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

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.

“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. “We were keen to understand how direct mail would work within new emerging media,” says Mike West, head of data products at Royal Mail.

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

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.

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. 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.”

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

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.”

This article is a reprint from Deliver magazine