More Culture:

May 24, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Do we still need snail mail?

For what feels like the billionth time, you open your mailbox to discover nothing but a pile of grocery store fliers and coupons you'll probably never use. 

What, you wonder, is the point? 

Curious as to whether those snail-mail advertisements actually serve much of a purpose anymore -- and whether we really need snail mail at all, truly -- we reached out to Vinod Venkatraman, assistant professor of marketing at Temple University's Fox School of Business, and a co-researcher for a recent study examining the effects of mail-in advertisements on the brain.

Is there a good reason for snail mail to exist? Your research at Temple seems to touch on that larger subject a bit. What was the study you helped conduct, and what did you find out about processing information in a physical format versus digital?

  • The world is full of questions we all want answers to, but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. With Infrequently Asked Questions, we set out to answer those shared curiosities. Have a question you want answered? Send an email to, and we’ll find an expert who can give you the answer you’re craving.

We've done two studies now; both were in collaboration with the Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Postal Service. They essentially commissioned these studies at the Center for Neural Decision Making at Fox. In the first study, what we basically did was we tried to understand whether there are any notable cognitive differences in how people process information in physical and digital advertisements. So, the basic idea was you get these fliers in the mail, in your post box, but also these advertisements on Facebook or online, but no one has studied whether there is a notable difference in how people process these different pieces of information. 

If they saw it in the physical form they are pretty confident they saw it in physical; but if they saw it in email form, they think they saw it in digital, but they're not really sure."

What we did was a two-week study; the first week, people come into the lab and see a set of ads -- either in a physical version or digital version in the form of an email inbox -- and they are asked to process this information and are asked a set of questions. But what happens is, a week later, they come back for a second session, but now, unbeknownst to them, they see some of these same ads mixed with new ones [and we test for recall]. But this time they're in an MRI machine so we can record what's happening in the brain as they try to retrieve this info of what they saw a week ago. 

What we find is people are slightly better at remembering ads they saw in the physical format. If you are seeing the same ad in a printed version a week before, now you feel -- one, you remember that, and two, you feel much stronger about it if you saw it. If they saw it in the physical form they are pretty confident they saw it in physical; but if they saw it in email form, they think they saw it in digital, but they're not really sure. We found this by corresponding this data with the actual brain activation; people showed greater brain activation in the hippocampus, which is what helps with memory. And what we find is if you see these ads in a physical format, it's greater activation in the hippocampus compared to the digital format.

Any sense of the why?

That's the part I didn't tell you. In the first week when you're exposed to the ads we collect neurophysiological measures. Not just "What are they looking at," but what are their heart rates and autonomous responses? What happens immediately when you see this stuff? Arousal, what they pay attention to, etc. We get this information when exposed to the ads and what we find is, generally, when exposed to the physical format there is greater arousal. People are also taking longer to process their information with physical over digital. We believe that is probably one of the driving factors. 

And also, though we didn't explicitly test it, there is an indication there is an age relation. For example, most of our participants are in the age range of 20 to 45 or so, and for those people, the most common media format is digital -- email, Facebook, etc. And so, there is probably some form of novelty effect when looking at something in physical over digital. You really process that over digital. It's not traditionally what they're looking at.

So now print is so unusual, we remember it if we see it?

Correct. And the interesting thing is, if we look at some of the older people in our sample, this pattern actually kind of flips for them. They have a slightly better memory with digital than physical. That may be another thing: Those people who are not so with the digital age, they probably still find that a little more novel.

Anything to be said for the tactile experience?

That's certainly a possibility. One of the problems with the way we used some of these methodologies is we had to control it as much as possible. So, in this one ... we actually tried to minimize [the tactile experience] a little bit, but not completely. The way we did it, was people take a card and place it on the board where they're looking at information. But when they're actually processing info, they're not holding onto the stimulus itself. That's a way we controlled for the tactile experience during the processing. But that could still play ar role in some of this stuff.

We're now doing a follow-up study where what we try to do is make the memory just a little harder. They see the whole ad a week before, but when they come back, we just show a piece of the ad -- a scene, maybe, and we ask them to [point out an ad they saw last week]. And what we see now is whether they can relate it back to the brand featured in the ad. 

What we find is, if you're exposed to the physical format, you're much better at remembering the details of the ad.

This seems specific to advertising, but does this translate to other things as well? Might I better remember to pay my electric bill on time if I get a paper bill and due date in my hand?

We've thought about this, and I think that's another interesting extension of this. Everybody wants to do things on a computer; nobody uses a hard book, so they want an electronic copy. We believe this could extend to that too. So, when holding onto a physical book when reading, you probably encode the context better -- what you're reading -- than if you were just doing it on a computer ...

There's plenty it could be extended to, but we focus more on the marketing perspective for this study.

Why was this initiated in the first place?

I think the Postal Service is very interested in this question because they want to see what the place is for physical media in the current world, as people move on to smartphones, and Facebook advertising and so on. They reached out to us partly because we did a physioneurolgoical study [in the past], so they reached out to us because of that.

And I believe Canada's Postal Service is doing something similar, and it's pretty consistent between what they're doing and what we're doing.

Anything to add?

A lot of our focus has been on memory, which is important if you have a new product or are advertising something new; it's a critical component. But also, does this mean people would be more willing to buy the product more or pay more for it? There is some initial evidence that if you're seeing an item in a physical ad, you're more likely to buy the items featured in the ad. So if that holds, that would also be very interesting -- not only does it improve memory, but maybe links to greater sales when you're in the supermarket looking for information.

And this forces everybody to look at the information. So, assuming you've already looked at the ad sent to your house, it leads to greater memory -- but it doesn't account for how often do people look at the information that gets sent to them. If it gets sent right to the recycle bin, there's no benefit. You have to look at the 20 postcards or 20 emails.