New study finds that direct mail has a greater effect on purchasing than digital ads

dmversusdigital-inA Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) neuromarketing study has  found that direct mail tops digital media for engagement time, recall and ultimately, the decision to purchase. An in-depth neuroscientific study sponsored by the Postal Service Inspector General’s office in the United States revealed that direct-mail ads garner superior results compared to to those viewed online in eight out of nine categories. Digital ads seized the attention of consumers quicker, but physical ads held that attention longer, elicited a greater emotional reaction, and played a more direct role in the reader’s eventual purchasing decisions.

The study also noted that advertising mail accounts for 31% of USPS revenues – about $20 billion last year. Temple showed a mix of 40 e-mail ads and postcards to study subjects using three monitoring methods to gauge the effects the ads had on them. Eye tracking measured visual attention; fingertip sensors monitored heart rate, respiration and sweating to reveal emotional engagement; and MRIs performed scans to uncover deep brain activity. The results? Postcards were judged superior to email ads in four of nine ad attributes measured – engagement time, emotional reaction, recall, and building subconscious desire for a product or service. Email ads led in just one attribute – focusing a customer’s attention. The two methods were virtually tied in three other categories.

dmversusdigital1-inThe MRI scans found that the postcards triggered the ventral striatum of the brain, the centre of desirability and value. On that evidence, Temple researchers concluded that physical ads have a deeper and longer-lasting effect than digital ads on instilling the desire for products and services. Based on the study’s results, the Postal Service Inspector General’s office offered these suggestions in making better use of direct mail in your marketing mix:

  1. Test the piece for maximum reaction. Take neuromarketing a step further by doing your own studies to determine how specific elements of a direct mail piece – whether colour, shape or use of white space – elicits the best reaction from consumers.
  2. Explore sequencing options. Neuroscience could also be used to determine the most effective sequence of media elements in a campaign. Does email followed by direct mail work best, or vice versa? Should other media such as TV be included?
  3. Consider digital print technology. Test whether using augmented reality or QR codes in mail pieces ramps up conversion rates in multi-channel campaigns.


Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.