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Using Text to Unlock the Power of Online Searches in the Consumer Journey

Using Text to Unlock the Power of Online Searches in the Consumer Journey

Riley T. Krotz and Garrett M. Shipley

Journal of Marketing Research Scholarly Insights are produced in partnership with the AMA Doctoral Students SIG – a shared interest network for Marketing PhD students across the world.

What makes consumers click on search engine results or online ad content, and what can marketers do about it? In their recent publication, “Construal Matching in Online Search: Applying Text Analysis to Illuminate the Consumer Decision Journey,” Ashlee Humphreys, Mathew Isaac, and Rebecca Wang (2020) sought to address this very question. Marketers tend to focus their digital advertising efforts on consumers near the end of their consumer journey (i.e., the purchase stage). Still, other parts of the consumer journey can also influence purchases (e.g., the search stage). Based on their research, Humphreys et al. found that targeting consumers at the beginning of their journey can also increase click-through rates. Through a combination of six studies, including a pilot study, a survey, three lab experiments, and one field experiment, the authors explore different mindsets and goals that consumers assume during their journey and demonstrate how marketers can use this information to increase click-through rates and satisfaction.

The key is a fluency-driven matching effect. At different stages of the decision journey, consumers adopt different mindsets (i.e., abstract vs. concrete). Based on these mindsets, consumers tend to generate textual search queries that match their respective mindsets—what’s called a fluency-driven matching effect. For example, a consumer in an abstract mindset would be more likely to use more abstract language when searching for product information. Conversely, concrete language would be more likely when a consumer is in more of a concrete mindset. As a result, marketers can increase consumer satisfaction by matching search engine results or online ad content to their mindset.


Specifically, the authors note that when consumers are at the beginning (versus the end) of their decision journey, an eventual purchase goal may appear farther away and seem more psychologically distant. At this stage, consumers display a more abstract construal and are more satisfied with abstract results in their online search. However, as consumers progress along their decision journey and become closer to the actual purchase, these psychological distances—and thus, consumer mindsets—may change. At this stage, consumers display a more concrete construal and are more satisfied with concrete results in their online search. But how can marketers determine the mindset of consumers at specific points in time? The authors provide evidence that these mindsets can be detected by analyzing written text. These findings provide actionable insights to marketers who can increase their online marketing strategy by matching their search engine results and ad content to a consumer’s mindset.

Highlights from the Article

  • Consumers adopt different goals along their decision journey, and marketers can detect these goals by analyzing the text of their online search queries.
  • Consumers use search terms that match their mindset.
  • Marketers can successfully target consumers early in their decision journey by matching key words to these mindsets.
  • Marketers that use search query text to discern consumer mindset can move past bidding on concrete calls to action (e.g., “buy now!”) for search advertisements.
  • Consumers are more likely to click on search engine results and ad content that matches their mindset. Satisfaction also increases!

Generating the Research Question

The impetus for this research came from the authors’ recognition of a practical problem. During their online searches, the authors noticed that most online search ads use language that is concrete (i.e., specific and low-level)—and consumers rely on online searches for everything. However, this preoccupation with concrete keywords seemed to be at odds with their own experiences and goals when using search engines. Building on these observations, the authors discussed with some of their industry partners, who verified that many companies focus obsessively on bidding for concrete keywords like “buy” rather than more abstract keywords. Thus, the author team suspected that there might be an untapped opportunity for marketers at the early stage of the consumer decision journey that advertisers were missing out on by only focusing on concrete keywords.

Research Methodology

To test their idea, the authors combined laboratory experiments with a field study to ensure that the findings were valid and applicable to managers. Although combining research designs is often a challenging endeavor, when asked about the article, the authors noted that they “loved combining methods for this project.” They maintain consistency across field and laboratory experiments by using text data in each study. The consistent use of text in each study strengthens confidence in their findings and makes their methodology easier to adopt by other managers and researchers.

However, marketing managers and researchers interested in analyzing consumer construal level, search queries, or, more generally, text data don’t need to go far. Throughout this research, the author team developed The website allows users to enter strings of text used to calculate a construal score from 100 (abstract) to 700 (concrete). Provided that the marketer or researcher has insight into the stage of the decision journey that the consumer is at, this online tool can be used to align marketing communication with a consumer mindset. The authors provided two great examples of the websites application outside of the scope of search queries:

“If a company is running a Twitter campaign focused on building awareness, each planned tweet could be evaluated by the tool to ensure that the language matches with an awareness mindset, which tends to be relatively abstract. On the other hand, if a practitioner is planning an email campaign to convert leads into sales, s/he might check that potential email messages are sufficiently concrete for this latter stage of the consumer decision journey.”

What Does This Mean for Managers and Researchers?

            How can marketing practitioners be more aware of consumer mindsets? An essential step is determining where the consumer is in their decision journey. Consumers closer to the beginning of their decision journey are less likely to be committed to a particular product and more inclined to learn more information. In this scenario, concrete communications (e.g., “buy now” or specific product details) may not be met favorably. Instead, marketers should reserve concrete language for consumers closer to the end of their decision journey and consider more abstract communications (e.g., details about product benefits) for consumers who are just getting started in their decision journey.

The benefits of aligning marketing communication with a consumer mindset extend beyond just the consumer’s response to the advertisement to online search strategies. Marketers who consider more abstract terms in their search keywords aren’t forced into bidding wars for concrete calls to action. Marketers increase click-through rates with a more positive consumer response and don’t have to overpay for the keywords. As a result, marketers should consider the consumer mindset when planning their online search strategy.

In addition to providing actionable insights to marketing managers, this research also provides insights for the academic community. Specifically, the authors establish that construal level can explain some of the keyword popularity related findings of previous research. The author team has provided novel ways to use text data—and has even made this process easier for others by creating a tool anyone can use when working with text and construal level.

Future Work on the Consumer Journey

The authors also provided their insights on future research possibilities in the areas of the consumer journey, text analysis, and digital marketing. Through their holistic approach, the authors recognized that the consumer journey is not always linear and unidirectional. Consumers can go back and forth between different stages, and thus marketers need to find tools (such as text) that can help identify what goals a consumer has at a particular stage. The authors note that their model accounts for one signal—search query concreteness—but many other potential linguistic markers may serve as additional signals of consumer goals and mindsets. This is a potentially fruitful avenue for other marketing researchers to look into further. Additionally, there is scope for future research into the influence of the type of device used (i.e., a laptop or mobile phone) on the role of textual communication in online searches.

In the end, regardless of where consumers are in their purchase journey, it all boils down to mindset.

Read the full article:

Ashlee Humphreys, Mathew S. Isaac, and Rebecca Jen-Hui Wang (2020), Construal Matching in Online Search: Applying Text Analysis to Illuminate the Consumer Decision Journey,” Journal of Marketing Research, forthcoming, DOI: 10.1177/0022243720940693 

Riley T. Krotz is a doctoral candidate in marketing, Yates Fellow, and AACSRE Emerging Research Fellow, University of Tennessee

Garrett M. Shipley is a marketing doctoral student at University of Tennessee.