This is your brain on direct mail

Readers of a certain age (namely, around my own) will recognize the 80’s era PSA that taught a generation of Americans about proper egg cookery.

But the truth is that your brain is awash in drugs constantly.  They just happen to be of your body’s own making.

So this week, I want to take a look at how people’s brains receive our direct marketing communications and how it should influence our efforts.

Three caveats:

  1. I am not a brain scientist.
  2. Neuromarketing is still in its infancy.  It’s difficult to tell whether what is lighting up on an fMRI is a cause or an effect.  To a large extent, we are still black boxes, where we can observe what’s going in and coming out, but only guess at what happens in the middle.  There’s also a great deal of hucksterism in the community because of the newness.
  3. If #2 were wrong, I wouldn’t necessarily know it because of #1.

Now, if you are still with me, I’d like to talk about how the brain processes tangible marketing (e.g., mail) versus non-tangible marketing (e.g., online).

Temple University (at the request of the Postal Service Inspector General, so not the purest possible study) looked at how the brain processes mail versus online

They showed subjects a mix of 40 postcards and emails and monitored them through eye tracking (for visual attention), fingertip sensors for heart rate, breathing, sweating (for emotional engagement), and MRIs (for brain activity).  

Online efforts were distinctly better in one thing: focusing attention.  On the other hand, print won in terms of emotional interaction/arousal, engagement time, desirability for the things in the ads and recall.  The two means tied for memory recall and information processing.

Specifically, the researchers found greater activity in the hippocampus and areas around the hippocampus for physical ads than in digital ads.  The hippocampus is associated with memory formation and retrieval, meaning that participants could remember a greater context for their paper-based stimuli.

If you are a fan of Sherlock, as I am, or the book Hannibal (eh…) you know about the memory technique known as a mind palace — associating things you want to remember with physical locations.  Part of the reason this works is that tangible things are, well, more tangible and easier to retrieve out of memory.

As a result, a week later, subjects showed greater emotional memory for print.

This was replicated in a UK study and a Canadian studySpecifically, with print, more processing took place in the right retrosplenial cortex, which I had never heard of before this paper.  Apparently, this is involved in processing emotional cues and helping them get into memory.

So, in our first foray into brain science, we can say that while people may focus more on online images (in part because it is a more structured environment; life is rarely so structured outside of a computer screen), they forge greater bonds with mail.

The one caveat to this is that mail versus print ads misses the interactivity that is possible online.  It didn’t test video, or click-throughs, or quizzes: just static online ads.  So, just as we shouldn’t trumpet the death of direct mail, neither should we dismiss online as mere ephemera.  There’s more to learn here.

And we’ll do some of that tomorrow with the role of dopamine in nonprofit direct marketing.

This is your brain on direct mail

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