Using syntax in a surprising way can improve your marketing message

By our News Team | 2023

The written word is a key communication method for companies. Study finds that arranging wording is a particular way boosts message impact.

Researchers from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Germany have published an article that examines how using syntax (the arrangement of words in a sentence) in a surprising way in written communications can make the messaging more effective.

Their research appears in the American Marketing Association’s peer-reviewed academic Journal of Marketing and emphasises that formulating the right message for an intended purpose is not a trivial task.

Marketing Messaging

Photo by Pixabay via Pexels

Today, companies face this challenge of finding the right message on an hourly basis due to their permanent presence on digital platforms and 24/7 interaction with consumers.

According to the research team, 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.

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 “Jumia delivers baby food”) – 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 “Jumia delivers fast”).

The researchers call this approach ‘syntactic surprise’ and note: “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. 

The researchers classify the range of syntactic surprise into four categories: ‘optimal’, ‘effective’, ‘acceptable’ and ‘ineffective’.

Syntactic surprise calculator

To simplify the process of computing syntactic surprise and improving a specific text, the researchers at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management developed a free online tool that automates the use of the metric. This tool, called the ‘Syntactic Surprise Calculator’, calculates the syntactic surprise of any text at the message and sentence level, and then provides recommendations.

Copywriters, in-house communications teams and PR companies 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, the researchers claim.

“Overall, our findings demonstrate the importance of syntactic surprise in various forms, contexts and relevant outcomes,” says study co-author Florian Ellsaesser

“[They show] how to use syntactic surprise to improve marketing messages. With the use of the syntactic surprise calculator, communicators can improve their messaging strategies.” 

You can read more about the study, ‘Creating Effective Marketing Messages Through Moderately Surprising Syntax’ here.