The Psychological Differences in Response to Direct and Digital Marketing

The amount of time spent on screens has increased strikingly throughout the pandemic. Naturally with less face to face interactions taking place, it is only natural for people to flock to the avenues of connection that are still open. Even before the pandemic kicked off in 2020, there has been a steady increase in the amount of time consumers spend on the digital landscape.

With the birth of the World Wide Web, marketers were given an immense playground to explore new possibilities in creating connections. Digital literacy is a subject that has risen to be a necessary prerequisite for many business leaders, as success in the open market often now depends on how well you can translate your physical business into its online presence. These thoughts have lead many marketers to invest heavily into online advertising. People spending more and more time online probably means that online advertisements are the best way to connect, right? Well… that is not quite true.

A study by the United States Postal Service along with the Center of Neural Decision Making at Temple University sought to observe the psychological responses to marketing material, differentiated by their physical and digital representations. In their study, they looked to observe responses to a variety of stimuli including both physical and digital marketing materials as well as participant’s ability of brand recall, brand association and brand discrimination. Study participants represented a wide variety of age, race gender and other demographic cohorts. To start, researchers had participants view a total of 60 ads, half in physical postcard form and the other half shown on a tablet. During this phase researchers polled the viewers on brand recall, association and discrimination. For the second phase, researchers brought back the participants a week later and asked them to recall the advertisements from the week before. During these phases, use of an fMRI was employed to view the brains active areas to better understand the subconscious/ neural responses.

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Through the study, observers were able to see what format was best from gaining viewers; attention, engagement, stimulation, memory retrieval accuracy, memory, willingness to purchase, desirability and valuation. It was found that physical ads provided similar results or better than the digital ads in all categories besides “attention”.  Viewers of the advertisements across all age groups were found to take less time processing the digital ads than the physical ones. It is seen throughout the study that the time spent with physical advertisements are more valuable than the time a digital ad may be on the screen.  Physical advertisements took a clear lead ahead of digital in the areas of review time, stimulation, memory, desirability and valuation.

The human brain proves its preference to the physical medium over the digital clearly. If you are looking to reach higher engagement, better recollection and more efficient response, direct mail is the way to go, simply because the human psychology prefers it!

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