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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Direct Mail Packages: Your Brain Actually Prefers Them

I have to be honest. I want print media to prosper, so I’m pleased when I read about the success of ink or toner on paper.

I recently read a synopsis of a study by Millward Brown, in collaboration with the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology at Bangor University, regarding the use of brain scans to judge the effect of physical print media in direct marketing. The article is “Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail.” It’s not new. In fact, the study is more than three years old.

The study compared the effect on the brain of exposure to both physical print materials and virtual media presented on a video screen, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI) to visually indicate the areas of the human brain affected by each. The fMRI technology actually demonstrates how the brain processes these different stimuli. Presumably, if emotional responses drive the success of a marketing initiative, then understanding the emotional processing of stimuli will provide valuable insight. This was the premise of the study.

The findings of the study suggest “that greater emotional processing is facilitated by the physical material than the virtual.”

The Protocol for the Study

During the study, the 20 participants viewed ads that had already been exposed to the public marketplace along with an equal number of “scrambled” images. The scrambled images acted as a control to account for the fact that test subjects respond to the physical materials using more than one physical sense (i.e., both sight and touch, in contrast to virtual materials that affect only the sense of sight).

The experimenters presented the same materials online and on printed cards, and while the participants interacted with the materials, the experimenters ran fMRI scans to assess the effects. Within the fMRIs, greater oxygenated blood flow, reflected in color changes, indicated greater stimulation by the physical or virtual materials presented.

What The Researchers Found

Millward Brown and the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology identified the following (as noted in the article, “Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail”):

“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 spacial memory networks.”

“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.”

“The medial PFC and cingulate are parts of the brain associated with emotional engagement. They are activated more by physical materials.”

“The brain’s ‘default network’ appeared to remain more active when viewing direct mail. Activity in this brain network has been associated with a greater focus on a person’s internal emotional response to outside stimuli. This suggests that the individuals were relating information to their own thoughts and feelings.”

What This Means in Simple Terms

  1. Direct mail packages affect more areas of the brain than online marketing messages, leaving a deeper impression.
  2. The brain gives greater credence to physical print materials. They are more “real,” having existence in time and physical space.
  3. Direct mail packages promote memory retention more than online marketing messages.
  4. Direct mail packages promote greater emotional engagement than online marketing messages, encouraging greater brand affiliation.
  5. Custom printing materials involve the viewer in a more complex internal thought pattern including associations with past personal experience.

The Implications for Neuroscience

  1. Such tools of neuroscience as EEG, eye tracking, and fMRI can be most useful in understanding the psychology of marketing and advertising.

The Implications for Marketing Professionals

  1. Don’t dismiss the power of ink and toner on paper.
  2. Conversely, don’t dismiss virtual marketing. A savvy blending of physical and virtual marketing materials can affect potential clients emotionally, improve their retention of marketing messages, and make their experience more personal, increasing their affiliation with the brand and their motivation to act.
  3. The key is the integration of marketing technologies: the use of the right tool at the right time.

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