Are questions inherently bad?

I wonder: do you think it’s wrong to ask questions in the headlines of your ads and other marketing materials?

Years back, I had a boss who loathed questions. Bring him an ad headline with a question, and he’d reject it instantly, sputtering, “But what if the reader says no?”

I’ve encountered many people like him who believe that using questions in marketing materials is a sure-fire recipe for failure. And while I don’t believe in hard-and-fast rules, I’ll tell you that those people are nearly always wrong.

First off, a reader who responds “no” really isn’t a prospect, and therefore isn’t worth your time or trouble. Not everyone who sees your ad or reads your brochure is going to do business with you, and the most decisively declarative headline won’t change that.

“Questions prompt involvement, and involvement is the most effective way to get someone to pay attention to your message.”

But there’s an even more important reason to reject the idea that questions are inherently flawed. Questions prompt involvement, and involvement is the most effective way to get someone to pay attention to your message.

Do you prefer steak or chicken? You may not care a thing about that question, and you may wonder about my sanity in introducing it here, but you know what? You answered it. As soon as you saw it, you answered it mentally – and you continued to read out of curiosity as to why I’d ask such a question or how it might be germane to this subject.

Are your investments performing as well as they should? Gotcha again. I have no intention of talking about your investments, but I’ve introduced a little wiggle of doubt that your mind can’t ignore. Right now, while you’re trying to focus on each sentence, your mind is wondering whether you made the right choice in going heavy into the financial services sector.

Questions provoke immediate mental responses that are more accurate and more pure than verbal or written responses. After all, you don’t have to share your mental response, but when you’re providing a verbal or written response, you’ll craft it to make sure it isn’t going to embarrass you or sound awkward.

Questions are almost impossible to ignore. That’s why polls are so appealing. When you see poll data in the media, you quickly look at the possible answers, and your mind locks in your choice. When asked what that choice is, you may give a different reply, but your mind knows what your real choice was.

Questions are most effective when the potential response falls into one of two classes. The first is when you have a clear reply and course of action to follow. That’s the “steak or chicken” question.

The second is when your goal is to provoke doubt and insecurity. Here’s where questions are at their most effective. Asking whether your investments are performing as well as they should doesn’t suggest or imply that they aren’t – but that’s exactly how your mind reads it. A financial planner who asks that type of question opens the way for a very client-oriented sales pitch. A dentist who wonders whether you’re happy with the appearance of your teeth is letting you set yourself up for additional services – and doing it without giving you a sales pitch.

So should you be asking more questions in your headlines and marketing materials?