Do Questions Work as Headlines?

by Ryan M. Healy on February 21, 2008

One of the biggest benefits of being a copywriter is I get to learn while I earn. I learn something new from every single client I work with. This was especially true when I recently wrote a sales letter for Ed Oakley.

Ed is the co-author of two books: Enlightened Leadership and Leadership Made Simple. As part of my research, I began reading the latter of the two. Then, on page 27, I came across a “gold nugget” of insight.

Nothing redirects people’s thinking better than a well-phrased question.

This really struck a chord with me because of a few “coincidences” that all happened around the same time.

For one, I started using questions as post titles on my blog. Based on Alex King’s Popularity Contest plug-in, I’m able to see which posts are most popular. Currently, on this blog, my post titled “Eight Months to Write a Letter?” has been the most popular.

On another blog, the most popular post was a blog carnival I hosted (the people who participated in the carnival linked back to the post, which produced a lot of out-of-the-ordinary traffic).

But the second and third most popular posts both use questions as post titles. The second most popular post is “Are Cars Worth It?” and the third most popular post is “Should You Tithe When You’re Broke?”

And yet it seems using questions as blog post titles isn’t the only place they’ve been proven effective. They’ve also worked extremely well in direct response sales letters.

Examples from sales letters.

  • One of the greatest copywriters of all time, Bill Jayme, is most famous for this headline that was used to promote Psychology Today magazine: “Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?”
  • And Gary Bencivenga got good mileage out of this famous headline phrased as a question: “Has This Man Really Discovered the Secret of Inevitable Wealth?” (Kudos to Ben Settle for digging this one up.)
  • One of Maxwell Sackheim’s most famous headlines was for a space ad that advertised the Sherwin Cody School of English. The headline said: “Do You Make These Mistakes in English?” (Note: If you have the AWAI Hall of Fame book, you can read the entire ad on page 257.)
  • Eugene Schwartz made his mark selling a unique type of rose plant that produced incredibly large quantities of blooms throughout the entire growing season. To sell this plant, he asked a poignant question: “Who Ever Heard of 17,000 Blooms from a Single Plant?”
  • And perhaps the most imitated headline on the entire Internet was a question written by John Caples. It was originally to sell a laundry detergent: “Who Else Wants a Whiter Wash–with No Hard Work?”

The bottom line: questions
definitely work as headlines.

So, in light of all this proof, does it make sense to always phrase headlines as questions?

The answer, clearly, is no. I believe questions as headlines are some of the riskiest types of headlines you can write. Many times the question simply won’t be compelling enough to capture your readers’ interest. In most cases, you will be better off with a statement or promise of some kind.

But I also believe the right question used as a headline can have the biggest payoff. My recent experience has proved this to be true.

Recently, I conducted a headline split-test for an upcoming real estate conference. The headline that won by a long shot was a question: “Would You Like 2008 to Be the Year in Which You Build the Foundations for Long-Term Real Estate Wealth?”

(I actually thought this headline variation would lose the split-test. But the actual results proved otherwise.)

Anyway, the whole point of this article is this: Whenever you are brainstorming headlines for blog posts, sales letters, articles, etc., always consider headlines that are phrased as questions.

You may ultimately decide to go with a statement or promise, but occasionally you will happen upon a well-phrased question that outperforms all the other “normal” headlines you can possibly think of.

-Ryan M. Healy

About Ryan M. Healy

is a direct response copywriter. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like WordStream.com, SmallBizClub.com, and MarketingForSuccess.com.


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{ 18 comments }

Rasheed Ali February 21, 2008 at 7:51 pm

Great post Ryan! So true.

Even thinking back to when I first got started marketing online, the “Who Else Wants To…” headline outperformed every other statement headline for one of my first products.

If you look at forums…you’ll find that the most viewed and responded to posts have this same thing in common.

Looking forward to your next post man.

Warmest Regards,
Rasheed

Rasheed Ali February 21, 2008 at 12:51 pm

Great post Ryan! So true.

Even thinking back to when I first got started marketing online, the “Who Else Wants To…” headline outperformed every other statement headline for one of my first products.

If you look at forums…you’ll find that the most viewed and responded to posts have this same thing in common.

Looking forward to your next post man.

Warmest Regards,
Rasheed

Carolyn February 21, 2008 at 7:56 pm

Hey Ryan,

I’ve been a long-time proponent for questions in headlines.

Properly used, they can be provocative. They can also ask a question that your readers are already asking in their minds … which is exactly what we want to do, right?

I enjoy your blogs. We met on the phone a few years ago, talking about some fella in CO, looking for a CW for his fitness/nutrition site, I think it was.

You’d worked with him before, as I recall. :)

Drop by my blog, if you care to? It’s not popular, yet, but maybe someday. If I blogged more, I expect that’d help, don’t you?

I use lots of questions, don’t I? :)

Ciao,

Carolyn

Carolyn February 21, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Hey Ryan,

I’ve been a long-time proponent for questions in headlines.

Properly used, they can be provocative. They can also ask a question that your readers are already asking in their minds … which is exactly what we want to do, right?

