One of the least effective ways to word a headline is to ask a yes/no question. For example, “do you need a new washing machine?” This is ineffective because it allows (or encourages) the reader to say “no” and move on, without reading the rest of the piece.

To be fair, you’ll seldom see a headline that unsubtle, but similar headlines such as “would you like a washing machine that’s 40% faster?” or “do you want to save money on your washing?” aren’t uncommon.

It’s easy to see what the writer was thinking about. The brief almost certainly included that the new washing machine is 40% faster, which means it uses less total power, resulting in cheaper washes – so people need to know. Fair enough. But we don’t need to tell them in a way which invites an early exit.

The headline structure is generic – you could substitute any product name for ‘washing machine’. I’ve seen worse – one ‘helpful’ account manager was always suggesting to me headlines which started with “got a problem with your…?”

Turning a proposition into a yes/no question isn’t just ineffective, it’s lazy writing.

The goal of the headline isn’t to sell the product, it’s to get people to read on – whether that’s a website page, advertisement or mailer – this is what sells the product. We may well want to position a key feature, but we also want to use the headline as a springboard into the rest of the piece.

Posing a yes/no question lets at least half of your audience off the hook. Prematurely.

Don’t let stakeholders push you on this, perhaps by saying “but we’re only interested in people who want a new washing machine; it’s OK for others to ignore the ad.” Why? It’s not the advertisement’s job to pre-empt this decision – many people put off making a purchase and need the right nudge. Let’s not write off potential buyers so readily.

The simple act of translating the question into a statement is an immediate help. “A wash that’s 40% faster is 40% cheaper,” for example. This conveys the same information, but encourages people to read on – and it’s not even creative or smart. “The machine that saves you 40%. That’s a load off your mind.” (I know. But I do love a good pun.)

There are many ways to write a headline – an almost infinite number, a copywriter might say. They’re different ways of presenting the same information – some more effective than others. This is the brilliance of language.

I don’t like to think in absolute terms about marketing ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. Some things work well, some less well. I’m prepared to make an exception for headlines structured around polar questions. It almost doesn’t matter how effective or pertinent the question might be (I’m sure there are circumstances where it’s the right thing to do; every rule has an exception). Since it offers an exit to many readers so early on, we know it’s not performing the main function of a headline – to pull people in, rather than push them out.


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