Direct mail has proven to wield a more significant psychological impact on recipients than other forms of advertising and marketing communications. Voluminous research and numerous analyses have concluded physical mail triggers brain activity associated with greater recall and intent to purchase. This means—no matter how many articles proclaim people only want to look at their digital devices—people subconsciously want to physically hold a letter or postcard in their hands.
A study titled “A Bias for Action” explored the neuroscience behind the response-driving power of direct mail. Conducted by the Canada Post Corporation, researchers split 270 participants into nine groups of 30 to test both direct mail (postcard, envelope, dimensional mailer, envelope with a scent, and dimensional mailer with a sound) and digital media (email on a laptop vs. on a smartphone and a display ad on a laptop vs. smartphone). Electroencephalography (EEG) and eye tracking was utilized before and after viewing the materials to record brain activity and response.
This study concluded direct mail requires 21 percent less cognitive effort to process and elicits a higher brand recall, has a motivation response of 20 percent higher than digital media, is processed quicker, and is more likely to drive an action.
An earlier case study conducted by Kantar Millward Brown, a leader in brand strategy consulting and advertising development, focused on the brain responses of 20 participants who were shown ads in physical and digital form. It found “tangible materials left a deeper footprint” and were “more ‘real’” to the brain, individuals were better able to relate direct mail information to their own thoughts and feelings, and printed mail “involves more emotional processing, which is important for memory and brand associations.”
The UK Royal Mail’s research analysis “The Private Life of Mail,” documented mail’s ability to be instinctive or remembered and change perception.
“Consumers interact with mail and absorb its messages in a largely unconscious way,” it states. “This means it works on the brain’s System 1—the faster, more intuitive mode of thought, which affects decision making.”
It also found 60 percent of respondents claimed direct mail keeps a brand top of mind. The physical mail piece “activates areas of the brian responsible for long-term memory encoding more strongly than other media, and has a lasting effect that means recall will be more readily triggered later on.”
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) in collaboration with Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making came out with its own expanse of research on the subject, titled “Enhancing the Value of Mail: The Human Response.” It studies the consumers’ subconscious responses to three buying process phases using survey questionnaires, eye tracking, biometrics, and neuroimaging.
Researchers found consumers choose to spend more time looking at physical ads in comparison to digital ads. Physical ads had a longer-lasting impact than digital, with participants recalling printed ads quicker than digital a week later. Participants also exhibited greater subconscious value and desire for products or services advertised on physical material.
Direct mail enables customers to use multiple senses, something they’re unable to do with digital media. One Harvard Business Review study found companies who use touch marketing, which encourages consumers to pick up, touch, and feel products as a persuasion tactic, increases brand connection, improves strategy, and influences consumer decision. The same can be said of direct mail, which can also take advantage of other sensory marketing techniques. The Bias for Action study discovered that adding sensory materials such as scratch and sniffs or product samples increased the motivation response higher than 20 percent.
The psychology behind direct mail is just another reason to employ this strategy in your next marketing campaign, in addition to greater response rates and return on investments than digital media.