Is Direct Mail Advertising Effective? A Research Study

Neuromarketing research shows physical advertisements have a pronounced effect on consumer decision-making.

The most successful marketing campaigns are multifaceted endeavors, mixing various mediums to engage their target audience. Magazine ads, websites, billboards, direct mail, social media and smartphone apps are just a few ways companies can convert customers. To drive profits, businesses must allocate their marketing dollars across the right channels. Today, no brand can dispute the power of the digital world, but what about physical advertisements like direct mail and print ads? What gives them their edge?

To get to the heart of this question, the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General partnered with the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in 2015 and again in 2019—first to study the power of print and digital advertisements, and then to dive deeper into how different generations react to them. Expanding on the original study, the 2019 research specifically analyzed the effect of print versus digital ads on young and old consumers.

Research showed that physical advertisements were more effective in leaving a lasting impression than their digital counterparts, regardless of consumer age.1 Below, we dive deeper into the research and the results.

What Is Neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing serves as the foundation of these studies. This emerging field combines the insights of multiple disciplines, including neuroscience and psychology, to answer questions about marketing, consumer behavior and advertising phenomena.2

Working with Temple University, USPS® used neuromarketing tactics to explore how consumers processed and engaged with physical and digital advertisements, both consciously and subconsciously, and how different age groups engaged with these ads.

Neuromarketing Research Techniques
How It Works What It Reveals
Eye Tracking A camera and infrared technology monitor eye movements, in terms of speed and duration of attention. Tracks visual attention.
Core Biometrics Sensors placed on fingertips measure heart rate, skin conductance (sweat), motion and respiration. Gauges the depth of emotional engagement.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging This brain scanner measures change in oxygenated blood flow to show what parts of the brain are activated during a task or experience. Pinpoints specific deep-brain activity beyond surface cognitive function; e.g., empathy and reward.

By looking at these neurophysiological measurements, researchers were able to make conclusions about consumers at different stages of the buying process: exposure to information, retrieval of information and action. In the most recent research, researchers used the same neurophysiological measurements to make conclusions about the way consumers of different ages respond to digital versus print ads.

By understanding consumers’ subconscious responses, businesses can optimize their marketing strategies and determine when to use mail, digital media or a combination of the two.

The Methodology

In the original study, Temple University used survey questionnaires, eye tracking, core biometrics and neuroimaging to compare the effectiveness of print versus digital advertisements. In the first study session, participants viewed physical and digital ads for products, services and restaurants. The physical ads were printed on postcards, while the digital ads were embedded in emails. Eye-tracking equipment captured which ads participants looked at and for how long. At the same time, biometrics equipment measured heart rate and skin conductance, which indicated physiological response resulting from emotional engagement.

A week later, researchers carried out a second session in which they tested memory and willingness to pay. During this session, a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner measured the participants’ brain activity while they answered a series of questions about the advertisements. Each subject had to indicate which ads they remembered from the week before. Finally, they underwent a simulated purchasing process in which they reported the amount they were willing to pay for each service, product or meal. Parsing through this data, researchers were able to make a number of telling conclusions.

Expanding the Study

For the 2019 study, researchers used self-reported measures, behavioral responses and fMRI technology to evaluate the role that consumer age plays in the effectiveness of an ad’s format: physical versus digital.3 Most of the analyses compared two groups: a younger group with participants aged 41 and younger, and an older group with participants aged 47 and older.

The fMRI analysis allowed researchers to measure brain activity as the study participants viewed and replied to questions about advertising stimuli; this provided insight into the effectiveness of advertising stimuli on a subconscious level. The behavioral responses and self-reported measures reinforced the findings from the fMRI analysis and gave further insight into the effectiveness of digital versus print ads.

As with the 2015 study, the research was carried out in two phases, approximately one week apart. During the first phase, participants viewed 60 ads, split into two sets of 30. The print ads were shown on postcards; the digital ads were shown on a tablet. After viewing, participants were asked about brand recall (remembering which brands they had just seen), brand association (matching a slogan to a brand) and brand discrimination (recalling whether certain images were associated with brands just viewed versus competitors’ ads). Special eyewear measured how long participants viewed the ads.

