The Decode Marketing MD speaks about how direct mail engages multiple senses and how marketers must combine behavioural principles when crafting direct mail communication.

Read the whitepaper 'The attention advantage: Exploring the impact of mail in an attention-scarce world' here.

Headshot of Phil Barden

Phil Barden, Managing Director, Decode Marketing

There’s an emerging school of thought around attention as a better predictor of commercial outcomes, over impressions and opportunities. What is the behavioural slant on that?

It's quite weird for me, having spent over 10 years in the field of behavioural science, that it’s only in the last couple of years, that attention has received the attention that it merits. I've always been taught by my neuroscientist and psychologist colleagues that attention is the gateway to the brain; if you don't get into the brain, then nothing else happens.

People have been talking far more about emotion and engagement and they lose track of this first hurdle that you have to get over – if you don't pay attention to attention and learn some of the principles by which attention is attracted and directed, and what works and what doesn't work, you could miss a huge amount. Some hard and fast principles are universal and ingrained in us as a human race because they've evolved to help keep us alive on the planet. So I think attention is super important and it's ironic that marketers spend a lot of their time creating visual communication and don't pay attention to attention.

Considering some of those first hurdles and behavioural principles, and bearing in mind what you've written in the past about ‘cognitive load’, how can marketers define ‘meaningful attention’? How do you see different channels performing in that regard?

There is a lot to consider in terms of visual complexity. The brain always likes to keep things simple because it involves less cognitive effort.

The brain looks for what we call a ‘visual entry point’ into an execution. If there are too many things competing for attention, very often, the brain will give up. So even if we think that the execution we're creating is fun and engaging, the brain just wants to find a simple way in and a way to find what it's looking for, or what interests it. So, meaningful attention has to be behaviour-based. I think that's key – we have to work with behavioural data. Human eye tracking data or machine learning trained with human data are two examples.

In terms of those mental processes and how we can build or refresh memory structures for a brand, what do you see as the different strengths and weaknesses of direct mail, relative to the other channels?

As a medium, direct mail has particular characteristics that lend themselves perfectly to capitalising on a number of behavioural science principles. Firstly, there's the element of receptivity. So often, communication is intrusive – whether it's a ping as an email comes in or whether it's something trying to get our attention and intruding on whatever's going on in our brain at the time. It can be diverting and interesting but sometimes it can be frustrating and annoying. The thing with mail is that it's already integrated into your daily routine, so the brain is more prepared to receive it.

We are more receptive to something that fits in with our normal behaviour. So if the mail arrives at a certain time of the day, it's triggered by a letterbox sound or a thump on the doormat. The brain is already primed to receive that information. So it's more welcome than an unwanted intrusion.

Another factor to consider is how we pick up mail. Whether we're bending down to pick it up or pulling it from a letterbox, there is an action of pulling something towards us. This is called ‘approach behaviour’. We quite literally pull it towards us rather than push it away. Such a motor action creates positive affect in the brain.

Another advantage it has is the multisensory aspect; while other mediums can be visual, mail has the unique ability to combine the visual with haptic senses. There’s a combination of senses in receiving and opening that mail. Scientists call this ‘super additivity’ which activates multiple brain areas – activating more than one sense enhances the engagement with that particular medium. Also, it enhances the learning from that engagement as well as memory encoding and recall. The sense of touch brings with it another principle, embodied cognition.

Mail has different weights, different textures. All of these create meaning in the brain. For example, weight is correlated with perceived importance. If I interact with the object physically, this can trigger yet another behavioural science principle known as the ‘endowment effect’: we value things that we own, more than things that we don't. And that actually extends to touch as well.

So if you think about the journey that direct mail has, unless it's rejected immediately and discarded, it attracts our attention and we interact with it. Sometimes we will read it and deal with it. If we put it aside, we'll revisit it. So it actually has quite a long duration as a medium compared to other forms of communication. So I think there are some incredible advantages that direct mail has simply due to its physical nature and characteristics compared to any other medium.

Where do you think DM can complement other media well, either to compensate for its own gaps or the gaps of other media?

Adding to the super additivity effect is the ‘fluency effect’ which is the set of brain processes that are stimulated more easily if it's been exposed to those stimuli before. So, if you think about complementing direct mail with other media, if the person has been exposed to the same thing in a different medium, then you'll get this fluency effect. That can be very complementary because fluency is the ease with which the brain processes something, and ease of processing can lead to increased liking.. If a message is present in another medium, mail can work in a complementary way.

Are there particular points in the customer journey where direct mail is particularly well suited in terms of awareness, consideration, conversion and retention?

Journeys differ depending on the category, or particular times of the year. The brain is more or less receptive to certain information when it meets or does not meet a relevant goal. It's more a question of trying to find people and when they are most receptive. That might argue for a more regular or frequent contact just so you pick up that small percentage of people in the market at that point in time, but I think it can play many roles.

How can marketers apply more behavioural thinking to make their direct mail campaigns more effective?

I received a mail the other day that started off saying, “Dear Phil”, which was a good start because of personalisation. Your name is one of the first things you hear in life, and it is incredibly valuable and personal. But then it went on to say something like, “Thank you for the recent email/meeting/phone call” so it was clearly a ‘spray and pray’ approach. They hadn't even bothered to pick one of those, and then, of course, it's the kind of communication that’s just rejected out of hand. And I'm afraid there seem to be too many of those sorts of examples.

Where mailings are notable, it’s because they're more interactive. And by that, I mean, it might be more interesting to open something, to discover something, maybe something to play with, something amusing. Those lead the recipient to keep the mail for longer. Or mailings introducing a new fragrance where they've had a particular scent that's micro-encapsulated. And when you separate two bits of paper, the scent is released. This way, you engage the sense of smell as well as touch and vision. This means you get the super additivity effect and it's a bit more playful. I would certainly urge people to realise the huge advantages that a physical medium like direct mail has, based on behavioural science principles, and then to start experimenting with it and trying different things.