This is your brain on snail mail

Print out­per­forms dig­i­tal in ground­break­ing neu­ro­mar­ket­ing re­search


Need proof that di­rect-mail cam­paigns still have legs? Look to sci­ence. Ac­cord­ing to a new re­port by a lead­ing Cana­dian neu­ro­mar­ket­ing firm, printed mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als have a greater im­pact on the hu­man brain than the ban­ner ads, pop-ups and email news­let­ters that tar­get con­sumers on­line.

“This is a crit­i­cal, never-be­for­e­seen cus­tomer insight that would be in­ac­ces­si­ble through sur­veys and fo­cus groups,” says Diana Lu­caci, CEO of True Im­pact Mar­ket­ing, the Toronto firm be­hind the study, the largest of its kind to date.

Lu­caci and her team used the tools of neu­ro­science — brain imag­ing (EEG) and eye-track­ing tech­nol­ogy — to mea­sure cus­tomer en­gage­ment. The study’s 270 par­tic­i­pants re­viewed mock ads in both print and dig­i­tal for­mats, while re­searchers mea­sured their eye move­ments, pupil di­la­tion and elec­tri­cal brain ac­tiv­ity. They also con­ducted post-ex­po­sure mem­ory tests to see which mes­sages had the most stay­ing power. The ver­dict: “The phys­i­cal is eas­ier to un­der­stand, it’s more mem­o­rable and it’s more per­sua­sive,” says Lu­caci. “That’s the key when you look at the big pic­ture.” The easy way in The clincher in neu­ro­mar­ket­ing terms was the so-called cog­ni­tive load re­quired to make sense of the dig­i­tal sam­ples. In th­ese ex­per­i­ments, it took 21 per cent more brain power to process the dig­i­tal mes­sages. “This is a crit­i­cal point,” says Lu­caci’s re­port, “be­cause con­sumers al­ways pre­fer the path of least re­sis­tance, and di­rect mail of­fers ex­actly that.”

Con­sider the ef­fort it takes to read a dig­i­tal ad. “There are so many other things hap­pen­ing on­screen that make it dif­fi­cult for cus­tomers to un­der­stand your mes­sage,” ex­plains Lu­caci. “Our brains are not de­signed to func­tion at that level of cog­ni­tive ef­fort.” Re­plac­ing mul­ti­ple screens and other dig­i­tal clut­ter with a wellde­signed phys­i­cal copy helps the mind fo­cus.

The tac­tile qual­ity of print can also help cus­tomers re­tain key mar­ket­ing mes­sages. In the True Im­pact re­port, brand re­call was 70 per cent higher for di­rect mail than for dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing.

Even more re­veal­ing were the mo­ti­va­tion scores, which were 20 per cent higher for print. “The ex­tent to which the phys­i­cal is mo­ti­vat­ing was both sig­nif­i­cant and sur­pris­ing,” notes Lu­caci. Cus­tomer mo­ti­va­tion was also higher when a trop­i­cal fruity scent was added to a printed travel of­fer. “You add scent and all of a sud­den the brain is a lot more re­ac­tive,” says Lu­caci. Leav­ing an im­pres­sion This isn’t the first time neu­ro­sci­en­tists have com­pared con­sumer re­sponses to print ver­sus dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing. A 2009 re­port com­mis­sioned by the U.K.’s Royal Mail, and con­ducted by re­searchers at Ban­gor Univer­sity, used func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) scans to study how the brain re­acts to print and vir­tual stim­uli.

Not only did print ads trig­ger more ac­tiv­ity in the parts of the brain con­nected with feel­ing, they also ap­peared to leave a deeper, more mem­o­rable foot­print.

Ear­lier in 2015, sci­en­tists at Tem­ple Univer­sity con­ducted sim­i­lar ex­per­i­ments and found that pa­per ads lit up the ven­tral stria­tum — the part of the brain most as­so­ci­ated with de­sire.

If you be­lieve the sci­ence, print ma­te­ri­als have an en­dur­ing and pow­er­ful role to play for mar­keters — even in an in­creas­ingly wired world. “Think of your cus­tomer as a hu­man be­ing and don’t ig­nore hun­dreds of years of evo­lu­tion,” says Lu­caci.

“Our brains pre­fer tac­tile ex­pe­ri­ences be­cause that’s just how we’re wired.”


Re­plac­ing mul­ti­ple screens and other dig­i­tal clut­ter with a well-de­signed phys­i­cal copy (such as mail) helps the mind fo­cus.

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