More questions than answers
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Should Your Content Marketing Strategy Have More Questions than Answers?


Stop for a second…why are you reading this?

If your response to my question surprised or spurred you to think about the answer to that question, congratulations, you’re probably human, and you’ve just experienced the powerful effect of questioning.

Most marketers and content creators aren’t new to the concept of using questions to engage people, but a new study spanning over 40 years of research, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, reveals exactly what’s going on in the brain when you ask a question, and just how powerful it can be in changing our behavior. The study also reveals that not all questions are created equal.

These are important findings for marketers and content creators looking to maximize engagement techniques.

Question everything

What Is the Question-Behavior Effect?

The question-behavior effect is a phenomenon studied by psychologists in which simply asking about performing a certain behavior influences whether or not that person will perform the behavior in the future. The influence of this effect is so great that it’s been shown to last over six months after the question was asked.

What’s Going on in the Brain When You Ask a Question?

Good question. Because of the complexity of language and the ways in which it is connected to many different levels of processing in the brain, from basic sensory responses all the way up to complicated reasoning, there are likely a number of key processes that take place.

According to the study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, there are four psychological processes that can explain the effect: attitudes, consistency, fluency, and motivation.

  1. We activate our attitudes: Asking a question about intentions to perform a behavior makes attitudes associated with that behavior more accessible, and those attitudes guide future performance. For example, asking “How likely are you to buy a Toyota in the future?” only leads to a greater likelihood of that person buying a Toyota if they already have positive attitudes toward Toyotas.
  2. We yearn for consistency: Asking a question about a behavior elicits “normative beliefs” about that behavior (whether it is right/wrong, socially acceptable, etc.) as well as previous personal failures to behave normatively. This state is known as “cognitive dissonance,” an uncomfortable feeling where our beliefs and our actions don’t align. Cognitive dissonance is known to be a strong motivating factor for behavioral change. For example, asking “Do you recycle?” can activate our belief that recycling is good, and at the same time make us realize that we don’t recycle enough. Cognitive dissonance then motivates us to recycle more.
  3. We succumb to cognitive fluency: Asking a question about a behavior makes cognitive processing between the question and the performance of the behavior more fluent. For example, we find it easier to buy a tub of ice cream when we can recall the question “Will you buy ice cream?” because we’ve been primed with the idea of buying ice cream, making the decision less cognitively taxing.
  4. We feel motivated to act: Asking a question about an intention activates our concepts of intentionality in memory, which enhances our commitment to perform an action. For example, asking, “Will you buy these running shoes?” brings to mind other times when we did something because someone asked, or we said we would. Activating this question-behavior pattern in the mind leads to greater commitment to follow through on the behavior.

These mediating processes that take place when a question is asked hint at the complexity of the question-behavior phenomenon and some of the ways we should and shouldn’t go about employing questions in a creative strategy.

Why do questions have such a powerful effect on our behavior?

How Can I Make the Most of Questions in my Content Strategy?

Another recent study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology points to exactly when and how asking a question can be most effective in changing a behavior.

  1. Don’t leave that question unattended: Questions should be supported by motivations. Researchers found that the greatest likelihood of adopting a new behavior came from a combination of motivational factors: presenting a situation as personally relevant, understandable, and practical to act on, and then asking questions.
  2. Be positive, then ask: Make sure you’ve established a positive connection in your reader’s mind to the product, service, or action you’re promoting. Readers won’t change their behavior if your question reminds them of their negative attitudes to the topic.
  3. First think, what society would do?: Establishing what the normative response to a question would be can help you determine if your question will benefit from a reader’s motivation to reduce their cognitive dissonance. Questions that ask about good behaviors that your readers may not be performing as often as they should can be a powerful motivator to act.
  4. Make the decision easy: Help your readers understand how much better their lives could be through asking questions that help readers envision a particular feeling or action.

The best way to make use of questions

Let’s Transform This Bad Question into a Good One:

Don’t you think $730 is worth it for a life insurance plan?

This question doesn’t establish personal relevance and seems impractical (there’s a significant financial barrier). It activates negative attitudes toward financial expense, and the question doesn’t make action easy because it doesn’t reference a behavioral intention.

Let’s make the intended action clear:

Would you spend $730 on a life insurance plan?

Let’s improve the connection to norms about staying healthy:

Would you spend $730 to protect your health?

Let’s improve the motivation to act by making the action more practical and less negative financially:

Would you spend $2 a day to protect your health?

Let’s make it personally relevant:

Across the country, 2,000 people just like you will die of a heart attack tomorrow. Would you spend $2 a day to protect your health?

Understanding the specific mechanisms at work in our brain when a question is asked can help us determine the right time, place, and ways to go about using questions as a successful engagement technique in our content marketing strategies.

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  • You said “Cognitive dissonance is known to be a strong motivating factor for behavioral change.” I’m considering that fact, as I ponder the notion of Digital Business Transformation — people trapped in their ‘Status-Quo Bias’ may ironically resist the change that they seek.