Posted November 4th, 2015

Think Print Is Dead? Think Again

brain image plugged inBrain studies shed light on how people process print and digital communications.

There are many reasons why organizations are turning more toward digital communications and marketing. Digital communications (enewsletters, social media posts, website advertising, etc.) can be more cost effective as there are no printing or postage costs—although it is important to factor in the cost of staff creative time, as well as the Internet provider and an email client, if applicable. It’s an attractive solution, especially for organizations with tight communications and marketing budgets. But is digital marketing as effective as print in attracting readers and generating action?

Target the audience

When planning a communications strategy, the most important thing to keep in mind—budgets aside—is the composition of the target audience. Every message outlet will be received differently by different audience members, particularly across age groups. In the bequest planning arena, for example, we know that the primary target audience is aged 75-89 (see “What’s Wrong With Focusing on Bequest Intentions from 40-Year-Olds?” Give & Take, December 2013). And while studies continue to show that Americans are online in increasing numbers, Pew Research studies give a different picture in this age group.

According to Pew, the majority of Americans aged 65+ use the Internet, but as we age that number decreases: 68 percent of adults aged 70-74, 47 percent of 75-79-year-olds and 37 percent who are 80 years old and older. In addition, consider that “using the Internet” may not mean that the person is comfortable spending a lot of time navigating the World Wide Web.

This means that while the future of marketing gift planning opportunities will find online communications over time to be at least as effective as print in reaching donors, the majority of current prospective donors will not be reached using a digital strategy.

But setting aside the issue of who is online, knowledge of how any donor, of any age, processes and remembers information from digital and print formats is something to factor into a communications plan.

Seeing (and touching) is believing

Over the last decade there have been many studies about which communication vehicles are most effective. Common wisdom has been that people tend to process information derived from reading printed material better than from a digital medium. But many studies have indicated that this has changed as digital reading has become more ubiquitous. So does this mean that we now or will in the very near future accept information gained from reading digital works as well as or better than printed material? Neurological studies suggest this may not be the case.

A 2013 Scientific American article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper Versus Screens,” indicates that even “today’s so-called digital natives” take in information from a mix of paper and digital media. And the reason that paper is still important lies in how our brains are wired and how reading and writing have evolved. In fact, writing wasn’t even invented until relatively recently in human history. We are not born with the brain circuitry to interpret written language. Our brains improvise this ability by using functions that process language and visual cues. An important part of reading, according to Scientific American, is the tactile activity. In other words, the act of holding and touching a book, magazine or other print object has a large impact on what we remember when we read. We recall what we’ve read by following a mental map of sorts. When attempting to remember a particular fact, for example, our brains rely as much on where that fact was first seen (the place on the page and location in relation to the whole book) as the source.

The Scientific American article indicates that we digest information in a complicated mix of all of our senses, not just our vision. But this article focuses largely on books and magazine or newspaper articles. The results are even more complicated when studying marketing messages.

The right messages in the right places

Earlier this year, the United States Postal Service published a commissioned study by Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making. This neuromarketing study honed in on consumer responses to physical and digital media when making purchasing decisions. What they found was this: Participants in the study processed digital content more quickly but spent more time with physical ads, producing a stronger emotional response and more long-term memory of the content.

This study looked closely at observable brain activity, which yielded different results than a self-reporting survey with the same participants before the neurological study. In the surveys, the participants indicated no preference between physical and digital advertising, but the brain studies found different subconscious responses. The study indicated digital communications are a good cost-effective strategy when an organization wants to get attention quickly. However, print is the best option to generate more accurate recall of the message. In addition, brain activity indicated consumers have a higher perceived value and desirability of a product when viewing a physical ad.

What stands out to marketers from these studies should be that both digital and print marketing are important parts of any marketing strategy, with different objectives, contexts and target audiences. It’s not an either/or issue. To be truly effective, both are needed. An organization’s relationship with a donor and the donor’s perceived importance of the mission may be better built through long-term communications that continue traditional reliance on print. Digital ads may best come into play as a transactional means—a way for a donor to quickly give a gift (which may be particularly helpful during your year-end communications), but with the stage having already been set by other communications.

When communicating more complex concepts such as charitable gift planning options that involve a mixture of motivations and critical analysis of options, online strategies can be helpful but traditional print continues to prove most effective in motivating completed gifts for many Sharpe clients.

Each medium has different strengths based on the audience and the objectives of the campaign. And given the demographics of gift planning, a strategy that removes or devalues a print component may yield poor results. ■

For data that analyzes the effectiveness of a digital campaign for gift planning, see the November 2015 Give & Take article “Rain Dances or Meteorology.” Learn more about the importance of year-end giving communications in “’Tis the Season to Give,” also in the November 2015 Give & Take.

Teri Sullivan is Brand Manager of Sharpe Group.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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