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Mail Has Power to Move Minds, Study Says


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Marketing has always been about trying to anticipate consumer behavior, of course, from deciphering buying patterns to studying life cycles to deducing which discount offers work best on which age groups.

Given such efforts at prognostication, it seems only fitting that marketers are now turning to mind reading. Neuroscience technologies like eye tracking and functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) appear to be shouldering their way into marketing studies with increased frequency, and as a result, mailers are learning a lot about how the brain reacts to messaging.

A recent neuroscience study conducted jointly by research firm Millward Brown, Bangor University and the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail shows direct mail makes a deeper and longer-lasting impression on people’s brains than digital advertising.

The study clearly implies that direct mail could play a bigger role in brand building than it’s been given credit for previously. Moreover, ROI metrics might soon have to start sharing billing with other metrics like brand consideration when it comes to measuring the success of direct mail.

Getting inside consumers’ heads

Simply put, neuroscience is the biology of the brain. Scientists use technologies like FMRI to measure neural activity and figure out how this activity relates to our sensations and behaviors.

Millward Brown is one of several research agencies that now have a dedicated neuroscience marketing practice, having conducted 120 neuroscience projects worldwide last year.

“We set up the neuroscience practice because we saw a need that these techniques could meet” — one that wasn’t being met by traditional research methods, says Graham Page, executive vice president of consumer neuroscience at Millward Brown.

Perhaps most significant, using neuroscience relieves researchers of having to depend solely on consumers’ verbal or written responses to questions, responses that can sometimes be unreliable.

“There comes a point,” says Page, “where there are issues that people find difficult to talk about.”

Direct mail, however, hadn’t been the subject of any major neuroscience research until Royal Mail and Millward Brown began teaming up in 2009 to investigate the channel’s place in the evolving media landscape. “We were keen to understand how direct mail would work within new emerging media,” says Mike West, head of data products at Royal Mail.

Differences in processing digital and mail

In the study last year FMRI scanners were used to see which areas of the brain were activated when participants viewed the same marketing message as both a physical piece of direct mail and digitally on a computer screen.

Control materials were also presented to participants that consisted of direct mail and digital versions of the real piece, but with the various elements scrambled. “This was important because it allowed us to measure the effect of simply holding something with some degree of visual complexity,” explains Page.

Three main areas of difference were uncovered between how study participants’ brains processed direct mail and digital messaging: The first area of difference was the degree to which the emotional centers of the brain were activated, with direct mail generating more or deeper emotional processing than the digital messaging. Second, the brain saw the physical material as more real than the digital messaging. Third, there was more activity in the areas of the brain that are connected to introspection when people viewed the direct mail.

The findings suggest “that the brain is more emotionally engaged and is potentially reflecting more on a response” when viewing direct mail, says Page. Also, because the brain saw mail as real, deeper memories were likely being created. He continues: “From an evolutionary point of view, you pay more attention to something that is real and physical and want to understand it more than something that is transient, like something presented on a screen.”

What brands should do

What do the findings mean for marketers? The first implication is that direct mail should still have a place in businesses’ marketing strategies, even in the digital era.

“While there are huge benefits of taking advantage of virtual media, our research does suggest that we shouldn’t be forgetting more physical media like direct mail,” says Page. “Physical, ‘real’ events like receiving direct mail add an element that virtual campaigns cannot.”

He adds that the lasting impression made by direct mail suggests that it’s probably appropriate to follow up with recipients of a direct mail campaign even if they haven’t responded. “Things that are real (like direct mail) receive preferential treatment in the brain and are likely to engage with people in a slightly different way, which will benefit the brand,” says Page.

Companies that want to communicate and differentiate their brand over a long period of time, for example, might want to consider using direct mail to deliver the message, says West. “The experience of a brand stays in the memory a lot longer with a physical piece of direct mail than it does with digital media,” says West.

As companies begin to consider direct mail’s impact on the brand, one of the big questions they are struggling with is how to measure direct mail’s effectiveness when it is not simply driving sales in the short term but also building the brand. Certainly, traditional metrics like response rates and ROI, which reflect how the needle moved in the short term, don’t tell the whole story. “Marketers need to start focusing on the overall impact of their direct mail activity rather than just the response rate,” explains West.

Yes, he says, marketers should be pleased when a direct mail campaign receives a 6-percent response rate. But marketers shouldn’t ignore the remaining 94 percent of the population who didn’t respond, West says, “because the direct mail has also done its job in terms of raising awareness and leaving an imprint of your brand, which we can substantiate with the research.”

Some businesses in the U.K. have begun testing around this, looking to direct mail’s impact on brand consideration as well as brand image, and are seeing positive results, he reports. Page insists that direct mail can be both a brand builder and a direct response mechanism. “I don’t think we should just see direct mail as a direct response vehicle,” says Page.

“Clearly it is a direct response vehicle, but that point of contact with the consumer gives marketers another opportunity to communicate broader brand messages.”

Why engagement matters

There’s another implication of the findings, which relates to the quality of the work and the materials that go into developing a mail campaign, whether its purpose is direct response or brand building.

“You have to get people to engage with the mailer in the first place if it is going to have any impact, be that on the brand in the long run or on sales right away,” says Page.

This means it’s important to pay the same kind of attention to quality as you would with a print or digital campaign, including producing something that is creatively engaging. “If you get it right, you have a real opportunity. If you get it wrong, the opportunity is gone,” says Page.

Royal Mail followed up its initial FMRI study with several smaller-scale, eye-tracking projects. The most recent piece of research looked at how long it takes people to sort through their mail and what it takes to grab their attention.

The research showed “there is some consistency in how consumers interact with the physical item when they first receive it, but that this starts changing as they get into the item and start looking at the offer and other information being presented,” says West. The study also compared how consumers interacted with the same offer on a screen. Based on the findings, Royal Mail was able to recommend the best place for various elements such as brand markers and the main message to maximize visibility of the brand and offer.

“A challenge we continue to face, as the digital kingdom continually reinvents itself and widens its horizons, is how to position and demonstrate the value of mail working alongside that,” says West. He says scientific research like the study conducted with Millward Brown and Bangor University is helping Royal Mail meet this challenge by demonstrating to companies that there is a real and tangible difference in how people’s brains are affected by different forms of media.

Says West: “Our research shows that there is a difference between how people process messages in one medium versus the other — and that marketers need to plan for this.”

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