Optimizing Email Marketing Calls-to-Action: A 4-Point Plan

August 8, 2022 | 5 minute read
Tommy Hummel
Analytics Manager for Analytic & Strategic Services, Oracle Marketing Consulting
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Email marketers have historically paid a lot of attention to subject line testing, eager to drive higher open rates. But in the age of Mail Privacy Protection, where many opens are being obscured, it’s time for marketers to refocus some of their A/B testing zeal on calls-to-actions to drive much-needed clicks.

In working with our clients, we’ve used the following four-point plan to break down their CTA usage and identify optimization opportunities. We’ll walk through each step, but first, let’s do some…

Pre-analysis data collection

To fuel your analysis, you’ll need to collect CTA phrases from your campaigns. However, just as when creating effective internal benchmarks, you’ll want to make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples to the best of your ability. To do that, you’ll want to control for seasonality, campaign type, and CTA type.

To control for seasonality, we recommend collecting CTA phrases from your campaigns over the past year or two. If you’re a high-frequency sender, then as little as six months can be illuminating, but a full year is better.

For campaigns, we recommend excluding transactional and automated campaigns, and solely focusing on your promotional campaigns. Additionally, you’ll want to exclude any highly segmented campaigns, as that will also skew CTA performance.

And in terms of CTA types, we recommend focusing solely on hero or primary CTAs. That means excluding all secondary CTAs, as well as navigation bars, administrative links, and other tertiary CTAs, such as links to social media pages, shopping services, financing services, and store locators. We’ve done analyses of secondary CTAs and nav bar links before, and those can be valuable, but you’ll want to look at each of those groups separately.

If you’ve established a clear link naming taxonomy, periodic performance reviews of your CTAs become much easier. For example, you could include hero in the CTA link for your primary message block; mod1_, mod2_, etc. for your secondary message blocks; topnav_ and bottomnav_ for your navigation bars; and so on.

Along with the CTA phrases, collect the click-through rate performance of each CTA on a per campaign basis. With all that done, we’ve laid the groundwork for our 4-point plan for CTA analysis.

For help with tagging, taxonomy, and analysis, reach out to the digital marketing experts at Oracle Marketing Consulting.

1. Visibility into what you’ve been using

Let’s start by gaining some general awareness of the phrases you’re using for your CTAs. You can accomplish that by taking all your CTA phrases and putting them into a word cloud generator. (We used wordclouds.com for our holiday subject line word cloud.)

The words in a word cloud are different sizes based on how many times each is in your dataset. The least frequently used words will be small or not even be included in the word cloud, but the most frequently used words will be huge. At a glance, you’ll be able to see which words you’ve been using the most in your CTAs.

Do the sizes of any of the words surprise you? Are there words you would have guessed would be smaller? Larger? You can make this first step in your analysis more fun by having team members guess which CTA words they think your company uses most.

2. Categorize and sort your CTAs

The next step is to gain a better understanding of the types of CTAs that your brand is using. For each CTA phrase, try to categorize them. While the categories that make the most sense for your brand may vary, here are some broad categories that we often use:

Promotional CTAs that ask subscribers to spend money or consider spending money, such as: 

  • High consideration or hard sell (e.g., Buy, Subscribe, Book today, Shop now)
  • Low consideration or soft sell (e.g., Details, View plans, Explore destination, Browse category)

Educational CTAs that invite subscribers to learn something new that’s:

  • Educational (e.g., Read more, Watch video, See infographic, Learn how to)
  • Instructional (e.g., Learn how to)
  • Editorial (e.g., Watch the interview, See the recommendations)
  • Entertaining (e.g., Play the game, Watch video)
  • Social (e.g., Join the conversation)

Brand-building CTAs that are about your organization, including:

  • PR efforts (e.g., Learn about our new green factory, Meet our new DEI officer)
  • Cause-related initiatives (e.g., Get involved, Learn about our charity efforts)


  • Connect via other channels (e.g., Download mobile app, Follow us on Instagram)
  • Take action, next step, etc. (e.g., Add user)


  • Surveys, polls, and quizzes
  • Update account, profile, or preferences


  • Refer or share
  • Product and service review requests (e.g., Submit review, Tell us about your experience)


  • Help (e.g., Contact customer service, Visit user forum)
  • Security-related (e.g., Enable two-factor authentication)
  • Confirm contact information or account details

Count up the number of CTAs in each category and subcategory. What does that distribution look like? Are you surprised at all by the proportions?

In addition to those goal-oriented buckets, also consider separately looking at CTAs that include components such as:

  • Urgency (e.g., now, today)
  • Category name (e.g., dresses, baseball, home)
  • Product names 
  • Brand names 

This can help you, for instance, understand if you’re undermining the power of urgency by overusing it. Or if your product and brand name usage aligns with the sales and sales goals of those items.

Find out three ways to streamline your marketing campaigns with Oracle Responsys (infographic).

3. Overlay CTA performance

The third step is to bring in the performance of your CTAs, averaging the click-through rate for each unique CTA phrase. Also, calculate the average click-through rate across all your phrases, so you have a baseline for performance. Once that’s done, look at each of your categories and subcategories and compare CTA usage to click-through rate performance.

Look for instances where you use a CTA frequently, but the click-through rate is below average. That’s a sign that you need to look for alternatives to this CTA. You can start that process by reviewing other similar CTAs in your list that have performed better.

Also, look for instances where you use a CTA infrequently, but the click-through rate is above average. That’s a sign that you should look for opportunities to use that CTA more often. Again, consider replacing lower-performing CTAs on your list with this one.

4. A/B testing

While replacing existing poor-performing CTAs with existing better-performing ones is good, the final step is to go beyond that by brainstorming some alternative CTAs and A/B testing them. Some of your previously used CTA phrases may have benefited from strongly aligned subject lines or benefited from only being used a few times compared to some of your common subject lines. Doing split tests against a new challenger CTA will confirm—or possibly upend—the findings of your CTA analysis.

Honestly, it’s the last step where your brand will reap most of the improvements from this CTA optimization exercise. However, it’s the previous three steps that give you the awareness and perspective to do smart CTA A/B tests that are likely to lead to significant improvements.

Need help improving your CTA performance? Oracle Marketing Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including an Analytics & Strategic Services team that can help you analyze and increase the performance of your calls-to-action.

Talk to your Oracle account manager, visit us online, or reach out to us at CXMconsulting_ww@Oracle.com.



Tommy Hummel

Analytics Manager for Analytic & Strategic Services, Oracle Marketing Consulting

With over a decade of proven success in digital marketing performance on the corporate and agency levels, with a focus in email, direct, and web marketing and encompassing non-profit, association, commercial, travel, financial, retail, B2C, and B2B, Tommy Hummel bring a wealth of experience and expertise in digital marketing strategy, planning, leadership, and client service.

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