This is your brain on direct marketing

Posted by Scott Zorn on Jan 13, 2016 9:30:00 AM


Do print ads lead to more purchases? Research says yes.

In a previous post, Create the experience your customers want, we discussed why direct mail remains so effective in a world awash in digital content. Here, we examine scientific evidence that physical mail has greater emotional and psychological appeal than digital media, and what this means for your next marketing campaign.

Direct mail's emotional appeal

In June 2015, the results of a study conducted by the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General and Temple University's Center for Neural Decision Making were released. The study focused on the differences between physical and digital media on consumer purchases. (See the entire study here.)

The study was based on neuromarketing, which is the application of neuroscience (the study of the nervous system) as it relates to a consumer's subsconscious response to marketing. Or more simply: how ads encourage people to purchase. Specifically, the study used eye tracking, biometrics, and an MRI machine to measure participants' physical responses to ads. This included how quickly and accurately ads were committed to memory to help find out when physical mail is more relevant than digital media.

This is high-tech, cutting-edge stuff. And since it's a relatively new scientific method we don't have decades of data to look at yet, but it has so far produced some fascinating insights for marketers. Among them:

  • Participants processed digital ads faster.
  • However, participants recorded stronger emotional responses to physical ads.
  • Physical ads were remembered by participants longer than digital ads.
  • Physical ads triggered brain activity associated with value and desirability more than digital ads, signaling a greater intent to purchase.

The bottom line for marketers

The study revealed an important distinction between digital and physical messages: You can reach more people with digital, but direct mail may be a better format for reaching the right audience. That is, those most likely to become customers.

Further, the findings conclude that digital ads may be more effective when trying to get people's attention quickly and in the moment. That makes sense. Think about the way a TV screen attracts eyeballs even in a busy place, or the way we are conditioned to respond immediately to the buzzing of our smartphones.

But in activating longer term memory and accurate recall – the kind of information you use when deciding whether to purchase or not – physical mail proved more effective.  Participants were also more confident about the information they received when it came from a physical mail piece instead of a digital one. It seems people trust paper more than pixels.

This study is obviously not the final word in the debate between digital and physical mail.  But it does show the power of tactile experiences. It's also another reason why direct mail should be part of your marketing mix.

 Scott may be reached at

Topics: Direct Marketing

Scott Zorn

Written by Scott Zorn

Scott has 25 years of direct mail and marketing experience including lead generation, customer acquisition, membership programs, and data modeling and analytic services for a wide range of clients and industries.