Direct Mail More Effective Than Digital Ads, Study Says

A neuroscience study from Temple University’s Center, sponsored by the USPS Office of Inspector General recently revealed just how digital ads and print ads stack up when it comes to engaging consumers and encouraging them to buy. It turns out that, while we are living in an increasingly digital and data-driven world, print is still king.

The study used various methods, including: monitoring brain activity, tracking eye motion, and self-reported preference to gauge test subjects’ responses to print ads versus digital ads. The scientists used the data they acquired to analyze our subconscious reactions (things like increased brain activity, sweating, and heart-rate) and determine the different ways ads affect us, and how long those effects last. The tests focused on three major phases of the consumer buying process: how our body reacts to the different ads, how long we remember them, and their effect on our desire to make a purchase.

While the test subjects largely entered the experiment claiming that they held no preference for ads appearing in written or digital form, the experimental results told a different story. Participants not only processed the digital advertisements more quickly than the printed ads, they focused more attention on specific elements in these ads. This makes sense, considering that we most often see digital ads in a context based on expediency (before a YouTube video, as banner ads while we scroll through a website, pop-up advertisements, etc.).

Although the digital ads came out on top in terms of speed, the print ads performed better in the areas of impact and memory. The participants formed stronger emotional attachments to the physical ads in contrast to the digital ones, and this impact lasted much longer, making them more influential on actual purchase habits. This is because the print ads consistently activated the ventral striatum (that is, the area of the brain responsible for feelings of value and desirability).

In the end, the researchers discovered that the participants actually absorbed the same amount of information from the digital and print advertisements, the print ads were much more effective in making a lasting impression and stimulating a desire to buy at the time of purchase.

So where does this leave us? Is this a nail in the coffin for digital advertising? Well, not quite. Although the print ads were much more effective (scoring higher than the digital ads in nine out of the ten categories tested), they also required more time than the digital ads. Therefore, the scientists claim that a complementary approach is called for, one that takes advantage of the different positive and negative aspects of both types of ads. Digital advertising is best for situations where there is not a lot of time to make an impact on the consumer, whereas print ads can capitalize on situations where the consumer has more time to spend with the advertisement.

In the USPS OIG’s summary of the study, found here, future work on the subject was recommended. One option is to analyze demographic-specific responses to different types of ads, to determine the most effective mix for the target audience. Another possibility is to take a look at the effectiveness of specific design elements (different amounts of white space, color, etc.), as well as sequencing of types of ads in a mixed-media campaign.

The USPS has taken it upon themselves to lead the charge in the push to integrate digital and print advertising. They are currently (at the time of writing) offering a promotion designed to encourage mailers to combine elements of digital advertising (QR codes, augmented reality) into their mail-pieces. They are offering mailers who meet their criteria a discount on postal rates, and you can read more about the USPS promotions and the mail rate changes here.