Surprising New Insights about How Consumers Search Online

A recent study finds that consumer search for durable goods is more extensive, focused, and informative of choice than is commonly reported, suggesting new strategies for marketing intervention.

“Based on a broad capture of data on consumer search for digital cameras, we document a number of new patterns in search,” says coauthor Carl Mela, Duke University. “For example, search ‘in the wild’ is extensive in terms of items visited, but exceptionally narrow over the product attribute space. This finding has implications for how firms can target their communications during the search process.”

Carl Mela discussed these results at MSI’s conference, “Marketing Analytics in a Data-Rich Environment” on July 31-August 1, 2014. The discussion exemplifies questions challenging all marketing analysts today:  What are the characteristics of “good” data? What are the best options for processing it to develop actionable insights?

For the consumer search study, Mela, Bart Bronnenberg, and Jun Kim culled data for nearly two million consumers over three months, employing innovative data filtering and text scraping methods to isolate a sample of 1,000 digital camera purchases. Based on comScore log files and retailer html page files, their data integrate complete consumer browsing and transaction histories for their sample with retailer attribute assortment and pricing information.

The result—a detailed picture of how consumers search for differentiated durable goods online—offered surprising new insights. Consumers conduct an average of 14 searches across domains, camera models, and time—in contrast to the 2-3 searches typically reported in studies using on line data. At the same time, consumer search is confined to a narrow slice of the attribute space, and one-third of search activity is on previously searched items. “This indicates that search is highly informative of the type of choices consumers ultimately make,” notes Mela. 

Similarly, the researchers found evidence of search “lock-in”—that is, consumers “funnel in” on attributes on their way to choice, and the time lapses between search steps accelerate as choice approaches. Finally, while consumers tend to discover chosen brands and stores early on, specific combination of models and stores come up later in search.

The potential implications for marketers are many: across consumers, marketers can exploit heterogeneity in preferences and target consumers with advertising for similar goods. Within consumers, the study reveals a contracting window of opportunity to influence search, and suggests that firms focus on increasingly narrow alternatives—from category and brand to store and product model--as search proceeds.

“As the evolution of search is informative of future search and choice, marketers can potentially intervene to influence the path and outcomes of the purchase journey,” says Mela.

“Zooming in on Choice: How Do Consumers Search for Cameras Online?” Bart J. Bronnenberg, Jun B. Kim, and Carl F. Mela (2014) Working paper.

Related links

Producting Marketing Knowledge
Carl Mela, Duke University (2014) [Video]

2014-16 Research Priorities: Developing Marketing Analytics for a Data-Rich Environment


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