Paul Cheney

Do question headlines work?

April 25th, 2012

This one worked well enough to make you read on …

Of course, you’re a sample size of one. That doesn’t make for a particularly convincing argument. But as I was working on the slides for today’s Web clinic – “Quick Win Clinic (Part 1): The 5 easiest changes to make to your landing pages right now” – I noticed that several of the experiments we are using to illustrate the “5 easiest changes,” include question headlines …

And all of them were examples of what NOT to do.

Let me show you what I mean …


Question Headline Experiment #1:


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Question Headline Experiment #2:


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Question Headline Experiment #3:


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Seeing the question headlines in these tests is exactly what made me wonder whether there was something inherently wrong with question headlines. But before I go any further, I need to establish two caveats:

  1. The headline was not the only contributing factor in any of the three tests
  2. Just because question headlines didn’t work in these tests doesn’t mean they NEVER work

With that said, I thought it was more than a coincidence that three pages improved in performance when headlines were changed from questions to statements.

When I thought about it, I realized that it may not be the “question” nature of the headline that is contributing to their underperformance, but rather the company-centric focus.

These headlines are simply a micro version of the same problem writ large through the entire experience of the page—a lack of customer focus.

In each question headline, there is an intrinsic focus on the company itself rather than the customer:

  • Why trade Forex with
  • Why do 10,000 Event Planners Choose RegOnline?
  • Why Try Britannica Online?

In contrast, each winning headline focuses instead on the value the customer stands to receive:

  • Get your free, no risk, no obligation $100,000 Forex Trading Demo Account
  • Let your events manage themselves
  • Get Unlimited Access to all 32 Volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica during your FREE TRIAL…

In the mind of the customer, it is not a matter of a question headline or a statement headline, but rather how quickly they can see the value of the offer on the page.


So do question headlines work or not?

Yes and no. There seems to be a correlation between question headlines and ineffective headlines, but I’m not so sure about causation.

I’d say question headlines are dangerous. When you set out to write a question headline, you risk delaying a promise of value that would engage the customer and give the customer a reason to read on.

But if you can write a question headline that is provocative and hints that there is something in the following material that the reader will want, then by all means, don’t rule out testing the question headline.


A quick note about today’s Web clinic …

The examples above are taken from the deck for today’s 4:00 PM EDT Web clinic: “Quick Win Clinic (Part 1): The 5 easiest changes to make to your landing pages right now.” If you would like to attend the clinic and learn more about simple changes you can make to your landing pages, simply register at that link.


Related Resources:

Value Proposition: How headlines helped lead to a nearly 29% conversion boost

Copywriting: 5 common headline errors

Headlines on Deadlines: How to consistently write effective headlines without working late (Part 1) and (Part 2)

Web clinic Replay – Headline Optimization: How testing 10 headlines revealed a 3-letter word that improved conversion more than major changes

Paul Cheney

About Paul Cheney

Paul Cheney, Senior Partnership Content Manager, MECLABS Institute Paul helps turn raw research into easy-to-understand content for MarketingExperiments readers. He earned his B.A. in English literature from Covenant College. Before joining the MarketingExperiments team, Paul wrote grant proposals and fundraising letters for a mid-size nonprofit in New Jersey. He has also worked as a freelance Internet marketing consultant and copywriter for small businesses. In his spare time, Paul enjoys reading, writing poems and dating his wife, Callie.

Categories: Copywriting Tags: , , ,

  1. April 25th, 2012 at 09:10 | #1

    There are a few famous question headlines; here’s one:
    “Do you make these mistakes in English?”

    It makes you read to the next line to answer the question. I think the headlines in the above tests are mostly for search campaigns and people that are ready to be sold to.

    For display or media buys, you need to start a true conversation with prospects before you can be that direct with.

  2. April 25th, 2012 at 09:31 | #2

    Some good points.

    I guess the “question” is how question headlines perform when the question is aimed at the user.

  3. April 25th, 2012 at 12:32 | #3

    Great topic! But I think the issue these examples bring up lies deeper than whether the headline is a question. This is a matter of consistency between messaging and the offering.