During the second phase, researchers asked the participants to recall the ads they had viewed a week prior. fMRI was used to measure brain activations as participants performed the required recall tasks; this helped show differences at the subconscious, neurological level. Participants were tested on this outside of the fMRI, as well.

The Results

In the original study, physical advertisements were proven to have more influence than digital ads in a number of ways. Not only did participants spend more time with physical ads, they also remembered them more quickly and confidently. Physical ads also elicited a stronger emotional response than their digital counterparts and, overall, had a longer-lasting impact. Looking at brain activity, researchers discovered that participants showed a greater subconscious valuation and desire for products or services advertised in a physical format.4

This means physical ads are particularly effective in two stages of the consumer journey: exposure to information and retrieval of information. Digital ads trumped their physical counterparts in only one area: focused attention. Though participants did show more attention to digital ads, they gained the same amount of information from both types of advertisements.

Expanding the Study

Findings from the 2019 research confirm and expand upon these findings, with physical ads once again showing to be more effective in leaving a lasting impression than digital ads. Physical ads were found to result in stronger memories, and this was found to be true across age groups.5

However, although both the young and old participant groups processed physical ads faster than digital ads, the younger adults were shown to process these ads much faster than the older participants. Time exposed to the ads—which was self-reported—played a part in the higher effectiveness of print over digital, which may point to the benefits of digital ads in circumstances involving limited audience attention. However, the younger group reported spending more time with the physical ads—more than was reported by the older group.6 For younger generations, physical ads may hold an air of novelty.

What Neurophysiological Factors Did the Ad Affect?
Factor Definition Most Effective Ad Format
Attention Focusing on key components of an ad for a sustained period of time Digital
Review Time The amount of time a customer spends with an ad Print
Engagement The amount of information a customer processes or absorbs from an ad DigitalPrint
Stimulation An emotional reaction to an ad Print
Memory Retrieval Accuracy Accurately remembering the advertising source and content DigitalPrint
Memory Speed & Confidence Quickly and confidently remembering advertising sources and content Print
Purchase & Willingness to Pay Whether the customer is willing to pay for a product, and how much DigitalPrint
Desirability A subconscious desire for the product or service Print
Valuation The subconscious value a participant places on the product or service Print

Key Takeaways

In addition to being cost-effective, digital media is the fastest way to communicate an idea to customers. Consider using digital ads when you’re looking to gain attention and quickly deliver a message. However, print materials—like postcards, catalogs and magazine ads—have a more pronounced emotional effect on consumers. For marketers who want advertising with long-lasting impact and easy recollection, a physical ad simply has more psychological influence. Both mediums have their advantages. The most effective campaigns will use both in combination to create omni-channel experiences that excite and engage.

Millennials and Mail: 5 Myths and the Truth Behind Them

To drive action among Millennials, companies must learn how to create campaigns that resonate with this demographic.

U.S. Millennial consumers engage with brands via social media follows, website browsing, mobile app usage and text message subscriptions more than their Gen X and baby boomer counterparts—and, in fact, even more than their Gen Z counterparts.1 It’s natural to assume that this generation is only susceptible to digital media. After all, they were born and raised on the internet.

In this article, we’ll dispel some of the biggest misconceptions about Millennials and their relationship with mail while providing some helpful tips for building a Millennial‑friendly omni‑channel campaign.

Myth 1: Print marketing is dead among millennials.

Millennials are not nearly as print-averse as people may think: One study shows that 74% of them read print books.2 Research also shows that these digitally engaged consumers are suffering from digital fatigue. In fact, in one survey of Americans, 37% of Millennial respondents said they received marketing emails “way too often,” and 22% said they received “a few too many”.3

Print marketing, on the other hand, has the ability to stand out. While Millennials receive hundreds of emails every week, mail comes less frequently. As a result, this age group doesn’t feel the need to tune out the messaging. In one survey of Millennials, 62% of respondents said they had visited a store in the past month based on information received in the mail—more often than Gen Xers or boomers had.4

Ideas Worth Implementing: Studies show that Millennials spent more time with physical ads than digital ads.5 Take advantage of this, and use your mailpieces to create memorable, visually appealing content.

