The Fascinating Science That Shows Why People Sometimes Prefer Print to Digital

The battle between print and digital is ongoing, and digital seems by all counts to be winning. People are spending more and more time every year consuming media digitally, and advertisers are following. But a new study from the Canada Post and Canadian neuromarketing firm TrueImpact shows that publishers probably shouldn’t give up their print arms just yet.

RELATED: Why Print Newspapers Are Not Hitting Rock Bottom

While digital subscribers are growing — The New York Times recently had its biggest increase in digital subscribers in three years — ad revenue is falling for both print and digital media. This could be because advertisers are going through a period of uncertainty. Print still remains the lifeblood of many publications, but digital is clearly growing, and no one knows quite where their ad dollars are best spent. While it’s certain that our brains process information differently depending on the format we’re using, it’s still unclear what that means for publishers and advertisers. Let’s take a look.

The “Buy” Button

A study from Temple University researchers shows that paper advertising activates the ventral striatum area of the brain — which signals desire and valuation — more than digital advertising does. That’s good news for advertisers, as that’s usually what they’re going for. This isn’t exactly the mythical “buy” button, but it could be as close as it gets for the human brain.

This one looks like it goes to PRINT.

Attention Span

A Norway study showed that students who read in print score higher on reading comprehension tests than students who read in a digital format. And another study from San Jose State University found that reading on screens “is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively.”

This shows that print may be better for long-form content, which is why some people prefer to read physical books instead of e-books. But for advertisers, digital could be the preferred method on this point. Ads are fine-tuned to grab attention by saying a lot with a little. They want to grab attention quickly, and clicking on an ad while browsing the web is an organic part of the digital experience.

The point goes to DIGITAL.

The Memory Game

A short attention span often goes hand-in-hand with a fuzzy memory. If advertisers don’t get that digital click, it’s unlikely that a consumer will remember the product. At least for now, physical material is more “real” to the brain, according to a study from Bangor University and branding agency Millward Brown.

The realness of physical media means it’s more connected to memory than digital, because it gives people a sense of place and feeds into spatial memory networks. People also process print more emotionally, which connects consumers to products and gives them a positive association with a particular brand.

PRINT takes this one.

Targeting the Perfect Consumer

Advertisers want to get their products in front of people who will buy them. That’s a pretty simple concept. In print, it’s difficult to figure out who exactly is reading what, so it’s hard to target potential buyers.

Digital has exploded this area of advertising. Campaigns can be fine-tuned to target the exact person who needs what the company is offering at the very moment they see the ad. This is why memory is less important online. If someone is re-decorating their dining room and they see the perfect chairs in a targeted ad for Ashley Furniture, they’re much more likely to click and buy right there than if they were reading a newspaper and saw a general ad for Ashley merchandise.

The ability to personalize ads is clearly a win for DIGITAL.

Visions of Ad Dollars

Images are everything in both print and digital formats. A 2011 study showed that a vivid image in print can actually change someone’s memory of and attitude about a product. You might think print would take this one because of that fact, but digital has a little trick up its sleeve. Two tricks, actually: audio and video.

In digital formats, advertisers can create short videos for their brands, and research last year from Facebook and Nielsen showed that video campaigns increase ad recall, brand awareness, and purchase intent from the moment the video is viewed. Before even a second of content played, consumers were already more inclined toward the brand. After ten seconds, viewers’ ad recall had gone up 74 percent, brand awareness rose 65 percent, and purchase intent increased 72 percent.

This is a clear win for DIGITAL.

The Local Shop

For a local print newspaper, it’s easy to make content and advertising relevant to subscribers’ surroundings. But when a brand is ready to move from the Northeast Gazette to the Chicago Tribune, it’s hard to keep that hometown feel. Enter digital media, where publishers can gather metrics on readers and localize ads and content. Digital is great for recruiters, too. A job seeker looking for a local job could find an opportunity literally right in front of her on her laptop. It could be a win-win for all parties involved.

The same goes for ads. Small, local businesses are much more likely to buy an online ad targeted only to people in the neighborhood than go all out for a print buy in a national newspaper. There are usually local sections in print media, and this could be a good way to localize content as well, but it’s much more likely that advertisers will reach a local audience through online metrics, tracking, and data.

While print gets a few points for this one, DIGITAL still takes it.

The Verdict

So what does all this mean? Looking at this rundown, digital wins on advertising, 4-2, but that doesn’t mean we should all pack up our printing presses and bemoan the death of the written word. The two points for print are huge draws for the advertising world, and they’re a big reason why people sometimes prefer print to digital. Print plays with our senses. We recall what we’ve read in print better, because it talks to us in a way that digital can’t.

A smart publisher knows what’s good for advertisers, and while ad dollars are moving toward digital, there is still a lot of value in print. It’s probably wise for publishers to keep that printing press around for at least a little while longer, because advertisers may soon realize that their best bet is to spread the love across both print and digital.

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