Question headlines can be a powerful way to pull in readers.
A question raises curiosity about your reader’s problem. Your question headline — whether it’s for an article, blog post, social media caption, book title or subtitle, web page heading, or email subject line — implies there’s a solution in the content. And readers want answers.
“When a question is posed, it takes over the brain’s thought process,” says author and evidence-based training specialist David Hoffeld. His book, The Science of Selling, documents how neuroscience has revolutionized the sales process. “And when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can’t contemplate anything else.”
Researchers at BI Norwegian Business School agree. In a recent study, they concluded that writing headlines in question format almost always increased clicks, and sometimes boosted the click rate by as much as 3, 4, and even 5 times. On average, question headlines outperformed declarative headlines by 140–150%.
The data begs a question. If headlines in question form are so successful, why doesn’t everybody use them all the time? The answer: sometimes question headlines fail.
Question headlines fail when they don’t do their job. That is, they can be answered without the user reading the content. The reader skips over your piece rather than clicking to open it.
That reinforces David Hoffeld’s point: with a question in the air, the human brain cannot think of anything else. But once the question is answered, your gray matter moves on.
That’s why there’s a good chance your headline question will flop if it can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” The assertion is known as “Betteridge’s Law,” credited to British technology journalist Ian Betteridge in 2009.
Question headlines, said Betteridge, are a crutch. Think about it: why would you click to open a piece of content when the headline doesn’t raise a question or state a problem for which you need answers? If you can already answer yea or nay, then you have no reason to read further — particularly when so much other content floods your news feed and your inbox.
But don’t let Betteridge discourage you. Clearly, the data favors using questions in headlines. The key to success is in how you phrase the question in your headline. Here are two practical tips.
Skirt Betteridge’s Law when you use why, how, what, or when in your headlines. Those kinds of questions cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, open-ended questions press readers to think. If a user is curious about the topic, there’s a good chance they’ll want to know more, moving them into your content.
But a point of caution: vague questions don’t capture attention, even if they cannot be answered with one word. Your open-ended question should follow the basic headline writing rule of specificity. For instance, the headline, “How should I write headlines?” cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no,” but it can be answered in unlimited ways … which is a problem. Better (and more specific): “How should I write question headlines?”
If you ask a question in your headline, you must answer it in your content. Fail to so and you instill mistrust in your readers. You tricked them with clickbait. Not good.
Let’s test the question posed in this article’s headline, “When do question headlines work?” with our two guidelines.
Your objective, with any piece of content, is to solve a problem or answer a question for your reader. Your headline is simply the doorway that leads the reader to a solution.
Bait readers with a provocative question. Then answer it. You’ll keep the promise you make in your headline. And you’ll keep your readers reading.
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