If you set aside e-commerce (online purchases), where the call to action (CTA, since I’m going to use it quite often) is reasonably straight forward (‘Add to shopping cart’, ‘Buy now’ etc.), consider how CTA has evolved over the years in mainstream advertising and product/service communication.

1. ‘Visit us!’ – Back when there was no internet or phone, brands advertising in print asked us to ‘visit’ their store; either to see the full range or to buy. Coupons in the print ad added extra incentive for the CTA.

2. ‘Call us!’ – When phones arrived, instead of visiting (which is a laborious process), we were encouraged to call the store for further details. This was the beginning of the one-to-one CTA.

3. ‘Visit us online!’ – When the net happened, we were asked, via television and print commercials, to visit the website, for more details, The better the website and better the deal, the better the conversion. This is predominantly one-to-one too, since we do not interact with others visiting that website.

4. ‘Mail us!’ – Then, email happened. Much like the phone contact, we were asked to contact the brand via email. Again, one-to-one CTA.

5. ‘Join us!’ – Now, brands ask us to ‘join’ them. In an online community that has been created by the brand, owned by it, but largely run, in terms of content, by its fans.

Notice the evolution? Joining a brand online is quite similar to the first in this series – visiting a store physically, which was definitely not a one-to-one communication. You encounter other people in the store and may possibly interact with them. The same thing happens for the online community where the chances of you interacting with other fans (may already be connected to you, for instance, on a Facebook community) is considerably higher.

Besides connecting with others, there are other cues brands may adopt, akin to the first in the series of CTA above.

Stores had thought through the purchase and decision making process (at least for low involvement products) and always had specific items close to the billing counter to induce impulse purchase. Another example is to organize the store in such a way that the most important/attractive item came first in the visitor’s vision. The same analogy could be used in the online community to align secondary CTAs to ensure that people visiting the online community leave it only after interacting with it and not just leaving after a few seconds. A few examples include, ‘Join now to…’ (Facebook example); ‘Comment now to get…’ and so on. If you know (trace) where they have landed from (a banner ad you had placed elsewhere, perhaps?), you could customize this secondary CTA better so that it assumes a personalized meaning to that visitor.

The nature of one-to-many CTA (like the visit to the physical store or to the online community, where a potential customer doesn’t interact with the brand alone, but actually watches other potential customers/fans in the store/online destination too) poses a special challenge in the follow-up.

For instance, in the physical store example, the brands have to ensure parking space for multiple visitors and ensure that the billing is done in an organized queue to ensure minimum waiting time.

In the online community too, brands need to ensure that the content is appropriate and interesting, for the first-time visitor as well repeat visitors. Just take the Facebook example – a visitor, landing in that community for the first time is likely to browse through the last 5+ updates in the community as also the last few comments/updates by other members in the community. That is the cue – to make sure that its own last few updates tell a cohesive story about the brand and do not look like random updates or press releases. And if you regularly address members queries/complaints, the second part is taken care too.

Finally, consider the differences between a CTA to visit the store and to visit the online community of the brand. The former is just step closer to conversion (sale), while the latter may not be so and is intended to further enhance the selling process and build evangelists, in the long run. Just because they are visiting the community, it does not mean the CTA has been achieved, like in the case of visiting a physical store. It is merely an intermediary step and conversion depends a lot on what you – as a brand – and other community members have shared there.

Lesson…in essence? Joining the brand on an online community may not be the final CTA and could be used to enhance the interaction better. And, of course, every piece of content matters, in an online community and should add to a larger story.

Picture courtesy: Expound Interactive, via Flickr.