Direct Mail Outperforms Email for Purchase Decisions

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In a recent study conducted by Temple University comparing the relative effectiveness of digital advertising vs direct mail advertising, researchers concluded that direct mail had a deeper and longer-lasting impact than email advertising.

Researchers showed test subjects a variety of 40 email and postcard advertisements and measured the subjects’ responses in a variety of ways in an effort to determine whether one medium showed a significant advantage over the other for marketers. Eye tracking technology was used to visual attention in reaction to predetermined areas of interest. Biometric sensors measured heart rate, sweat levels, motion, and respiration to monitor the level of emotional engagement with the ad. Finally, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to pinpoint deep brain activity to measure more brain activity that’s thought to influence purchase behavior more than surface activity (e.g. empathy and reward).

The results of the study showed the physical, direct mail ads outperformed or equaled their digital counterparts in all but one of the nine areas measured. The direct mail pieces outperformed the email ads in the areas of:

  • Review Time – The amount of time a customer spends with an ad.
  • Stimulation – An emotional reaction to an ad.
  • Memory Speed & Confidence – Quickly and confidently remember advertising source and content.
  • Desirability – A subconscious desire for the product or service.
  • Valuation – The subconscious value a participant places on the product or service.

The study found the following three areas performed equivalently for both the direct mail and email marketing pieces:

  • Engagement – The amount of information a customer processes or absorbs from an ad.
  • Memory Retrieval Accuracy – Accurately remembering the advertising source and content.
  • Purchase and Willingness to Pay – Whether and how much the customer is willing to pay for a product.

The digital ads were found to be superior in gaining a subject’s focused attention on key parts of the ad for a sustained period of time.

As the study notes, self-reported survey results demonstrated little difference between participants’ preferences for digital ads vs phsyical advertisements, however the physical ads had a longer-lasting impact than the digital ads. And while the participants stated similar preferences and willingness to pay for an item regardless of the medium it was presented in, their brain activity indicated a greater subconscious value and desire for products and services advertised in a physical format. It goes on to note, “Previous research indicated that activity in this portion of the brain (the ventral striatum), responsible for valuation and desirability, was a strong predictor of purchases, which merits further research.”

There are certainly some caveats to note here. The first is that this is a single study, and although it was conducted independently at Temple University, it was commissioned by the Postal Service Inspector General’s Office. It’s also a study representing a sample size of 59 people, with 39 of those participating in the follow-up study a week later. This is hardly a significant portion of the population and it would be good to see these results replicated before jumping to any major conclusions. Finally, while 40 different ads should represent a significant variance in content, design, and structure, each of these items can play a huge factor in engagement and response rates which needs to be 

The take away here is not that you should ditch your digital efforts and switch everything back to print, or that the caveats noted above completely negate some legitimate and interesting findings. Both mediums have advantages and disadvantages (as found in this study), and as we’ve always stressed, it’s critical to use a varied marketing mix to reach your customers and prospects in a way that proves to be most effective for your business, industry, product, and individual clients.

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