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Warning to Direct Marketers: Asking These Questions Will Kill Your Conversions

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For those marketers who labor tirelessly, though fruitlessly, oblivious to marketing history and unversed in copy that brings home the bacon... please take note: This article is for you.

One of the most famous questions ever asked in an ad was penned almost a century ago by copywriting legend Maxwell Sackheim. It read: Do you make these mistakes in English?

It was the headline for an ad that sold a pedestrian mail-order language course.

Yet it worked so well—pulling in so much money—that the company that owned it continued to run it for 40 long and successful years!

To be sure, a myriad other headlines were tested, all using the same body copy, before that now-famous winner was discovered.

One competing headline read: Do you make mistakes in English? Certainly close enough, you would think. But it failed miserably, as did all others.

It was only when that seemingly innocuous word "these" was finally inserted that direct marketing history was made—and a lesson for direct marketers was learned.

Well, some endeavored to learn it, most never tried. They merely copied its form without understanding why it worked so well.

Even today you'll see that same headline in its innumerable permutations:

  • Do you make these seven tactical mistakes on a first date?
  • Do you make these errors when doing your own taxes?
  • Do you make these blunders every time you write your own copy?

So on and so forth.

These copycat headlines will actually work... at least for a short while (particularly with those consumers who don't get out very often).

But as with most formulaic copy, it's soon recognized as a trite, clichéd, over-used, and unimaginative pitch that screams: Hey, look! Here's my ad!

Nevertheless, the question remains...

Can asking a question in an ad increase sales?

Some will argue vehemently that the use of a question is a non-starter, a pre-ordained copywriting disaster.

Craig Huey, founder and president of the award-winning Creative Direct Marketing Group, a direct marketing advertising agency, and for whom I've written numerous promotions, froths at the site of a question in sales copy. (He's faithfully crossed out every one from my submitted drafts.)

Nevertheless, a question is a tool. And as with any tool, any copywriting strategy or tactic, if a question is not formulated and handled with proper caution it could indeed do immeasurably more harm than good.

Well, let me correct that: If you're a direct marketer who tests, you can measure precisely how much harm a poorly phrased question will do... or how well a good one will convert.

The secret to constructing a well-built, hard-working, money-sucking question

For Max Sackheim, the secret sauce in his brilliant question was intrigue and curiosity, both of which were lacking in "Do you make mistakes in English?"

That question failed because it was a yes or no question—and a yes or no question should (almost) never be asked in sales copy.

Why? Because either of the two possible answers, yes or no, will effectively end the conversation you're trying to conduct with the reader:

  • If the answer to a question—especially one in your headline—is no, the reader will assume there's no further reason to continue reading your letter. In other words, you asked, I answered, now goodbye.
  • Similarly, if the answer is yes, the reader responds with a big: Yeah, so? (And, again, he's gone.)

A yes/no question does not sink the barbed hook in the fish's mouth (not that I'm equating consumers with largemouth or smallmouth bass).

Why "these"?

By inserting the word "these" in his headline, Sackheim prevented the reader from answering yes or no.

And, because the reader didn't know what "these mistakes" were, he had to keep reading to find out. And that was the key to the ad's success.

Because the first objective of any sales copy, from the headline on down, is to compel the reader to keep reading. Otherwise, how else will you get the chance to prove your product's worth—and ask for the order?

Never give the reader time to think about the answer

It's dangerous—for you as a marketer.

You want to do all the thinking, and answering, for the reader. You want to direct the conversation and provide the conclusions—always!

For example, if you ask a question that doesn't either hint or overtly state that the answer will only be revealed by reading further, sorta like in these questions:

  • How many times a day do you dream of becoming rich?
  • When are you finally going to tell your boss to take this job and shove it?
  • How much money have you lost in the stock market this year?

You're, in effect, asking the reader to step away from your ad and discover the answer elsewhere (maybe in his own thoughts and musings, on his hard drive, or in the file cabinet in the attic).

In any event, he's distracted. You've lost his attention, you've broken the connection—you've pulled the plug.

For an ad to be successful, it can never be laid aside. It must be read in its entirety with rapt attention, growing interest, and compelling desire.

But, since there are exceptions to all rules...

This is the only time answering "yes" to a question will move a sales conversation forward—and not end it

Now this is rather advanced stuff (so don't try this at home, you could hurt yourself...).

Nonetheless, if you can pose a question—numerous questions, in fact—in such a way that you know, and want, the answer to always be yes... then you will be leading the reader by the eyeballs into a state of blissful acceptance—of your argument or contention—and ultimately of your offer.

I'll explain...

If your question is more or less rhetorical—that is, you and the reader know the answer is yes, sorta like in these questions...

  • You know that Big Pharma has the FDA in its pocket, right?
  • Couldn't you use an extra $10,000—tax-free—in your bank account starting tomorrow?
  • Wouldn't you like to be your own boss, and never have to answer to anyone else again—while doubling your income?'re, in effect, positioning yourself as the reader's good buddy, his wise and magnanimous advocate (well, kinda).

In any event, you're agreeing with him, and prompting him to agree with you. You're standing beside him, confirming his deepest beliefs and/or suspicions—and you're hurling rocks at his enemies.

You're bonding!

And so the more he answers yes to your "leading" questions—and to your similarly orchestrated statements and contentions—the more inclined he will be, by sheer force of habit if nothing else, to say "YES!" when you ask him to open his wallet and give you his credit card number.

Get it? Questions? Yes, no?

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Barry A. Densa is a freelance marketing and sales copywriter at Writing With Personality. For more, visit his blog Marketing Wit & Wisdom.

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  • by Michael A. Stelzner, author of Writing White Paper Tue Nov 18, 2008 via web


    Really excellent article. Your compelling headline pulled me in AND I actually read the entire article.



  • by Kayden Kelly Tue Nov 18, 2008 via web

    Your headline was a barbed hook that pulled me in. Nice job and the article was solid. Thanks!

  • by Dan Soschin Tue Nov 18, 2008 via web

    Great article that highlights an important aspect of marketing - the hook. There's no better way to reach out to the lead pool then to dip in with a great hook - one that engages and entices the lead to read on. Marvelous. I've always had success with 'list oriented' hooks... such as "Top 10 reasons to XYZ"... but I like this approach just as much. People love lists... they want to compare what they know with what you write, which is a great way to get them into an article... - Dan Soschin

  • by Chris Uschan - Omnipress Tue Nov 18, 2008 via web

    David Letterman makes a living on his "The top 10" lists, but I find 10 is too many for readers to digest in direct communications. I like to stick with "3 Ways to Make..."

    The "These" in your article heading made me feel I was missing out and had to read on.


  • by Hatem El Ghamry Sat Nov 22, 2008 via web

    I couldn't stop myself from selecting the article among other ones and couldn't resist finishing it.

    While reading the article; it sounded like if you study NLP, you would still get some more tips about words, hints, methods you use to attract readers and/or audiendce through communicating to the unconscious mind; this makes a difference as well.

    Thanks for the nice article.

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