    The issue isn’t even (exclusively) whether it’s a customer- or brand-centric question or if the headline is a question at all. Rather, the issue is if the question is begging (and thus hiding) a value-prop answer — this was the problem with the originals in your examples — or if the implied “we have the answer” in the question is the value prop itself (e.g. blogs, news articles, thought leadership).

    The headline for this post worked because I expected and was interested to find the answer to the headline question. For the examples however, my guess is that they performed so poorly because users weren’t ultimately looking for an answer to the questions, they were looking for the products themselves. The headlines said nothing of the products but instead raised more barriers, which they needed to spend time and copy resolving before the user would convert.

    • April 25th, 2012 at 13:03 | #4

      In the mind of the customer, it is not a matter of a question headline or a statement headline, but rather how quickly they can see the value of the offer on the page.

      Exactly, Jon. Thanks for the comment.

  4. April 25th, 2012 at 16:44 | #5

    Thank you for this post, Paul! And thank you all for a great web clinic!

    • April 25th, 2012 at 17:22 | #6

      No problem Max. Thanks for the feedback!

  5. April 25th, 2012 at 19:29 | #7

    The problem I see with the questions that didn’t work is that they weren’t really questions people would ask. They were questions the that the questioner wanted to answer.
    e.g. Why do 10,000 Event Planners Choose RegOnline? I mean who really cares what the answer to this is?
    Your question, however, Do question headlines work?, was one we wanted the answer to. I think you need to rework those headlines into questions people really want answers to. e.g. What registration software do the Top 100 Event Planners use and why? Or, What software makes event registration just about foolproof? (These aren’t my best efforts just top of the head improvements on what’s there.)

  6. April 27th, 2012 at 17:00 | #8

    I chuckled when I saw this post, since I once had a boss who insisted that EVERY headline be a question! Thanks for the info — nice to know I was right 🙂

  7. Eric Ruane
    June 5th, 2012 at 11:44 | #9

    Great article…. hard to believe people actually want to make a living out of manipulating and essentially annoying others. On a side note I do not read newsworthy articles that have a headline question… does the author know the information or do they need help? I’m never sure…. best not risk it by giving them more reads.

    This article’s title is NOT an example of this.

  8. jerry
    June 14th, 2012 at 10:26 | #10

    Agree with Munaiba, the question headlines were lousy.

    In the first experiment for example, the deck was stacked against the control because the test headline had an offer, to say the least. A fairer test would be:

    Will a free, no-risk $100,000 account make you a forex expert?

    You need a better question headline writer.

  9. July 20th, 2012 at 20:37 | #11

    How can these split tests be considered accurate in any form? Each landing page is significantly different from the other. The increased conversion could be credited to any number of changed elements on the page. In fact, the question mark headlines could very well out-perform their value-statement counterparts if they were actually tested correctly.

  10. July 23rd, 2012 at 09:04 | #12

    @Andrew Scherer
    Please read the two caveats in the body of the post. This is simply a blog post noting a pattern in a collection of unrelated tests.

    RE testing correctly, please note the testing sequence used by one of our research partners in the following web clinic replay:

  11. Yong En
    August 9th, 2013 at 03:18 | #13

    It seems I’m a bit late but the effectiveness of a headline that is a question often depends on the relevance of the question to your target audience.

    For example if your service is animal healthcare and you want more people to try your home check up for pets, and the headline you use is “Need A Home Check-Up for Your Pet? (with a suitable supporting sub headline)”, the effect will vary based on the situation.

    If there is some kind of pet epidemic going around, this header may prove to be very effective because the answer you are likely to get is, “Yes, I want to make sure my pet is safe but I don’t want to risk bringing it out of the house.” However, under normal circumstances and the pet isn’t sick, and the target audience aren’t so busy they can’t go visit a vet for a check up, the answer you almost guaranteed to get is, “Nope, I have a vet, thank you. But it’s cool what you’re doing.”

    Of course, there are other variables, but the key to using a good question headline seems to be based on the relevance and asking the right question.

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