Physical vs. Digital: Who Wins the Brain Game?

Knowing something and being able to prove it are two different things.  Intuitively, we have long suspected that the human brain responds differently in the way it processes things we simply read versus things we can hold, touch, see, and sometimes even hear and smell!   So it is not surprising that physical direct mail can have a bigger impact on the brain than digital mail.   And now we have studies that prove it!

The earliest study that compared responses to physical mail compared to digital mail was one conducted by Royal Mail  in its “Private Life of Mail” study.  It found that “[w]hen comparing to mail to other media, the neuroscience engagement measure was found to be 33 per cent higher than the email experience and 60 per cent higher than the television experience.”

Two new studies recently have been published which also support the premise that physical mail can outperform digital mail when it comes to the human brain.   The USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) in June 2015 published a report, “Enhancing the Value of Mail:  The Human Response.  The OIG worked with Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making to conduct the study.

The OIG said the results showed that participants processed digital ad content quicker but spent more time with physical ads and had a stronger emotional response and recall of those pieces.  In addition, the physical ads triggered activity in the area of the brain responsible for value and desirability of featured products, which it said can signal a greater intent to purchase.

Most recently, CanadaPost on July 31, 2015 published a report, “A Bias for Action,” the result of its partnership with leading neuromarketing research company True Impact Marketing.  The study utilized brain imaging and eye-tracking technology to look at human brains while interacting with physical direct mail compared to digital (email, display) advertising media.

CanadaPost on its blog re-capped four key findings from the research:  direct mail is easier to understand and more memorable than digital media; direct mail is far more persuasive than digital media; direct mail gets the message across faster; and direct mail is more likely to drive consumers to act on its message.

The USPS and its OIG group both have said that they plan to conduct additional study in this area, and a steering committee is being formed.

What other things could be studied in this area?   It is great to see these types of studies being performed.  As these efforts continue, we should all be thinking of ideas on how the research could be expanded.  Here are some of my thoughts – send a comment in with yours below!

  • The USPS has been offering discount incentives/promotions around use of print innovation, ranging from NFC, Augmented Reality, and QR Codes, to different types of papers, inks, colors, and more. It would be great to see how use of these different technologies and tactile enhancements compare in terms of human brain engagement – not just to digital media, but also compared to more traditional direct mail pieces.
  • In addition, many recent marketing studies point to the highest response rates coming from multi-channel or omnichannel marketing campaigns. How is the human brain response different in comparing one direct mail piece versus direct mail in combination with other efforts?
  • What about new technologies that bring together dimensions of both the physical and digital media, such as printed video? Does the human brain respond to these pieces in a manner similar to true digital content, or does the combination of physical and digital illicit a better response?

Turn this great news about direct mail…into direct mail!   These studies contain a wealth of data that helps promote the value of direct mail and its effectiveness.   The next step after obtaining and analyzing the data needs to be using the results to market direct mail as an effective communications media.   As part of its Life of Private Mail project, Royal Mail had Publicis Chemistry devise a direct mail camping to promote the findings of the study, targeting about 8,000 marketers and ad agencies, as well as others. Here’s hoping the USPS does the same!

By Kathy Siviter

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One Reply

  1. Evan

    I’m interested to see a few images of brain activity comparing digital and physical content, with explanations on the function of the stimulated areas.

    One hypothesis – the more a person is immersed in the digital world, the greater the impact of physical mail. This could help build the case for using direct mail to target younger generations.

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