The physical always outperforms the virtual…

A throwback for Friday, from 2013.

A while back in the post-dot-con days, I was leading an industry debate about email versus direct mail. My team had done an excellent job of positioning email as the future, at the expense of direct mail – only for the purpose of the debate. We never really believed it though:)

The summary speaker for direct mail was an attractive female, who when realising her team was losing the argument, pulled out a bright red lipstick, painted her lips and blew kisses to the audience.

She concluded her argument while distributing kisses with “after all, we all know that real sex is better than virtual sex” – implying direct mail (real) is better than email (virtual).


Her kisses blew us off the stage, so to speak. I had no come-back, particularly as red is just not my colour, and we lost the debate.

But little did my opponent know how correct her statement was, metaphorically speaking. All the recent neural research demonstrates clearly, that humans get more emotionally engaged with a physical item than they do with an image of that same item on a screen.

I’ve always believed one of the reasons mail is so powerful is because it is tactile. It can be explored, particularly 3D mail. And most people will at least look at the mail (or inserts) before discarding. We don’t throw anything away without first knowing what we are throwing away, if you get my drift.

Teachers will tell you that kids learn more through multi-sensory activities, than from a screen. The more kids can see, touch, smell, taste and explore an object, the more emotionally engaged they are with it and the more they understand about it.


So it comes as no surprise that research conducted by Millward Brown a couple of years ago revealed what our gut instincts always knew.

The physical is far more powerful than the virtual.

I won’t go into the scientific explanation, I can send it to you if you like. I’ll use my layman’s interpretation for you.

Millward Brown was commissioned to study the way the brain reacts to physical messages versus the same messages displayed on computer screens. They used MRI scans to determine how brands can better engage customers. Given how over-used the term “engage” is in the marketing world today, this study carries loads of weight.

The research was set up to examine whether consumers’ brains respond differently to material based on direct mail than to comparable information shown to them via a computer screen.

The brain measurements were taken by placing people in an fMRI scanner. In a highly controlled experiment, which stripped out the effects of content and purely sensory stimulation, clear differences emerged in the way the brain processes marketing messages in physical, compared with virtual formats.

Here are some of the findings:

Direct mail based-material makes the content more real to the brain – better connected to it. It appears that all other effects being equal, direct mail-based materials:

• are more concrete and ‘real’ for the brain
• are internalised more
• facilitate emotional processing
• result in more fluent decision making

This means direct mail-based materials are more likely to be retained and acted upon.

The tangibility of direct mail-based materials leaves a much deeper ‘footprint’ on the brain than digital images.

Direct mail-based material makes the content more real to the brain and better connected to memory by engaging with its spatial memory networks. The material generated more activity in the area of the brain associated with the integration of visual and spatial information (the left and right parietals) and the processing of information in relation to the body.

Oxygenated blood flow, red = direct mail, blue = screen image
Oxygenated blood flow, red = direct mail, blue = screen image

You can see in these images – the red indicates the oxygenated blood flow for direct mail, while the blue indicates it for the same image shown on screen. Not only is there less flow, but it’s not flowing in the emotional areas of the brain where it needs to do so for “engagement”.

Other summary points included:

• The multi-sensory nature of the material results in the content being seen as more ‘real’.
• Direct mail-based material produced more brain responses associated with internal feelings.
• Direct mail-based material makes the content more real to the brain and better connected to memory by engaging with its spatial memory networks.
• It is easier to focus attention on direct mail-based material than via a screen.
• Direct mail-based material provokes stronger emotional processing.

There is much more stuff, but I won’t bore you here. Though I’d hazard a guess there aren’t too many digi-spruikers who have a clue about any of this – they prefer opinions to facts.

Suffice to say, there is clear evidence that the media that have always worked well, such as direct mail, continue to do so. Those who limit their business and customer communications to digital and don’t have a mix of offline and online channels, are risking their businesses and missing enormous profit opportunities.

Well it’s Friday night and beer o’clock, so I’m off to have a glass or two and watch the football. I’m not going to the match, I’m watching it on TV, but even so it’s still exciting and engages me…

A man watching football on television


  1. Malcolm,

    I love the analogy about real versus digital sex. Most things in the world are better in real life than in digital or virtual formats.

    In fact, I challenge anyone to come up with something that is more enjoyable when viewed on a screen than it is up close and personal.


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