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Press Release From the Journal of Marketing: The Element of Surprise: How Unexpected Syntax Makes Marketing Communications More Effective

Marilyn Stone

Researchers from Frankfurt School of Finance and Management published a new Journal of Marketing article that examines the role of syntactic surprise in formulating effective written messages.

The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Creating Effective Marketing Messages Through Moderately Surprising Syntax” and is authored by A. Selin Atalay, Siham El Kihal, and Florian Ellsaesser.

Consider a manager advertising for a job, deciding whether to go with “Apply today to join a great team!” or “Join a great team, apply today!” These messages are similar, and both are inviting a job application, but they are formulated differently – or, in other words, use different syntaxes. Can the manager tell which message will more successfully facilitate applications? How can the manager compare the effectiveness and efficiency of the formulation of these messages and decide which one to use?

Formulating the right message for an intended purpose is not a trivial task. Today, companies face this challenge of finding the right message on an hourly basis due to their permanent presence on digital platforms. Many utilize multiple communication tools and channels to spread messages of various lengths and types, reaching consumers via social media, television, radio, or newspapers, as well as email, brand websites, and blogs. While marketing messages must weigh various elements—including content, images, and choice of channel—language is one of the most critical aspects of effective communication.

As Atalay explains, “In our study we explore how companies can formulate effective messages intended to reach a desired outcome. We focus on syntax, which is the arrangement of words in a sentence, and investigate a measure called syntactic surprise, which is the average unexpectedness in the syntax of a message. By using state of the art methods in natural language processing, we demonstrate the role of syntactic surprise in effective writing.”

The Power of Surprise

People begin comprehending a sentence before processing it fully. For example, people generally anticipate a direct object relationship after a verb (such as in the sentence ‘Amazon delivers diapers’) – in which case, the syntactic surprise is low. By contrast, an adverb following a verb is less expected and would bring on high surprise (such as ‘Amazon delivers fast’). Taken together, syntactic surprise is the unexpectedness of the syntactic element occurring (e.g., object: diapers vs. adverb: fast) given the previous syntactic element (e.g., verb: delivers) that the individual encounters in the sentence.

The researchers conducted four main studies using large scale field data and a series of follow-up experiments on Facebook and Instagram to validate syntactic surprise. They then assessed the role of this measure in various forms (i.e., experimental and field data), contexts (i.e., donations, advertising, and product reviews), and relevant outcomes (e.g., likelihood to donate and click-through rate). We find that syntactic surprise is a unique aspect of syntax that accounts for the effectiveness of marketing messages beyond previously established measures.

Additionally, the relationship between syntactic surprise and effectiveness of the message follows an inverted U-shape: messages are most effective at a medium syntactic surprise level, but less effective at low and high levels. They classify the range of syntactic surprise into four categories: optimal, effective, acceptable, and ineffective. “Through a series of field experiments on Facebook and Instagram we demonstrate how managers can use this proposed approach to modify the syntactic surprise of their ads to increase click-through rates significantly and improve performance,” says El Kihal.

Syntactic Surprise Calculator

To simplify the process of computing syntactic surprise and improving a specific text, the researchers developed an easy to use, free online tool that automates the use of the metric: the syntactic surprise calculator. This tool calculates the syntactic surprise of any text at the message and sentence level and then provides recommendations. Managers can revise their messages sentence by sentence until they reach the effective or acceptable range. The proposed approach is automatic, scalable, and can be used without any machine learning expertise. 

“Overall, our findings demonstrate the importance of syntactic surprise in various forms, contexts, and relevant outcomes and shows how to use syntactic surprise to improve marketing messages. With the use of the syntactic surprise calculator, communicators can improve their messaging strategies,” says Ellsaesser. Regardless of message length, a practitioner can measure the syntactic surprise of any text, assess its syntax, and use the results to improve the message. Any communicator (e.g., retailers, brand managers, advertisers, politicians, educators, policymakers) can benefit from these findings.

Full article and author contact information available at:

About the Journal of Marketing 

The Journal of Marketing develops and disseminates knowledge about real-world marketing questions useful to scholars, educators, managers, policy makers, consumers, and other societal stakeholders around the world. Published by the American Marketing Association since its founding in 1936, JM has played a significant role in shaping the content and boundaries of the marketing discipline. Shrihari (Hari) Sridhar (Joe Foster ’56 Chair in Business Leadership, Professor of Marketing at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University) serves as the current Editor in Chief.

About the American Marketing Association (AMA) 

As the largest chapter-based marketing association in the world, the AMA is trusted by marketing and sales professionals to help them discover what is coming next in the industry. The AMA has a community of local chapters in more than 70 cities and 350 college campuses throughout North America. The AMA is home to award-winning content, PCM® professional certification, premiere academic journals, and industry-leading training events and conferences.

Marilyn Stone is Director, Academic Communities and Journals, American Marketing Association.