Have you ever wondered why you remember some specific advertisements and not others? Was it because of the situation or context in which you saw them? Was it the emotional connection you made to them? Was it because they were from a brand you already recognize and love?
According to market research firm Yankelovich, the average American in 2007 was exposed to 5,000 ads per day. (Remember, the iPhone was just being introduced in 2007.) More recently, marketing sources report Americans see anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements every day. So the question is, how can brands stand out and capture consumer attention with this overexposure to advertising stimuli? The answer lies in how our brains capture, filter, and remember information.
The Trouble with Digital Advertising Saturation
In a world so focused on social platforms, new technology, and online advertising, it’s easy to believe the solution to any marketing problem is digital. The decrease in human attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2018 only seems to emphasize the need for quick, attention-grabbing online ads. However, the high volume of digital media surrounding us every day may be leading to this type of advertising losing its persuasive impact.
The issue surrounding digital marketing is the noise mixed with brand content and our brains’ inability to filter it all out. Humans are constantly absorbing enormous amounts of sensory data. Neurons in the prefrontal cortex (the front of the brain) act as filters, allowing us to focus on only the most important aspects of the trillions of signals our bodies receive. Without the automatic suppression of what our brains consider useless information, we would suffer sensory overload from the massive amounts of stimuli constantly battling for our attention—including most of those thousands of advertisements.
Capturing Consumer Attention
So, what do our brains like? And how can brands escape the unconscious filters we use every day? Based on our relationship with brands and technology, consumers today expect advertisements to be social, personal, and interactive. These expectations are related because they focus on the emotional response of the consumer. Research by Millward Brown, a market research firm, shows that physical material (like direct mail) facilitates greater emotional processing than digital channels do for the same content. This is because having a tangible advertisement makes the content more interactive and evokes more of an emotional response.
The Neuroscience Behind Direct Marketing
In 2015, a study sponsored by the USPS Office of Inspector General was released that focused on the influence physical and digital media have on consumer purchases. Participants processed digital ads more quickly but had stronger recall and emotional responses to physical ads. Physical media also triggered brain activity associated with value and desirability, signaling a greater intent to purchase. Physical mail also proved more effective in activating longer term memory and more accurate recall—the information we use when deciding whether or not to make a purchase.
According to The Neuroscience of Touch by pulp and paper company Sappi North America and neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, up to 84% of online orders now derive from physical interactions with catalogs, magazine advertising, and direct mail. Consumers trust physical material more than digital. Participants in the 2015 USPS study were also more confident about the information they received when it came from a physical piece instead of a digital one.
The Novelty of Direct Mail Creates a Deeper Neurological Connection
Another study, conducted by neuromarketing firm True Impact, used eye-tracking and brainwave testing to compare physical and digital media. Results show that direct mail requires 21% less cognitive effort to process than digital media. And because tangible media is easier to comprehend, it’s also more memorable. Recall was 70% higher among those who were exposed to a printed mailpiece than a digital ad.
Even at a physiological level, our brains absorb print content differently than online material. Heart rates tend to slow down and blood pressure decreases when we read physical copy, and one study found that test-takers experienced lower stress levels when completing a test on paper than on a screen. These reactions come from the brain’s preparation to locate a narrative with a deeper meaning or context, which leads to higher levels of retention.
Conversely, stress is higher when we read online text. We have been conditioned to approach digital content, such as emails and other forms of communication, to immediately obtain information. The contrast between reading print and reading pixels is apparent in the design of online content, which optimizes the use of bullets, graphics, and even emojis for quick reads. This results in quickly scanning through content and retaining less long-term knowledge.
The effect of direct mail on the brain’s noise filters crosses generations, as well: As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, millennials enjoy direct mail as much as older generations. Millennials pay more attention to direct mail than other forms of media, reading and sharing it with more enthusiasm than they do digital and social advertising. Receiving a piece of mail, even if it’s an advertising piece, is still a novelty to younger generations who aren’t used to receiving physical messages in an increasingly paperless world.
So instead of competing with every other brand to capture consumer attention online, appeal to the brain. Implementing more physical material, like direct mail, into your marketing strategy is the strongest way to spark awareness and interest in your messaging and brand.
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