Myth 2: Millennials are digital addicts who only engage online.

Millennials may be digital natives, but it’s not the only medium they consume. One study shows that 33% of Millennials have an active subscription to a newspaper or magazine.6 And when they are online, they’re not always responding to digital marketing. Millennials are twice as likely as boomers to use ad blockers.7 In addition, only 19% of Millennials report opening marketing emails “always” or “frequently”.8

Ideas Worth Implementing: Send consumers customized mailpieces. In one study, it was shown that targeting on a 1:1 level increases response rates by 50%.9

Myth 3: Millennials do not think mail is relevant.

Though this demographic has grown up in a digital media landscape, they still interact with and enjoy direct mail. In one survey of Millennials, 75% of respondents said receiving personal mail makes them feel special.10 So opt for a cohesive omni-channel experience. By mentioning social media in direct mail copy, brands can bridge the gap between the print and digital worlds.

Ideas Worth Implementing: Amplify your direct mail by tying in your social media accounts. Simply including a QR Code® leading customers to one of your social channels can provide an engaging omni-channel experience.11

Myth 4: Millennials do not trust direct mail.

Research has shown the opposite to be true. In one study, it was found that 58% of Millennials worry less about direct mail privacy than digital communications privacy.12 And Millennials value direct mail in general: 69% of Millennials said they “somewhat” or “very much” like coupons for restaurants, and 65% said they like coupons for retail businesses.13

Ideas Worth Implementing: Use direct mail in conjunction with your digital marketing to highlight the most important product information and promotions associated with your campaign.

Myth 5: Millennials are not responsive to direct mail.

Wrong. Direct mail has actually been a successful sales driver for this demographic, and studies show that physical ads leave a lasting impression on both younger and older demographics.14 A truly potent marketing campaign incorporates both digital and print tactics, allowing mail to garner interest and move consumers closer to purchase, be it in-store or online.

Ideas Worth Implementing: Give customers the opportunity to engage with your brand by allowing them to respond to mail via digital channels.
Informed Delivery® campaigns, for example, not only provide customers with digital previews of their physical mail, but can also include complementary digital offers such as an internet promo code for an item being advertised in your mailpiece.

In Conclusion

Although Millennials are digital natives, it doesn’t take futuristic marketing to drive sales. In fact, digital advertisements have a limited effect on this age group. As the media landscape changes and Millennials continue to come into their own, companies will have to become more attuned to the most potent marketing tactics for this generation—direct mail included.

10 Reasons Why Catalogs Are a Marketing Powerhouse

People engage through stories. They respond when inspired. While merchandising still matters, presenting your products in story form helps connect the reader to your brand on an emotional level to inspire action.

Studies show that consumers enjoy reading magazine-like catalogs. That’s why they spend time engaging with them. In fact, the average time spent looking at a catalog is 15.5 minutes and consumers tend to hold on to them for several weeks.1 Catalogs are also a strong customer retention tool since people are even more likely to read and keep catalogs from retailers they have bought from before.1

Catalogs not only provide the tangibility and power of direct mail, they’ve become an integral part of an omni-channel campaign by driving customers to digital experiences. They’re now mobile, website and in-store traffic drivers.

In addition, catalogs remain an effective acquisition vehicle. A popular men’s clothing retailer reports that 20% of its website’s first-time customers are placing their orders after having received a catalog. And they are spending one-and-a-half times as much as new shoppers who didn’t receive a catalog first.2

In this article, we’ll take a look at 10 powerful reasons why catalogs should be an integral part of your marketing strategy. We’ll also give you some helpful ideas that you can use to create a catalog that connects and delivers.

Reason #1: Catalogs influence purchase decisions.

