Brainy BrandingThe neuroscientific magic behind print marketing

Even in a world driven by seemingly endless amounts of data, perception can still often outweigh reality. Since consumers engage with digital content more than traditional print these days, it stands to reason that the new frontier for marketing influence resides online. But just because that's where the most fish are swimming, is the web really where they're most prone to bite?

Believe it or not, neuroscience says no. In fact, research has proven that paper-based content is more effective than digital media at stimulating the mental processes that guide consumer action—specifically ease of understanding and persuasiveness.

True impact

A 2015 study conducted by neuromarketing firm True Impact used eye-tracking and high-resolution electroencephalogram brainwave testing to compare the two mediums, and the findings supporting print were profound.

Results showed that direct mail requires 21% less cognitive effort to process than digital media, indicating that it is both easier to comprehend and more memorable. Further, when study participants were asked to cite the brand of a promotional communication they had just seen, recall was 70% higher among those who were exposed to a printed mail piece (75%) than a digital ad (44%).

Physical mail also significantly outperformed digital advertising in the study's measure of consumer motivation levels related to cognition. On a ratio scale where values greater than 1.0 are most predictive of "in-market success," print scored a 1.31 against 0.87 for digital.1

These findings are consistent with past research validating that physical content causes more activity in brain areas associated with value, desire and future buying behavior—including a 2015 experiment conducted by Temple University,2 and a 2009 study conducted by Millward Brown and Bangor University.3

The haptic brain

Sappi North America, in collaboration with Lana Rigsby and Jonathan Hull of Rigsby Hull, has conducted extensive research on the topic of haptics (defined as any form of interaction involving touch), specifically as it relates to marketing. Working with renowned neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, the researchers examined how people read and process content on three different platforms: print, digital and audio. Through brain scan evaluations and additional testing methods, they found conclusive evidence that the experience of ink on paper activated significantly more sensory stimulation than the other mediums, and—consequently—achieved higher levels of engagement and longer mnemonic retention.4

Bilateral literacy

A common theme in the research of Dr. Maryanne Wolfe—a professor and director at the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University—is bilateral literacy, which posits that people encounter and absorb content differently in print than they do digitally. She notes that when consuming printed content, readers tend to settle in and—perhaps subconsciously—prepare for a more penetrating absorption of information, resulting in higher levels of retention compared to viewing online.

Heart rates actually tend to slow down and blood pressure decrease when consuming print—physiological reactions Dr. Wolfe links to the brain calibrating for a narrative with deeper meaning and thought-provoking elements like context and nuance. Conversely, people have been conditioned to approach digital content with more of a focus on obtaining immediate information, scanning content quickly and thus retaining less knowledge. This contrasting utility is evident in online design, which optimizes a speedy experience through the use of bullets, lists, call-outs and links.5

"Stress is higher when reading online," Dr. Eagleman says. "Over 100 published studies show people prefer reading on paper. It is more intuitively navigable, so people enjoy it more and remember it better."

The endowment effect

Another interesting concept Dr. Eagleman expounds on is the endowment effect, a theory introduced by economist Richard Thaler that revolves around two core human emotions: desire and value. The basic premise argues that when people own an object, they inherently deem it more valuable than it truly is or if it belonged to someone else. Accordingly, when someone holds a physical object, the sense of touch triggers a feeling of ownership, which in turn amplifies its perceived value.

Human beings naturally desire objects of value, making the endowment effect an ingenious mouse trap for shrewd marketers. When a consumer touches a print catalog—still a strong revenue generator in today's retail industry—the pages can serve as a surrogate for touching the product itself, thus evoking feelings of ownership, value and desire. But while the endowment effect is often times stimulated by physical objects like catalogs, the desire created is most commonly satisfied by an online purchase. In fact, up to 84% of online orders now derive from physical interactions with catalogs, magazine advertising, and direct mail.6

Perception versus reality

The recent tide of pessimism predicting the demise of print is slowly but surely turning, thanks in part to research studies that empirically prove the medium's undeniable value.

Some digital evangelists may still perceive otherwise. But rather than debating the exclusive impact of each individual channel, today's modern marketers are focusing more on how they can cohesively work together and letting the integrated campaign results speak for themselves.

Want to discuss ways to raise the bar for your brand's communications? Talk to an RRD expert.

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  1. True Impact Marketing. A Bias for Action: The Neuroscience Behind the Response-Driving Power of Direct Mail (2015)
  2. Journal of Marketing Research. Predicting Advertising Success Beyond Traditional Measures: New Insights from Neurophysiological Methods and Market Response Modeling (2015)
  3. Millward Brown & Bangor University. Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail (2009)
  1. Sappi North America. Papercuts: "Print &" Everything Else with Daniel Dejan (2013)
  2. Henry Wurst Incorporated. Bilateral literacy: Storytelling and Presentation (2017)
  3. Henry Wurst Incorporated. The Neuroscience of Touch: Part Four (2017)