Paper Beats Digital For Emotion


Direct mail is so last millenium, right? Ultra-efficient digital marketing seems all but certain to supplant actual paper marketing delivered by humans. It might be a little too soon to shut down the paper mills, though, according to a study by branding agency Millward Brown. 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 for controlling for 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 retrosplenial cortex when physical material is presented. This is involved in the processing of emotionally powerful stimuli and memory, which would suggest 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.

Before we get carried away and crank up the printing presses, a few limitations of the findings should be noted. The biggest is that a head-to-head comparison of similar digital and print ads may not represent most real-world marketing situations. Digital ads can do things that print ads can’t match, like this Halo ad from Unicast. 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 behavior, and other characteristics that print can’t match.

Paper-based Marketing. As a long-time direct marketing guy, I’m happy to see that high-tech brain scans show that paper still has some advantages that bits can’t match. The Millward Brown study didn’t get into how to optimize a print piece, but here are a few quick ideas:
– 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. (The ubiquity of the term “banner blindness” is one clue about how ineffective many digital ads are.) I have little doubt that 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 favor of digital. Digital ads have the potential to stimulate multiple senses, both surprise and interact with the viewer, and overall be very engaging. I’m confident that these strengths can offset the “tangible” advantages of paper for most applications.

  1. Chris Zdunich says

    Roger, do you have any research that shows the effectiveness of sponsorships?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Do you mean event sponsorships, Chris?

  2. Brendon B Clark says

    Good post Roger. Has anyone done work on how best to neuro-optimise print DM?

  3. Roger Dooley says

    I’m not aware of neuro-optimization of print items, Brendon, though I have suggested that would be a good way to test the effectiveness of neuromarketing techniques since split runs and other controlled testing options are easy.

    I’d guess that many direct marketers would skip the neuro-testing and run their own tests with actual mailers. As few as 5,000 pieces can give meaningful results, and those results are almost always scalable. I’d prefer to have measured an actual 30% sales lift in a test of 10,000 pieces vs. a brain scan guy telling me which mailer appeared to be more engaging.


  4. Didztr says

    Cool Stuff.
    The research doesn’t specify the age of the participants. I was wondering if the emotional response to direct mail was the same for older generations as opposed to earlier generations, those who had access to the internet their whole lives?

    Is it worth while to go the extra mile and go print when targeting teens or young adults? Or can we achieve the same level of emotional response online?

  5. Roger Dooley says

    Good question, Didztr. Running tests by age would be a good variation on this experiment. I agree that younger subjects might find paper less engaging than older subjects. But maybe not.


  6. Gabriele Maidecchi says

    Every medium should focus on taking advantage of that medium’s signature properties. Printed medium should focus on tactile feeling, on the smell of paper, on the visual quality of the texture and finishings. Electronic medium should be all about interactivity, on mixing different sensorial inputs in a coherent, high-impact blend.
    If you try to just mimic one with the other (classic banner on a website), you won’t get much out of it in terms of emotion.

  7. Roger Dooley says

    Chris, I haven’t seen any specific neuromarketing data on sponsorships. There is data about how brand familiarity is important, and how we can process images like logos without being consciously aware of them. Indirectly, these would suggest that appropriate sponsorships are good things, though they don’t say much about the value of such deals and how they should be priced.

    Sponsorships can be particularly good for associating a brand with an aspirational lifestyle. Sponsoring a polo match or an avant-garde art show might reinforce “luxury, wealthy” and “hip, culturally relevant” respectively.


  8. Chris Zdunich says

    Roger, we sponsor events that directly support our practice groups, industries and service lines.

  9. Roger Dooley says

    Any positive branding message is useful, Chris. If people have a good experience at an event and your brand is all over the place, there will be a positive association. Likewise, if your firm is seen as helping the industry or a trade group, that’s likely good too.

    The harder part is assigning a value to such a sponsorship, as the benefits will be difficult to quantify in the short run.

  10. Denise says

    Well done article, Roger. I like that science is backing up the value of offline marketing vs. digital.

    I agree in theory that digital has its own advantages in terms of multiple sensory info. However, I know from my own personal experience that when I go to any site, I zone out and go into ultra focus mode. I ignore probably 70-80% of the “side info” on the site because it is too much and too overloading. I immediately shut down the audio and video because I find it more annoying that helpful (unless I am specifically going to the site to tune into a specific video or audio).

    Have any studies been done on the point where multi-sensory data in digital becomes too much?

    Also I remember the days (yes, I’m from the good ol’ days :)) where direct mail was creative and participatory — like scratching a sheet of paper to smell a new product. I realize that may be more expensive. However, any junk mail I get today is so blah and boring. I would imagine if we went back to creative direct mail pieces that they would stand out and have better responses.

  11. Ruihong Tang says

    Hi Roger,

    Several questions about the experiments and results

    1.How did they present the paper stimuli?
    In the fMRI scanner, generally is through mirror projection, since participants’ head should not be moved. Can they actually deliver paper ad to the subjects? If it’s only through projection, digital or paper ads probably feel the same.

    2.What is the threshold/significant level for the showing result? Just from the cluster of the colour, it is quite hard to see how significant the result is.

  12. Paper may have an advantage over digital because of it’s look and feel. But how about if we had a screen that felt and looked like paper? Amazon Kindle has taken a first step into this and if this research is representative, then producing a paper like screen is the way forward for consumers and digital marketers.

  13. Masato Yatagai says

    Could you explain what the role of the blue region of the brain? When I looked at this presentation of Royal Mail, the blue part was activated when a person saw an ad on the screen as opposed to a card. I wonder what caused this part of the brain to become active and I would like to know how it differs from the red regions of the brain in terms of the involvement in the processing of emotionally powerful stimuli and memory.

    Thank you.

  14. […] remains that having a print piece that you can hold in your hands is still compelling. In fact, a research study shows that holding a piece of paper in your hands causes more emotional processing brain activity […]

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