Did you know that catalogs actually have a stronger influence on purchase decisions than websites or TV ads?1 72% of people surveyed said that catalogs make them more interested in that retailer’s products, and 84% have purchased an item after seeing it in a catalog.1 The Data & Marketing Association (DMA) explains that this is because “where online marketing is passive, direct mail is active. Direct mailings are proactive and tactile—demanding that the recipient do something with it. And the better response rates make the return on the investment worthwhile for both retention and acquisition.”3 Powerful evidence like this is why retailers still use catalogs to engage customers and spark them to start the buyer’s journey.

Idea worth implementing:
Feature additional content that helps your customer connect with your products and your company. Studies show that catalogs that include content to express a brand personality have the potential to drive increased sales. In fact, 65% said they would read additional content.1 This can include stories around how the product is used or was created, related articles that provide deeper information and customer or employee profiles.

Reason #2: People engage with catalogs on a deeper level.

The purchase experience has become a big deal. Even digital-native organizations have embraced print to better connect with and engage their customers and prospects.1 It’s about moving people beyond a transaction to an emotional connection. Through stories and images, catalogs take people on a journey or even an adventure. That’s why they encourage deeper engagement with retailers and their products. Research shows that the average length of time keeping catalogs is 20.3 days.1 And that 84% enjoy getting catalog from retailer(s) they previously shopped with.1

Idea worth implementing:
Offer limited-time promotions. Studies show that engagement with catalogs is strongest when sales are featured.1 Promotions create a sense of urgency and make it easy to reward your customers. In fact, 81% are more likely to look at a catalog if it features items on sale.1

Reason #3: Catalogs are a launching pad for multi-channel purchasing journeys.

Catalogs introduce new ideas. They create awareness and inspire consumers to buy through other channels. Research shows that catalogs are most successful when incorporated into an omni-channel marketing campaign to drive customers to e-commerce sites to optimize purchases.4

Idea worth implementing:
Extend your brand identity by using the same tone and imagery through all your media channels, including online, social media and print. Be sure to include multiple ordering options in your catalogs, such as website links, phone numbers or mail-in forms including Business Reply Mail® or Courtesy Reply Mail™.

Reason #4: Neuroscience research supports the value of physical catalogs as a complement to digital communications.1

By studying consumers’ brains, science is digging deeper into marketing to analyze what works and what doesn’t. The results revealed that “physical ads leave a longer lasting impact for easy recall when making a purchase decision [vs. digital]. Most importantly, physical ads triggered activity in the area of the brain (ventral striatum) that is responsible for [evaluating the] value and desirability for featured products, which can signal a greater intent to purchase.”1 To sum it up, science is now proving that direct mail such as catalogs deliver:1

  • Better recall over longer periods.
  • Stronger brand associations.
  • Deeper emotional connections.

Idea worth implementing:
Map out your customers’ journey from awareness to purchase to gain insight into how catalogs would best fit into their experience. Are they print traditionalists or are they online shoppers who seek instant gratification? Gathering these valuable insights can help you create a catalog that gives your audience what they want and gives you the most bang for your buck.

Reason #5: Catalogs bridge the gap between physical and digital worlds.

When paper and pixels converge, amazing things can happen. Catalogs offer the perfect physical platform for integrating dynamic digital technologies such as augmented reality (AR), dynamic QR Code®, near field communication (NFC) and much more.7 These technologies can help you deliver engaging interactive experiences that jump off the page to drive consumers to brand experiences they will remember, as well as to your digital properties, such as websites, mobile apps, social media, etc.

Idea worth implementing:
Leverage Informed Delivery® notifications, a new media channel from the U.S. Postal Service. This innovative feature gives you the opportunity to deliver a physical impression as well as a digital one—from a single mailpiece. This feature is currently a “value-add” at no cost to marketers. To learn more, visit:

Reason #6: Catalogs evoke strong, positive emotions and associations.

