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The Psychology Behind Printed Marketing Material

When you’re trying to get a customer’s attention, what works better: digital marketing material or printed marketing material?

That’s the question the USPS tried to answer. They handle untold numbers of printed marketing pieces each year, which accounts for roughly a third of its total annual revenue. Understandably, it’s in their best interests to understand the potential for printed material that is distributed through direct mail marketing.

We can use the results of their research to figure out how printed marketing material is useful for direct mail marketing campaigns – and your business.

Do Printed Materials Work?

The big question the USPS wanted to answer was this: Is direct mail marketing actually effective? And, if it is, is it more effective than digital marketing methods?

On the surface, it seems like the answer to the first question is yes. If they didn’t work, why would businesses spend over $20 billion a year to send out mailers? That doesn’t mean it works, though, and doesn’t mean it works better than digital. Look at how much businesses spend on TV advertising, which arguably is less effective than digital or print (at least when it comes to getting people to act).

The USPS found that printed materials do work, if we define ‘work’ as getting people to take action based on what they get in the mail. One reason is because printed material triggers activity in a key area of the brain called the ventral striatum. The ventral striatum is the brain’s reward center. When people consider value or think about obtaining something worthwhile, the ventral striatum lights up like a slot machine hitting a jackpot.

In other words, when they hold a printed piece, their ventral striatum goes off – and has a stronger reaction than with digital ads.

That sounds great – we’re glad printed materials work – but the big question remains: do they work better than the alternative?

Why Printed Marketing Materials Resonate with Customers

In their research, the USPS discovered a few key benefits that printed materials have versus digital ones.

The USPS found that participants in their study processed information faster with digital content than they did printed content. However, participants spent more time with physical ads than digital ones. Not only that, they exhibited a stronger emotional response – which is key to triggering a sale.

Additionally, people recalled the content from printed material better than they did with digital. This is important because most people don’t take action the first time they see content. The point of action is usually later – and it only happens if people can remember what they originally saw. How often have we seen an ad, only to completely forget about it? Well, this happens less often with physical, printed materials.

Why does this happen? Researchers hypothesized that printed materials stimulate the senses more than digital. This is because you can touch and feel a direct mail piece. You can’t touch a digital ad. In the words of the researchers, “We speculate that the increased arousal promoted better processing and consolidation at the exposure phase, which could account for the increased confidence about the context.”

In Summary:

• Printed materials trigger parts of the brain that help us make decisions about what we want

• People spend more time looking at printed material than digital content

• This leads to people being able to recall info better through print

• Emotional responses are stronger with print than digital

Does that mean you should abandon digital and put all your money into direct mail marketing? Of course not – digital is still wildly effective for certain types of outreach.

But if you want something that is tailor-made for getting people to act, direct mail marketing is something you should consider.


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