Is direct mail a thing of the past? Ultra-efficient digital marketing seems all but certain to replace actual paper marketing delivered to you in person. A study by branding agency Millward Brown suggests that it may be a little too early to cease production in the paper mills.  The research project used fMRI brain scans to show that our brains process paper-based and digital marketing in different ways, and in particular that paper ads caused more emotional processing.

According to the study, physical media left a “deeper footprint” in the brain, even after controlling the increase in sensory processing for tangible items:

• Material shown on cards generated more activity within the area of the brain associated with the integration of visual and spatial information (the left and right parietal).

• This suggests that physical material is more “real” to the brain. It has a meaning, and a place. It is better connected to memory because it engages with its spatial memory networks. [From Millward Brown Case Study – Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail.]

The study also found that the tangible materials involved more emotional processing in the subjects, important from a branding and ad recall standpoint:

• More processing is taking place in the right cortex when physical material is presented. This cortex is involved in the processing of emotionally powerful stimuli and memory suggesting that the physical presentation may be generating more emotionally vivid memories.

• Physical activity generates increased activity in the cerebellum, which is associated with spatial and emotional processing (as well as motor activity) and is likely to be further evidence of enhanced emotional processing.

Print is not without it’s limitations. Digital ads can do things that print ads can’t match, for instance, digital ads can build in video, audio, and interactivity. Furthermore, digital ads can be targeted far more effectively based on user interests (search and content), past behaviour, and other characteristics that print can’t match.

So how can we capitalise on these ‘tangible’ benefits?

– Think about the tactile nature of the piece. Heavier stock and a textured finish could emphasize the “tangibility” of the mailed item.

– Take advantage of the brain’s emotional engagement with tangible media and craft a message that has an emotional impact.

– Build in your brand imagery, since brand recall may be enhanced by the paper medium.

Digital marketers, on the other hand, need to look beyond static banners that are little more than converted print ads. Perhaps a comparison between a paper ad and a well-targeted, engaging, rich-media ad would at least even things up, if not tilt in the favour of digital. Digital ads have the potential to stimulate multiple senses, surprise and interact with the viewer, and overall be very engaging. But can these strengths offset the more ‘tangible’ advantages of paper for most applications?


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