From the feel of the paper on your fingertips to the visual appeal of the images, catalogs give readers a real and multidimensional experience that stimulates multiple senses simultaneously. These physical experiences help make memories and connections. They also inspire readers with possibilities, helping provide an escape from daily stresses. Studies show that catalogs even help ease the anxiety around receiving bills.4

Idea worth implementing:
One size doesn’t fit all. While your inventory may determine the size of your catalog, consider testing different formats and specialty sizes to see what your customers respond best to. Using innovative printing techniques such as textures and smells can also make your catalog stand out.

Reason #7: Catalogs can leverage customer data to personalize experiences.

Thanks to large industry databases containing demographic information on millions of households, targeting with catalogs is much easier now. And thanks to online purchasing, many retailers have amassed their own databases that can be used to segment their customers by type and buyer behavior. Identifying niches and verticals helps you target only high-quality leads—so you get the right catalogs to the right people. For example, you can showcase a distinct group of products to a target audience, such as golfers or cooks, who are more likely to purchase, which ultimately helps increase ROI. Segmenting also helps offset catalog production costs because they are going to customers who have shown interest in a particular product category.

Idea worth implementing:
Personalize/customize your catalogs using customer data from past purchases to highlight products they’ve shown interest in. This helps you anticipate their needs and drive loyalty. It can also help you send fewer catalogs to those with lower purchase intent and more to those with greater intent.

Reason #8: Catalogs enable attribution and measurable results.

With budget pressures on marketers to prove ROI, attribution is more important than ever. Armed with the knowledge of which lead came from where, you can better assess if your catalogs are meeting your goals. Depending on performance, you can then adjust your inventory, copy, visuals, offers and digital drivers as needed. With their definitive mail dates and customer and source codes, catalogs are easy to track. Telephone, mail and online orders as well as special promotions can all be tracked with codes, so you can attribute a sale to a specific catalog. Driving customers to a digital app from your catalog also provides instant trackability.

Idea worth implementing:
Measure the effectiveness of your catalogs using key code capture and match-back programs so that you can track who bought what and when. Many retailers are syncing up their online customer databases with their catalog data, so they can test what happens when they are synced with other channels.

Reason #9: Catalogs deliver ease, convenience, and relaxation.

Easy to consume, catalogs provide the opportunity for consumers to slow down and enjoy the experience of being transported through images and stories—all over a cup of coffee. It also gives them the time to discover new items and make the best choices. Catalogs are accessible anywhere, which allows the reader to browse at their own speed and on their own schedule with fewer distractions. And by featuring a focused product selection, catalogs save people time lost in searching a website. That’s why consumers report that catalogs are enjoyable and fun to browse.4

Idea worth implementing:
Limit your catalog frequency by sending them quarterly or seasonally. This promotes attention, interest and excitement for their arrival.

Reason #10: All generations say they like physical mail, especially millennials.

Even though they are a tech generation, millennials are embracing mail. So why do these digital natives love direct mail? “In part, it’s because they are inundated with digital media. Physical mail stands out in millennials’ otherwise electronic world. This generation is also geared toward visual content, and direct mail caters to the physical senses.”5 This important buyer segment also spends more time sorting mail than other age groups and appears more engaged with mail than the average consumer.6 This is true for other generations as well. In fact, baby boomers and Gen Xers report strong childhood connections to catalogs prompting feelings of curiosity, hope, and excitement.4

In a survey conducted by the USPS®, households reported a strong attachment to mail.6

  • 81% take the time to look through mail each day.
  • 67% prefer reviewing physical mail to receiving emails.
  • 64% look forward to receiving mail each day.

Idea worth implementing:
Make sure your mailing lists are accurate. A high-quality list ensures that mailing addresses are up-to-date and have been qualified within the past year. USPS offers a FREE, one-time Address Quality Analysis (AQA). You can also use a licensed USPS address hygiene vendor to ensure accuracy.

In Conclusion

Today’s catalogs are powerhouse marketing tools. It’s no longer a competition between digital and print. It’s all about using the strengths of each medium and offering the best of both worlds to create inspiration and engagement that satisfy your customer and your company’s bottom line.