Do You Really Need That Question in Your Headline?

If you’ve been asking yourself whether you should put questions in your post headlines, the guidance from Team StateImpact is this: Only use a question in your headline if you have a really compelling reason to do so.

Asking a question in a headline can be a way to get people to click on your post if they see it in social media or through search. But it’s also an easy cop out, especially when your post can go a step further and promise the reader something more definite. Wright Bryan, who heads up’s many, many blogs, adds this:

“Headlines with questions should largely be avoided because they suggest uncertainty. It sends a message to your reader that the story is incomplete, that you haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. Anyone can speculate about the news. Our job is to provide facts and answers, to bring clarity to the story.”

The lure to use questions in headlines is not native to bloggers. Ezra Klein points us to a study in the journal Scientometrics finds that scientific papers whose titles were phrased as questions were more likely to be downloaded. But wait:

“Question-mark papers tend to be downloaded more, but they’re cited less. And studies with longer titles are downloaded less but cited more. Perhaps long, laborious titles help cull casual thrill-seekers — only the truly interested and dedicated readers click. Also, papers with “highly amusing” titles get noticed more and downloaded more, but are cited far less.”

So questions may draw eyes, but non-question headlines draw more dedicated readers. Another parallel to this would be akin to what we know about Facebook clicks versus Twitter clicks to your site. Facebook will drive quantity — more pure pageviews. But someone who comes to your work via Twitter is far more likely to engage in your content — stay longer, leave a comment, share your work.

Remember that if you DO use a question in a headline, you are committing to answer the question in your post. If your post follows with vague explanation or by raising more questions, then you’ve pulled a bait and switch on your reader by failing to explain the answer to the question they came to get an answer for. For example, it can be effective if your post headline asks, “How Do Health Care Exchanges Work?” and you proceed to explain how they work.

It is ineffective if you’re answering a question no one is actually asking, like “Who Is John Harris, the New Tax Efficiency Chair?” (No offense to any real live John Smith who chairs panels on tax efficiency.) It is also ineffective if you ask something broader that you definitely won’t be answering in a complete way, like, “Are Schools Fairly Funded?” The answer to that question is inevitably so long, complex and unanswerable that you should consider picking off one definitive area to tackle and headline it without a question.

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