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Can Betteridge’s law of headlines teach you how to get every client and prospect to read your content?

No, it can’t.

If you’ve ever heard of Betteridge’s law of headlines then you’ll understand why I’ve started with a highly transparent, emphatic “no” to the question posed in the title of this blog.

Of course, if you haven’t heard of Betteridge’s rule then I’m ever so sorry to disappoint. But the power of this law is not in getting every single piece of content you write to have a 100% success rate.

It could, however, help you craft more engaging headlines that offer more value to your readers, whether they be clients, prospects, or anyone else.

It might be in a newsletter, at the top of a blog, or on social media. Wherever you’re putting your headline, it’s important to make the most of the first part of your content that your reader will see – after all, as David Ogilvy famously said, it’s 80 cents of your dollar. So, it’s crucial to make sure that you use those 80 cents for maximum value.

Let’s take a dive into Betteridge’s law and find out what it can teach us.

Any headline posing a question has an obvious answer: no

In 2009, a journalist named Ian Betteridge wrote an article for the startup and technology news site TechCrunch.

In it, Betteridge criticised another writer for having written a spurious piece about a company based on an unsubstantiated rumour.

Betteridge was highly unimpressed and made no bones about what he thought of the other writer’s work. But what’s most interesting is Betteridge’s later supposition in his article:

“Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”.”

This has subsequently become known as “Betteridge’s law”, and has since been used as a method of testing the veracity of news headlines before even reading the attached content.

Consider the three headlines below that are definitely, definitely real, and that I have not invented for the sake of this blog:

  • “Is the moon growing to become larger than the Earth in the next five years?” No, it isn’t.
  • “Could Manchester United win the Premier League next season?” Nope.
  • “Will Taylor Swift ever write an album that isn’t about teenage heartache, even though she is now 34 and it is becoming increasingly played out?” Nay, nay, 1,000 times nay.

Betteridge follows up to explain that he believes the reason journalists use question marks in their headlines like this is simple: it’s because they don’t have the sources or facts to back up their story, which is most likely rubbish (he uses a slightly different, slightly stronger word here).

He also goes on to suggest that that’s probably why it’s a tool often used by a specific newspaper which he names, but I will instead refer to as the Maily Fail. You get his point.

Betteridge’s law shows the importance of using questions responsibly in headlines

Obviously, there’s more nuance to Betteridge’s law than is first apparent. For one thing, it presumes that all question headlines seek to provide a yes or no answer, when they might be doing something else.

For example, you can’t exactly say “no” to the question “How does pension tax relief work?”  because it’s an open-ended question.

But it does reveal something vitally important about writing headlines in general: they need to summarise what’s contained within the content and show what a reader will learn or find out when reading it.

As Betteridge said in his original article, his main issue with headlines is that they often indicate a lack of facts and sources. For you, this is unlikely to be the case – you know and understand the financial concepts you’re talking about in your content.

But for someone reading the content, a yes-or-no question could be incredibly off-putting. It could mean that they instantly don’t trust you as an authority on the topic you’re writing about.

This creates a risk of their eyes immediately glossing over the moment they see the title. Rightly or wrongly, a question could make them think that the content itself will simply not provide them with an interesting or fulfilling answer. That’s your 80 cents completed wasted.

There are other reasons for financial advice firms to be careful here, too. While blog posts or social media content might not be subject to rigorous journalistic standards, your headlines still need to be compliant from the FCA’s perspective.

I don’t imagine the FCA would be too thrilled at the idea of headlines that ask questions such as: “Could you boost your pension savings with this one simple trick?”

Do you see how it’s all starting to feel a bit Maily Fail?

There are many different and effective ways to spend your 80 cents

Despite Betteridge’s protestations, I’m a firm believer that question-based titles can still be an effective way to frame financial planning content.

For blog content especially, I think questions can capture your reader’s imagination, predominantly because these might be questions they’re asking themselves already.

For example, imagine that a prospect had just watched the 2024 Spring Budget and heard about the cut in the main rate of National Insurance contributions.

In this case, an article titled “How much will the National Insurance cut save the average UK worker, and what will this mean for you?” delivered straight to their inbox feels relevant, timely, and engaging.

So, rather than swearing off questions in your content titles forever, I think it’s worth taking Betteridge’s law with a pinch of salt and instead taking two key lessons away from it.

The first of these is to use question titles responsibly and carefully. You could be putting readers off – and potentially invoking the wrath of the FCA – if you publish headlines with unsatisfying answers or that are even deliberately misleading.

Secondly, and arguably even more crucially, is the importance of variety in headlines, framing topics in different ways to drive engagement without becoming repetitive.

You can do this for almost any financial planning topic. For instance, there are various ways you could frame your blog about the National Insurance cut discussed above that aren’t a question:

  • 5 effective ways you could use the savings from the National Insurance cut
  • How the National Insurance cut could affect your wealth
  • Thinking about how to use the savings from the National Insurance cut is crucial. Here’s why

If you do want to pose thoughtful, compliant questions that speak to the curiosity of your prospects or clients, then by all means do so. But it’s worth remembering that there are other ways to frame headlines that encourage a reader to click, because they show that the content will provide them with the answer they need.

And, by using all these different forms of headlines over time, you can prevent your blog page or social media feed from becoming a dispassionate list of lukewarm questions that fail to pique your readers’ interest.

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