Print vs Digital: Which Media Affects Buying Decisions Most?

Think digital rules the advertising world? These findings might surprise you.

An in-depth neuromarketing study sponsored by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Postal Service focused on the differing responses to print versus digital media in the consumer buying process found direct mail advertising superior to digital in a number of categories.

Print or Digital? What Influences Humans More?

The study concluded that, when compared with digital media, print ads:

  • Generated more accurate memory for better recall during a purchase.
  • Promoted a higher perceived value and desirability of the product, a strong predictor of real-world market behavior like purchases and sales.

This finding, in a study conducted by Temple University, is of particular importance to the postal service’s revenue stream: in 2014 advertising mail accounted for over $20 billion dollars or 31% of its revenue.

Print vs Digital Subconscious Study Design

The project studied the consumer’s subconscious responses to digital and physical media in three of the five specific phases of the buying process: exposure to advertising information (engagement), retrieval of information (memory), and action (purchase or purchase intentions).

Among the study’s findings were:

  • Little difference between participants’ preferences for ads presented digitally of physically.
  • Participants reviewed print ads longer, but were more focused on specific elements of the digital ads. A busy consumer will be more likely to get the digital ad’s message quicker.
  • In spite of the time differences spent with digital and physical ads, participants in the study actually absorbed the same amount of information from both media.
  • Physical ads had a longer lasting impact than digital. A week after the initial viewing, participants showed a better memory of the physical ads, a crucial fact in making actualpurchases.
  • While participants showed similar preferences and willingness to pay for an item regardless of how it was advertised, brain activity indicated a greater subconscious perceived value and desire for products or services viewed in a physical format.

The study recommended further neuromarketing investigation by the private sector on the importance and efficacy of digital and print media because human responses continue to evolve and adapt, and it pointed out that additional research can help companies better understand the subconscious responses to areas previously explored by traditional means. Areas to follow up on include:

  • Determining what mix of media can best reach target audiences
  • Understanding effectiveness of specific advertising elements for optimum impact
  • Finding the most effective sequence of media to optimize a given campaign

Finally, the study added that while physical communication has a greater subconscious effect, the complementary nature of the two formats can provide a powerful media mix.


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