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Do questions work in copywriting?

Tom Albrighton

ABC Copywriting

PRO

Is there a better way to involve the audience than leading with a question? I don’t think so. If you want your readers to be actively involved in your words, rather than passively consuming them, posing a question is a great way to start.

But it doesn’t end there. You can use them questions in body copy too, to keep readers interested and create tantalising, kinetic links between sections of text. Are you ready?

Literal questions

What’s the secret of healthy-looking hair?

As a headline, this type of question poses a query that the rest of the copy answers. Its success depends on the audience caring about the answer to the question – and on your ability to provide that answer in a compelling way. No headline should write a cheque the body can’t cash.

Literal questions can also be used to shake up a long explicatory narrative. Placed at the start of a paragraph, they get the audience into thinking mode rather than just passively consuming your content.

Yes/no questions

Does your memory let you down?

Do you want to save money on your home insurance?

These are leading questions that nudge the reader to a particular answer. By responding to the question, even if only mentally or subconsciously, the reader signals their involvement with the message.

The desired response is usually ‘yes’, since ‘no’ is a ‘stop word’ that we don’t want cropping up in the reader’s train of thought. (If the answer is ‘no’ when you want them to say ‘yes’, then the ad isn’t relevant to them anyway, and it doesn’t matter if they stop reading.)

It doesn’t really matter how obvious the question is – in fact, the more obvious the better. You don’t really want the reader to have to stop and think. You just want them to agree.

By answering ‘yes’, the reader gives their assent to the next step in the buying process. That might just be reading the next few words, but it’s still a step forward. The positive response aligns the reader with what they’re reading, and the voice of the brand they’re touching. There is agreement.

The sell here is predicated on the well-known persuasive principle of consistency. By answering ‘yes’ to the question, the reader acknowledges that this message is relevant to them. Having made that admission, it would be inconsistent for them to disregard the rest. They must read on in order to align their actions with their commitment.

Open questions

What’s in your wallet?
(Capital One)

Where do you want to go today?
(Microsoft)

Open questions invite speculation or reflection. By asking an open question, you draw the reader into a place where they think about their own situation and how they’d like to change it. Having done so, you skilfully insert your product into their thought process, linking it with something they already want (you hope).

The most useful open questions usually begin with ‘What’ or ‘How’. These words encourage divergent, wide-ranging thought patterns, as opposed to the more pointed ‘Why’, where a simple ‘because’ response leads directly to closure without reflection. (‘Why?’ ‘Because I say so.’)

Some open questions, like the Capital One example above, are fairly blunt and literal. Others, like the Microsoft line, are more metaphorical or metaphysical. The headline begins with ‘Where’, but this is really an elliptical way of asking ‘What do you want to do on your computer today?’ By comparing the working day to a journey, the sell is taken into a more poetic realm.

Rhetorical questions

‘Who knows the secret of the Black Magic box?’
(Black Magic chocolates)

‘Is she or isn’t she?’
(Harmony hairspray)

Rhetorical questions are open questions that don’t need an answer. Instead, they generate an aura of mystery around the product being marketed. The implication is that a product that raises questions is intrinsically interesting.

Rhetorical questions must be used with care, otherwise they’ll elicit the response ‘who cares?’ In other words, the value proposition offered by the ad or copy must be strong enough that the questions is plausibly compelling in context. A rhetorical question about something the audience isn’t interested in is simply an irrelevance.

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Comments

25th June 2012

Mel Fenson

Phew, glad you said they were ok; I use them all the time!

27th June 2012

Vikki

Ask away! Questions are a great way to break up copy or to make a point without hitting the reader on the head with it.

Also, with reference to your ‘What’s the secret of healthy-looking hair?’ example, questions are often used in beauty copy to get around ASA legislations. It’s rare to be able to claim that a beauty product actually does anything because it doesn’t so by posing a question to the reader, they assume that the answer is what the product can do. Clever, huh?

21st November 2012

Kevin

I’d use questions sparingly and with a lot of forethought. ‘Why not call us today?’ provokes so many responses, not one of them being ‘You know, that hadn’t even crossed my mind! I’ll call you right now.’

And ‘who says you can’t do/have…?’ headlines should also be avoided, as the answer is always ‘No one.’

I quite like kicking off copy with a ‘Did you know…?’ question, but here I want the reader to answer with ‘No way! Really?’, rather than ‘EVERYONE knows that!’

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