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How the Brain Responds to Print vs. Digital

One of the marketing surprises of the last few years has been how strongly Millennials—the smartphone and fully wired generation—respond to direct mail. In fact, according to “USPS Mail Moments 2016,” Millennials are more likely than other generations to read, organize, and sort their mail than all other generations. They are also less likely to discard their mail without reading it.

Why do even so-called digital natives still respond so strongly to print? Could it be, in part, how we are wired? The answer is yes. Neuromarketing research shows that our brains react differently to printed material than to digital media. 

To more fully understand how the brain reacts to physical vs. digital mail, the United States Postal Service partnered with the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University’s Fox School of Business to gauge responses to physical and digital advertising pieces. Researchers used brain images, biometrics (e.g. heart rate and respiration), eye tracking, and questionnaires to measure reactions.

They found that: 

  • Participants processed digital ad content more quickly.
  • They spent more time with physical ads.
  • Physical ads triggered activity in a part of the brain that corresponds with value and desirability.
  • Participants had a stronger emotional response to physical ads and remembered them better.

Canada Post found similarly intriguing results in its neuromarketing research project. They measured the response to campaigns that used the same creative and messaging for both physical and digital media. 

They found that: 

  • Direct mail campaigns required 21% less cognitive effort to process.
  • Participants’ recall was 70% higher if they were exposed to direct mail rather than a digital ad.
  • Activation in parts of the brain that correspond to motivation response was 20% higher for direct mail.
  • As human beings, we are wired to respond more strongly to physical, printed messages. For marketers who want advertising with long-lasting impact and easy recollection, printed materials can clearly make a difference.

Excerpted and edited from the USPSDelivers.com presentation “Still Relevant: A Look at How Millennials Respond to Direct Mail” (2017).


When we think about adding color to marketing pieces, we often think about photos, charts, and graphs. But color can be added in many other ways, as well. These include highlight text, brightly colored banners, borders, and backgrounds, and symbols such as starbursts and arrows. 

Why think about more places to add color? According to Shoshana Burger, director of corporate strategy and customer insights for X-Rite Pantone, there are some powerful reasons:

  • People are 78% more likely to remember words and phrases in color.
  • Time spent reading a document is 80% higher in color.
  • Basic understanding of content is 80% higher in color.
  • Color increases brand recognition by 87%.
  • 65% of purchasing decisions involve color.
  • Color printing is 55% more likely to be read than black-and-white.
  • Response time is 30% faster in color.
  • When used in promotions, color increases the likelihood of purchase by 80%.

“Eighty percent of our human experience is filtered through visual cues,” noted Burger, speaking in a presentation titled “The Power of Color in Communications,” hosted by Printing Impressions magazine.  “Color also creates an emotional connection. Choosing the right color, and how that color conveys to the right user, is important.”

So look for ways to increase the use of color in your next mailing. Add a colored background to a text box. Use highlight color in your text to draw attention to offers or critical product details. Add an extra image, chart, or graph, or enlarge a colorful image that you already have.

Whatever you do, get more color in there!

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