Physical or digital communication – which really produces the best effect?

The eternal question of how the choice of communication channel affects your customers can now be answered. Neuroscience is a relatively new method of measuring the effect of printed and digital communication.

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Photo: Andreas Dahl

What goes on in our heads that makes us think and act? This is a question that has occupied generations of scientists and can now be answered with the aid of new technology. It involves traditional disciplines such as medicine, biology and psychology being merged to create a new, multidisciplinary method: neuroscience.

First neuroscience study in the Nordic region

This method was tested during the autumn by PostNord in Sweden and Denmark together with some of PostNord's customers: Ikea, Lindex, Ica, Panduro Hobby, Plantorama and SuperBrugsen.

The survey is the first of its kind in the Nordic region. The purpose was to gain a better insight into how consumers' brains react and act when exposed to marketing in physical and digital marketing respectively.

"Several similar studies have been conducted globally. Our study is unique in that we use genuine brands and real campaigns, which of course makes the results so much more interesting," says Karin Nilsson, senior market analyst at PostNord Communication Services.

Reality-based scenarios

200 test subjects in Sweden and Denmark took part in the study. They were invited to a laboratory that was designed to imitate a home environment.

Once there, they received and read both addressed and unaddressed campaign mailings, as well as digital campaigns on their smartphones or a computer. The marketing to which the test subjects were exposed came from actual campaigns from the PostNord customers taking part in the study.

PostNord also asked the test subjects questions about preferences and attitudes towards various media.

"The questions were asked so that we could compare what the respondents said were their attitudes and preferences regarding different communication channels with how they actually acted in reality and how they reacted to different kinds of communication," says Karin Nilsson.

Eye tracking sees what the recipient sees

Eye tracking, a technology in which a camera measures eye movements, was part of the Neuroscience study. This provided information about what the test subjects saw, what they missed and whether they were distracted by information that is not as relevant.

"Our focus was on achieving a greater understanding of in which channels consumers best process advertising messages, and which channel generates the best motivation, emotional engagement and attention in the recipient," explains Karin Nilsson.

1 + 1 = 3

The results of the study reveal what many marketers already advocate: the combination of physical and digital communication is what has the best effect. Together they even have a greater effect than each one individually.

"The different media support one another. You achieve the best effect of all in campaigns that run in printed channels first and are then supported by communication in digital channels."

Karin Nilsson gives an example:

"In the physical channel there's an opportunity to communicate longer and more detailed messages, as most consumers there have a better focus and can therefore perceive more relevant parts of an advertisement. There's also a higher level of emotional engagement in the physical channel, which means that an initial exposure to a physical channel creates a positive basic attitude towards the brand, which can then be further built on in the digital channel."

You do not have the same effect if you start instead by exposing the recipient to digital communication.

"Digital channels generate more cognitive stress, which means that the consumer becomes more fragmented and there's a risk that they will notice fewer relevant messages and less emotional engagement will be generated to the brand."

It is good to bear this knowledge in mind when, for example, you want to generate more awareness of a brand or to encourage the recipient to take some kind of action.

To summarise: if you want to communicate effectively in digital channels, it is good if the recipient has first of all been given basic knowledge of the brand or the product via a physical mailing.

"The results of our neuroscience study tell us that this is true for all age groups, even younger people who are very familiar with digital channels," says Karin Nilsson.