OPINION17 March 2010

Mind over media? The neuroscience behind effective media planning


Royal Mail’s business development manager Mike West outlines the results of a recent neuromarketing study which sheds some light on how the medium can be just as important as the message for marketers looking to generate an emotional connection with consumers.

The marketing world faces an increasingly complex challenge – that of understanding what truly motivates a consumer to select one brand over another, and the resulting role different marketing channels can play in influencing this decision. In this respect, marketers have long lacked access to one fundamental piece of insight which can inform effective marketing channel choice and drive a media strategy; namely how the human brain physically processes the messages provided.

Royal Mail commissioned independent research through Millward Brown, employing the University of Bangor’s psychology department and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner to image the different parts of the brain which are activated when stimulated by either a physical, printed message like direct mail, or digital marketing such as email or online advertising.  The fMRI scanner was used to map the activated parts of the brain in research subjects by highlighting changes in the blood supply.

The research was conducted among 10 males and 10 females from the local Bangor area, with an average age of just over 30. They were shown prompts of physical direct mail and digital marketing on a screen, which had been edited to show just the basic elements of images and text. Each participant saw half of the adverts in paper format and half in digital format.

‘Scrambled’ images were also used to provide a control for the impact of colours and text, and to allow researchers to account for physical material stimulating more than one sense (touch and sight). By subtracting results for the original image from the scrambled, researchers could identify those brain patterns relating to the content of the materials rather than the sensory qualities of the medium, and identify areas of the brain stimulated by online versus those engaged by hard-copy materials.

The study found that physical media generated more activity in the parietal cortex, an area closely associated with the integration of visual and spatial information. This suggests that print-based material is more ‘concrete’ for the brain, and can act as a cue for memory. This may mean that physical direct mail material has a better connected memory ‘trace’ in the mind. This is not simply due to the fact that physical media is just that – tangible, and therefore stimulating to both sight and touch. It seems the multisensory nature of the material results in the print marketing methods being seen as more ‘real’ by the brain.

Direct mail-based material was also associated with responses which suggest greater ‘internal’ thinking – suggesting it is processed more in relation to subjects’ own feelings and memories. Researchers focused on the ‘default network’ in subjects’ brains, which is a network of brain regions which become more active when a person is not focused on the outside world. When given physical print stimuli, this region was less deactivated than when subjects were presented with digital information .

Material presented to subjects on the screen elicited responses associated with greater difficulty in maintaining attention on the task. Researchers noted that online materials proved harder to focus on, engaging areas of the brain associated with greater filtering of irrelevant information in order to attend to the task, such as the temporo-parietal junction.

Perhaps most strikingly, physical prompts were found to elicit brain activity in regions closely associated with emotional processing, such as the limbic region. Arousing emotions is widely accepted in marketing practice to provoke a more favourable response, but this is typically communicated by the creative rather than the medium itself. This study’s findings suggest that physical, tangible media can stimulate an emotional reaction which results in enhanced recognition, heightening the priority given to the brand in subsequent encounters.

For marketing strategies which need to capture people’s attention to communicate content, emotional connections can be vital in opening the door to a response, establishing a positive emotional impact and giving subsequent communications a more receptive response. This study suggests that physical communications can act as ‘priming agents’, helping a brand message to establish a more visceral emotional connection which can be vital in the initial stages of a campaign to set brand recognition and pave the way for future messaging.

The marketing industry has long recognised that different channels can be used for different effects in campaigns, but the addition of neuroscience to the mix adds another layer of insight to a media planning process which is becoming increasingly complex in a rapidly fragmenting media landscape. When it comes to media selection – which tools to use at which stage of the communications process – this study makes a strong case for the media world to take into account how each media channel is physically processed in the brain.


14 years ago | 1 like

It sounds like an interesting study, but I'm unsure whether it really gets you further than saying: the brain reacts this way to something on a physical piece of paper, and this way when shown something on a screen, therefore paper is mroe real. (Full disclosure: I trained in experimental psychology). I'm also a little concerned by the effort required to focus on a screen which is making me wonder whether the researchers controlled for factors like luminance and angle of view. Would you get these kinds of differences on a Kindle or iPad compared to paper, for example. You don't mention whether there were any studies of actual recall for these different presentation methods, although there's lots of speculation about paper resulting in more visceral engagement and therefore better recall. I'm cautious about what this means in the context that it's trying to generalise to: in reality, direct mail may go virtually unprocessed by the recipient, and their emotional feelings may be much more influenced by say, guilt and irritation than positive engagement.

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14 years ago

Had Carr looked beyond the neuroscience, he may have found that many of the problems that he blames on the Internet — constant busyness, shrinking attention spans, less and less time for concentration and contemplation — are rooted in the nature of working and living under modern capitalism rather than in information technology or gadgetry per se. In fact, as Pinker correctly points outs, Carr's are very old complaints. http://travelplanningsite.com Travel Planning

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