Should Your Website Encourage Customers to Ask Questions?

Ben Ambridge
  • Customer interaction can be a good thing, but inviting questions about your product/service may not be.
  • Instead, research the kinds of questions customers are likely to ask and ensure your website copy includes the answers already.

Many websites allow customers to ask questions. This could range from simply giving visitors the opportunity to ask questions (e.g., by providing an email address), or by actively encouraging them to do so (e.g., by having a pop-up live chat box enabling an advisor to ask you whether you have any questions they can help you with).

This can only be a good thing. After all, if customers need further information before deciding whether or not to make a purchase, it’s simply common sense to give them the opportunity to seek out that information, right?

Well, an enterprising team of psychologists at Stanford Business School decided to find out.

The researchers created a website for a fictitious new energy bar, which they named “ProBar” (a clever name, given that the Spanish word probar means both “to taste” and “to test”)1. Some versions of the website invited visitors to ask questions; some did not.

Immediately after viewing the website, the participants completed a questionnaire that asked for their opinions on the product. Just as you’d expect, the participants who had been invited to ask questions rated the product as tastier, healthier, more energizing, and better all-round than those who had not. This fits with conventional wisdom: inviting questions seems to indicate openness, honesty, credibility and caring; all values to which pretty much every brand would aspire.

So the conventional wisdom is correct: allowing customers to ask questions is a good thing, right?

Not so fast. In a third part of the experiment, participants were not just given the opportunity to ask questions, but actively encouraged to do so. These participants gave ProBar the least favourable ratings of all; worse, in fact, than the ratings given by participants who were denied the opportunity to ask questions altogether.

Why? Just take a look at the questions people asked:

  • “Why is its sugar content so high?”
  • “Why is such a small bar so high in calories and saturated fat?”
  • “Is it really good for you?”

It’s not difficult to see how, in coming up with these questions, customers hit upon concerns or suspicions that might not otherwise have occurred to them.

Neither is merely giving the opportunity to ask questions always a good thing; it depends on your visitors’ level of engagement with the product.

For a second study, the researchers came up with a website for fictitious energy drink, “TruBoost”.

Some participants—­­­­­the “high-involvement” group were told that the drink was soon to be introduced in all the vending machines at their University (all were students). Others—the “low-involvement” group—were not.

For the low-involvement group, allowing questions resulted in better ratings for the product, presumably for all the usual reasons of openness, honesty and so on.

But for the high-involvement group, allowing questions resulted in worse ratings for the product, presumably because these participants were thinking of actually buying it, meaning that the health issues that their questions highlighted were not just hypothetical, they were a genuine concern.

So, should your website merely allow questions, actively encourage them, or neither?

The answer, as is so often in psychology, is “it depends”; not only on the engagement of your visitors, but presumably also on the exact nature of your product (remember that this study looked solely at energy bars and drinks).

Ideally, to improve conversions your website copy should be intuitive. It should join the conversation your customer is having in their head and answer their questions when they have them.

You could conduct research among your target audience to discover the questions that they expect you to answer and then work the information into your copy.

And, that could lead you to create and test webpage variants that aim to answer all their (possible) questions. But in the meantime, website features that actively encourage visitors to ask questions are certainly something that you should question.

1 U Khan and ZL Tormala, “Inviting questions”, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(3), 408–417 (2012).