Print Works and Here’s the Brain Science to Prove It

Digging into the research behind ad recall and action

The noise on digital channels is overwhelming. With email, digital display ads, social media, connected TV, podcasting and more, it’s challenging for consumers to retain all the messages being thrown at them. But there is one channel that is proving its ability to cut through the static and stick in consumers’ minds: print.

The truth is as advertisers have shifted their dollars into the digital world, print has gotten less and less attention. But print can play a strong role in any sort of multichannel campaign. And in many cases, it can outperform digital channels because, as recent research indicates, the human brain does a lot better with information that’s presented in a physical format.

Let’s look at the latest research on how and why print works and the implications for marketers.

Print has staying power

For an ad to work it needs to be memorable. That’s basic. So how does memory interact with physical and digital ads?

Print ads in direct mail have an average lifespan of 17 days whereas email has a lifespan of 1.5 hours and social media mere minutes, according to research from the Go Inspire Group. Without diving into any complicated science, it’s logical to conclude that something that you interact with longer will be more memorable.

To prove this concept, researchers at Canada Post devised a study that measured the cognitive load involved in viewing print ads and digital ads. Before getting into that, a quick definition: Cognitive load is the mental effort required to understand a stimulus. It is highly related to working memory performance. The lower the cognitive load, the easier it is to remember.

Study participants were exposed to a print and a digital ad and then asked to cite the sponsor of the ad they had just seen. A vast majority (75%) were able to recall the brand names from the print mail pieces while only 44% were able to recall the digital ads. The researchers concluded that this was because print ads were much less taxing on the brain and thus easier to recall.

A separate study conducted by the USPS underscores these findings. Participants were shown both physical and digital ads and asked to recall them a week later. The researchers found that the emotional response and concrete memories associated with the physical ads made it much easier for the participants to remember the physical ads than the digital ads. 

Print connects emotionally

In addition to being more memorable, print ads elicit more emotional responses than digital ads. A study conducted by Milward Brown used fMRI technology to analyze which areas of the brain lit up when people were shown physical and digital ads. They found that when a physical piece of mail was presented to a participant, it lit up the right retrosplenial cortex, the part of the brain that is involved in the processing of emotionally powerful stimuli and memory. From this, the researchers concluded that the physicality of direct mail can generate more emotionally vivid memories.

They also found that the physical act of picking up a printed piece activates the cerebellum, which is associated with spatial and emotional processing. They took this as more evidence of increased emotional processing.

To enhance the emotional effects of print, play around with colors, textures and shapes. There is no one-size-fits-all process when it comes to print so don’t be afraid to be bold. You can also find ways to meld print and digital—like QR codes, AR experiences and personalization—to generate even more of an emotional response. The bottom line: Print ads create more of an emotional response than digital ads, so do what you can to maximize the effect.

Print creates action

As a marketer, your end goal is some kind of consumer action. Neuroscience once again points to print being more effective than digital at doing that.

Researchers at Canada Post examined something called the motivation-to-cognitive-load ratio. This is the relationship between a stimulus (an ad) and the motivation and cognitive load responses it creates. An effective ad is easy to understand (low cognitive load) and persuasive (motivation). The researchers concluded that for an ad to be highly effective, it needed to have

a motivation-to-cognitive-load ratio of one or higher. Using eye-tracking and biometrics, they found that direct mail had a motivation-to-cognitive load ratio of 1.31 while digital media had a ratio of just 0.87.

These findings were borne out beyond the lab in a study conducted by the media-neutral group Go Inspire. They looked specifically at whether print or digital campaigns were more effective at getting people to return to abandoned carts.

Working with a large retailer over three months, the researchers compared the results of the retailer’s triggered email system with a test cell of people who received a follow-up piece of personalized physical mail after not responding to the emails. The results were exciting—physical mail was the push consumers needed to return to their carts. Conversion rates from the mail pieces were 113.5% of the email conversion rates.

As a marketer, recall, emotional connection and action are arguably the three things every effective ad needs. And as digital channels get even more crowded and noisy, research proves that print is your ticket to engaging consumers and standing out from the crowd.

Tonya Powers is the director of marketing at Canon Solutions America with a focus on all outbound marketing initiatives and the customer experience for the production print solutions business. She brings a wealth of knowledge on building strategies for b-to-b marketing, with a keen focus on the graphic arts industry.