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Using search and email to recognize customer intent

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Using search and email to recognize customer intent

I have COVID-19. Luckily I’m vaxxed and boosted, so the effects have been mild. But in the brain fog that inevitably accompanies COVID, my thoughts have naturally turned to email marketing.

Why would I think of email and COVID together? Browse-abandon emails made me do it.

For years I have railed against browse-abandon emails (read my most recent rant) because they’re based on an outdated idea that browsing a website signals purchase intent.

Granted, web browsing was a stronger intent signal 20 years ago when browsing was confined mainly to desktops. So, an email that reminded a customer about the browse session, offered help and linked back to the page had some merit. 

Today, people can pass links easily, share them on social media and check on their phones. Merely looking at something no longer indicates intent.

I mean, my wife scrolls products endlessly on websites every night. Thank goodness there’s no intent there, or I would be broke.


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In marketing, intent is the name of the game. Growing and recognizing intent, messaging and acting on intent – are critically important for email marketers. Email’s job is to qualify and action intent in email. 

Because, as we all know, email can do only so much. The full conversion experience happens on the website. We, as email marketers, need the mindset to understand how to create, recognize and act on intent.

So this brings me to the link between COVID and intent and browse abandonment. 

I have been searching on the web for COVID-related things, like my closest Walgreens, where I can buy in-home testing kits, tissues and Robitussin and everything I need to get through this.

In these searches, I’ve had a high degree of intent. I have COVID, and I want to feel better fast. 

Search is one of those tools to recognize intent. It makes me wonder how many marketers think of using searches on their own sites to recognize and act on intent. Then it made me wonder how marketers use search and other tools on their websites to recognize intent.

So I came up with a new email program called “intent abandonment.” That’s more accurate than “browse abandonment.” But it means ways you can use search and other things on your website to recognize and act on intent.

Let’s look at how you can recognize and act on intent.

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1. Use search to reveal intent

Unless your website was built on static pages, you should be able to track and manage search so you can discover what your customers are trying to discover on your site.

This recalls the urban legend Target sniffed out that a teen shopper was pregnant based on her site search, connected to her identity, and sent her coupons for baby things, much to her surprised father’s dismay.

This has since been disproved, but the point remains that many marketers have the technology to make this happen via email. If I’m on your site and you can see I’m searching for tissues and testing kits and cough syrup, I probably have COVID, or someone close to me does. 

Those are all high-intent keywords. When you string them together, you can see something is going on.

As a marketer, can you connect or correlate those search terms to a particular user at a moment in time? See if you can answer these two key questions: 

  1. Which of your search terms signal strong intent rather than idle browsing?
  2. What’s the search path that follows? 

You might notice, for example, that someone searches on these high-intent keywords, goes to a results page, clicks on a link and spends time on a product page, goes back to the results page, clicks on another link, and so on. That shows high intent.

This is where browse abandonment fails today. Just looking at a page doesn’t tell you much. Maybe they clicked a Facebook ad or Pinterest pin by mistake, looked at what was on your site for a minute, and then bounced out. That’s not intent. 

My idea of intent abandonment means your browser showed a high degree of intent through search but didn’t purchase. That can trigger a follow-up message with wording along the lines of “Is there something we can do to help? Did something go wrong? Were we out of stock?”

Here’s where you can use customer-service outreach messages that resemble abandoned-cart emails. As email marketers, we’re so busy getting campaigns out the door that we overlook genuine intent signals through search. Maybe it’s time to do that.

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2. How do we know search works?

Well, there’s that little industry that makes gazillions of dollars every year with pay-per-click ads, but let’s look at a better example on the B2B search.

It’s account-based marketing or ABM. One premise of ABM is that you have a named account of people at companies you want to pursue as customers. You add their names to an ABM account tool, and surround them with ads and content that leads them to ungated pages with articles, white papers, webinar invites and the like in the hopes they will reach out.

ABM also has another component: recognizing search through systems like Bombora, which can ferret out the keywords that spell intent.

As head of marketing for an ESP, we used ABM to recognize high-intent search terms and then surrounded our prospects who used those terms with advertising. We wanted to avoid people doing a generic search for ESPs. We wanted someone who fit our specific target market and was actively searching. We used search through Bombora and its technology to target advertising that would grow and action intent.

[Pause while I sneeze.]

Search works. We know it works in PPC, but there are other use cases. You also own the search box. If your users are logged in, you can maximize your search intelligence to look for your high-intent search and send them relevant messages.

Read next: How Planful uses customer intent to speed up the B2B buying cycle 

3. Where should you start?

By now, I hope I have persuaded you that intent abandonment is the direction you should go to capture your serious browsers. Remember, I have COVID, so my persuasion skills might be a little off.

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To get started, look at the raw search results on your website. Learn what people are searching for. If you have a great data team, ask them what users ended up buying. Look for correlations between searches and purchases. Then pick a search term you can use to message users and motivate them to return to your site.

Next, create an email similar to your abandoned-cart email but don’t be overly creepy. You’re not including data that your browsers wouldn’t expect you to know. Ask if they need help, and include a customer-service phone number.

After that, set up and test simple automation so you can see your data immediately. Set up a control group. Half of your browsers get the message, and half don’t. 

Let it run for a while, then take a reading. Did the test group show a lift over the control group? If so, expand the test. If not, don’t give up. Tweak the copy. Tweak your search terms. Test it again and again until you find the right combination.

This is what intent is. Someone searching for something and then taking a series of actions. If I search and click around, then I have intent. Those are the levers you have to play with to determine what indicates intent and what doesn’t. 

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Wrapping up

We all want to get more revenue and keep our customers engaged. Is my intent-abandonment program a revolutionary new thing to keynote on? Maybe not – maybe someone has already come up with this. The premise is what’s important. We email marketers need to change our mindset from just selling to discovering, growing and acting on intent.

If Walgreen’s had sent me a helpful follow-up email suggesting things people buy when they’re coping with COVID or colds, I probably would have acted on that. 

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That’s how we can use email to be more helpful to our customers and meet our business goals. Let’s look for intent. It’s out there, waiting for us to discover it.

And now, back to my Robitussin and lotion-coated Kleenex.  


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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

As the co-founder of RPEOrigin.com, Ryan Phelan’s two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for Adestra, Acxiom, Responsys, Sears & Kmart, BlueHornet and infoUSA. Working with peers to advance digital marketing and mentoring young marketers and entrepreneurs are two of Ryan’s passions. Ryan is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board and a member of numerous business community groups. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on digital marketing.

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