News and Insights

Rethinking Paper in the Digital Age

Kerry Grady, Founding Principal


There’s been a lot of research into the print versus digital debate. Last year, The Association of Magazine Media published a white paper titled “What can neuroscience tell us about why print advertising works?”, a summation of the findings of 150 peer-reviewed research papers, books and reports about how consumers’ brains process paper-based communications. The research suggests that the inherent attributes of paper are responsible for the high-performance of magazines.

The culmination of the research comes to a similar conclusion – reading via screen is fast and superficial, compared to paper, when reading is slower and more deliberate. Digital readers like to skim, scan and bounce – what is commonly referred to as “horizontal” reading. Researchers note that screen readers often act like squirrels, who hunt for nuts to save and read later. While the implications for advertising effectiveness has not been systematically studied, they do suggest that by being more deliberate with print, readers can be seduced into reading longer, putting themselves into the picture, or fantasizing about the product, vacation or opportunity.

Digital readers multitask, often to the point of distraction – reading an article has to compete with other opened windows, email alerts, sports scores, social media, texts, digital ads and more. Studies have found that this hyperlinked media exposure leads to lower comprehension and recall.

Speed is one thing, and comprehension is another. Paper readers comprehend and remember more. Twenty-six of thirty-one studies found that people comprehended more when reading paper versus digital communications. In many cases, paper-based readers apply better cognitive techniques such as making connections or inferences, and writing comments in the margins – giving them a surer sense of what they read.

A Lasting Impression: Paper Appeals to the Senses.

There’s a lot to be said about the tactility of print. Neuroscientists believe that we use different parts of our brain to encode information that we see, hear or feel. People are more likely to grasp and remember information when it’s shared through varied media that appeals to all the senses. Multi-sensory coding also provides more recall triggers.

Research shows that print advertisements generate greater emotional responses than digital ads – partly because of motor processing of multi-sensory consumption factors. A recent Temple University study found that people were more likely to remember an ad and its message if they saw it in print versus on a screen. Neural brain mapping backs this up. In fact, the print exposed group showed significantly higher brain activity in the area that drives reward processing and desirability. Now that sounds like a marketers dream.

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