Warning To Direct Marketers: Asking These Questions Will Kill Your Conversions
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oblivious to marketing history, and unversed in copy that
brings home the bacon—please take note: this article is
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 rather pedestrian
mail-order language course.
Yet it worked so well—pulling in so much money—the company
who owned it, continued to run it for 40 long and successful
To be sure, a myriad of other headlines were tested, all
using the same body copy, before that now famous winner
One competing headline even 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
Even today, you’ll see that same headline in its innumerable
• 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
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, cliched, 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
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?
Understand, that question failed because it was a yes or
no question—and a yes or no question should never (with
qualifications) 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 good-bye.
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 a large or small
Why then “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 in order 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
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
You’re, in effect, asking the reader to step away from your
ad and discover the answer elsewhere (either 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, where you know, and want, the answer
to always be yes...
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.
If your question is more or less rhetorical—where 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?
You’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.
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?
About the Author: Barry A. Densa is one
of America’s top freelance direct response copywriters.
and see how Barry easily and quickly converts prospects
into buyers using “salesmanship in print”. And while there,
sign up for his highly regarded FREE ezine: Marketing
Wit & Wisdom!
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