weapons. For example, on Facebook you can set up your page’s Call to Action button, a customizable button that lets your followers do a number of things—from signing up for your email list or shopping at your online store to watching an about-us video. Other examples are annotations and overlays on YouTube. These additions let your viewers engage with a video while it’s playing, including speech bubbles to playfully explain what people are saying, notes to add links, and spotlights to highlight a part of the screen while adding a note for more information.

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