I enjoy your blogs. We met on the phone a few years ago, talking about some fella in CO, looking for a CW for his fitness/nutrition site, I think it was.

You’d worked with him before, as I recall. :)

Drop by my blog, if you care to? It’s not popular, yet, but maybe someday. If I blogged more, I expect that’d help, don’t you?

I use lots of questions, don’t I? :)

Ciao,

Carolyn

Pat B. Doyle February 21, 2008 at 2:36 pm

I can think of a great offline example – locally, the best known car dealer is a guy named Ernie VanSchledorn, and his headline/tagline ran for decades as “Who do you know wants to buy a car?” (sic)

Yes, it’s bad grammar, but he was playing on the fact that he was foreign-born – he would say the line in his German accent in his commercials.

My German-born mother would get irritated every time she heard it, because she thought it implied that Germans couldn’t speak English very well.

But it sure was effective – everyone remembered it.

Becki Maxson February 21, 2008 at 10:12 pm

What I like about using questions is it automatically forms an answer in the reader’s mind. There almost seems no way around this psychologically — it’s some need to complete the loop.

I find it’s really good for subject lines in email marketing. After all, the point of the subject line is simply to get them to open up.

A question lays out an invitation that engages them, as though you’re starting a conversation and they decide it interests them enough to see what you’re going to say about that.

P.S. I like the way you’ve redone the blog. Looks good!

Becki Maxson February 21, 2008 at 3:12 pm

What I like about using questions is it automatically forms an answer in the reader’s mind. There almost seems no way around this psychologically — it’s some need to complete the loop.

I find it’s really good for subject lines in email marketing. After all, the point of the subject line is simply to get them to open up.

A question lays out an invitation that engages them, as though you’re starting a conversation and they decide it interests them enough to see what you’re going to say about that.

P.S. I like the way you’ve redone the blog. Looks good!

Ryan M. Healy February 21, 2008 at 11:33 pm

Rasheed – Thank you. I remember a thread that Alan Forrest Smith started on Copywriter’s Board a while back. It got an ENORMOUS amount of feedback. The title was this: “Is Bush a Dictator?”

Carolyn – Of course I remember you. :-) Glad to see you’re doing well with your copywriting business.

Pat – Great example. Thanks for sharing it. I learned German in high school, so I can imagine the accent well. ;-)

Becki – Good points. Glad you like the new look!

Ryan M. Healy February 21, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Rasheed – Thank you. I remember a thread that Alan Forrest Smith started on Copywriter’s Board a while back. It got an ENORMOUS amount of feedback. The title was this: “Is Bush a Dictator?”

Carolyn – Of course I remember you. :-) Glad to see you’re doing well with your copywriting business.

Pat – Great example. Thanks for sharing it. I learned German in high school, so I can imagine the accent well. ;-)

Becki – Good points. Glad you like the new look!

Pat B. Doyle February 21, 2008 at 9:36 pm

I can think of a great offline example – locally, the best known car dealer is a guy named Ernie VanSchledorn, and his headline/tagline ran for decades as “Who do you know wants to buy a car?” (sic)

Yes, it’s bad grammar, but he was playing on the fact that he was foreign-born – he would say the line in his German accent in his commercials.

My German-born mother would get irritated every time she heard it, because she thought it implied that Germans couldn’t speak English very well.

But it sure was effective – everyone remembered it.

Varun Pratap February 22, 2008 at 5:39 am

Do Questions Work as Headlines?

Well, They obviously work, cause that one made me opened only your email in the list of 100′s I get daily… Trust me, I don’t spend most of my time reading emails looking for THAT perfect one…

Varun Pratap February 21, 2008 at 10:39 pm

Do Questions Work as Headlines?

Well, They obviously work, cause that one made me opened only your email in the list of 100′s I get daily… Trust me, I don’t spend most of my time reading emails looking for THAT perfect one…

Ryan M. Healy February 22, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Varun – Too funny! Thanks for sharing.

Ryan M. Healy February 22, 2008 at 8:16 am

Varun – Too funny! Thanks for sharing.

Franck Silvestre March 4, 2008 at 5:45 am

Questions work. Here is the proof. I came to your blog through Terry’s blog.
He posted 7 links, and 3 of them were questions. These are the first blog I visited because they really grabbed my intention and make me curious.

Franck Silvestre March 3, 2008 at 10:45 pm

Questions work. Here is the proof. I came to your blog through Terry’s blog.
He posted 7 links, and 3 of them were questions. These are the first blog I visited because they really grabbed my intention and make me curious.

Tery November 20, 2008 at 11:00 am

Due to this article, I just re-wrote a headline for a retirement guide I’m writing. The new headline is:

“Has The Current Economic Crisis Made You Want To Curl Up Into A Fetal Position and Hide?”

We’ll see how it does.

Tery November 20, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Due to this article, I just re-wrote a headline for a retirement guide I’m writing. The new headline is:

“Has The Current Economic Crisis Made You Want To Curl Up Into A Fetal Position and Hide?”

We’ll see how it does.

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