Why is there so much value to asking questions in the headlines of your ads, websites, and other marketing materials? The answer is pretty powerful.

I pose that question because there are many businesspeople who have an aversion to using questions in their materials. When I present a headline that ends with a question mark, they instantly reject it. They may be like the boss I had who responded to questioning headlines by asking one of his own: “What if the reader says no?”

You’ve probably heard the old saws that the most powerful marketing is built around words like “free” or “money” or “sex.” The people who believe that also tend to think the role of a headline is to stop people in their tracks. While words like those and similar headlines on websites, ads, and other materials may indeed be capable of stopping people, they can’t do what really makes those materials effective: they can’t create engagement with the reader.

A familiar trope is the ad that begins “Sex! Now that I have your attention …” Golly, that’s funny. You’ve probably seen it in a trade magazine or a lame PowerPoint presentation. And while it may capture your attention for the moment, as soon as you delve into the information that follows, you realize it isn’t relevant to you and you move on.     

The purpose of your headline — and by extension, your ad, your website, your mailer, your blog post, whatever you’re doing to communicate — isn’t just to stop a reader. It’s to capture the reader’s eye, trigger his or her interest, and gain their complete attention. That’s called engagement. The first step in creating that engagement is getting the reader involved in the message. That’s where questions excel.

Do you prefer to eat chicken or fish? I really don’t care how you answered, but the point is that you did indeed answer. The moment your brain registered the question, you subconsciously answered it. Then you continued to read to figure out how fish might be germane to marketing materials.

Are you happy with the performance of your investments? Again, I don’t care. I don’t plan to discuss the contents of your portfolio or how well they’re doing in this volatile economy. But once again, you mentally answered that question and may still be grappling whether investing so much in that flying-car company was a wise move.

Not only are questions virtually impossible to ignore, but they perform another bit of magic. The immediate mental responses and internal conversations they provoke are infinitely purer and more accurate than any verbal or written response. If I asked you to reply aloud or in writing, you’d take some time to ensure your response won’t sound awkward or embarrass you. Why is that so important? If I’m trying to change your perception of something or trying to convince you that doing business with my client is in your best interests, I’ll accomplish a lot more by tapping into your subconscious than I could by rolling out rational arguments.

The most effective types of questions in marketing materials fall into two broad categories. The first is the either-or option that generates a quick, clear reply and a course of action. The chicken-or-fish question falls into that category.

The second provokes an emotional reaction, such as provoking insecurity. When I asked about your investment performance, I quietly fed you a little wiggle of doubt that your subconscious mind just can’t ignore. I wasn’t implying that your performance was less than it should be, but that’s exactly how your subconscious mind read that question. If your dentist asks if you’re happy with your smile, you start to wonder about the flaws you see in the mirror. A financial advisor who poses my question about investments should base her sales pitch on what she sees in your eyes instead of on your verbal response.

What about that reader who responds to your question with “no” and moves on? In all likelihood, he or she isn’t really a prospect. The simple fact is that not everyone who sees your headline is going to do business with you, and the most dramatic stopper of a headline won’t change that. And that’s okay, because you don’t want to waste your time or energy on people who simply will not do business with you.

So let me ask you: would using more questions add value to your marketing materials?


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