Digital vs. Print: What science says about memory, emotional impact, comprehension and persuasion

Digital documentation offers certain advantages it would be silly to deny. In fact, it’s wise to back up all your valued documents to the cloud, from tax returns to cherished family photos. Print (or analog) documents, books and other collateral will admittedly never compete on convenience and ease of distribution. Printed materials, however, provide several compelling advantages over digital media.

In a recent Forbes article, behavioral scientist Roger Dooley stated, “Rather than an all-digital world, it appears that a multi-channel approach that leverages the unique benefits of paper with the convenience and accessibility of digital will perform best.”

Studies published by Temple University neuroscience research firm True Impact and other research institutions suggest that printed marketing materials tend to outperform digital along several key dimensions. These include reading comprehension, recall, emotional impact and persuasiveness.

A sense of the advantages and disadvantages analog and digital have relative to one another will help you save money and build your firm’s reputation. Often, you’ll want to use both. Below we’ll discuss some of the advantages specific to printed media.


I. ENJOYMENT and LEISURE

In the digital realm, e-readers have benefitted readers by granting them the ability to carry an entire personal library full of books wherever they go.

However, in recent years, more and more readers have flocked back to printed books. However, many readers have found that this convenience simply doesn’t outweigh the tactile experience that comes with the weight, feel and scent of paper. And printed materials don’t cause the sleep disturbances that can result from reading backlit screens before bedtime.

Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey on American reading preferences. Their findings:

  • 39% or respondents said they read only print books.
  • 29% said they read both digital and print books.
  • Just 7% responded that they exclusively consume books in a digital format.

When broken down, these statistics remained remarkably similar across all age groups.

From a personal enjoyment and leisure standpoint, most readers clearly prefer printed materials.

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“For me, picking up a physical book erects a psychological separation from the digital world,” states Ozan Varol, a rocket scientist turned author and law professor. ”Reading a book on an e-reader makes it all too tempting to be swayed by distractions screaming their 100-decibel sirens for attention.”

One result of this has been a dramatic resurgence of independent bookstores, which NPR has reported on extensively. Indie bookstores made a surprisingly quick comeback not long after the launch of the Amazon Kindle, filling market gaps left when big-box retailers imploded. These retailers create a sense of connection for book lovers and passionate employees, who provide valuable reading recommendations that internet algorithms can’t. (Plus, the scent and texture books are just irreplaceable!)

II. MEMORY

Multiple studies have linked printed materials to better retention of information compared to digital media. In 2016, researchers from the University of Maryland published their findings on this topic in The Journal of Experimental Education.

Neuroscience suggests that printed marketing materials tend to outperform digital when it comes to reading comprehension, recall, emotional impact and persuasiveness.

The researchers first asked college students which medium they preferred to use for studying, and which they felt offered them the best recall. Students overwhelmingly chose digital content for both responses. However, when they were tested on their actual retention of information, the results demonstrated that these student clearly had better recall after reading printed materials.

Meanwhile, others have suggested that some of the conveniences offered by digital formats — including links to further information — ultimately serve to distract from the actual content.

A Personal Experience

Varol and others have noted that the overall emotional experience of reading digitally vs. traditionally is completely different. Ebooks are more or less uniform in terms of background, font, and the tactile experience.

On the contrary, Varol notes, “Each physical book... comes with its own story—the story of the bookstore where I bought the book, the story of the wine stain on page 33, and the story of the notes I scribbled on the margins while carrying on an imaginary conversation. These stories add a melody to the words, engaging senses that otherwise remain dormant while reading an ebook.”

In short, print materials can capture human minds and pull heartstrings in ways that can further enhance retention and emotional engagement.

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We’ll get to work on an elevated, more personalized image for your firm.

III. READING COMPREHENSION

Anne Mangen, Ph.D., is a professor at the Reading Center at the University of Stavanger, Norway, and a renowned researcher on the topic of digital vs. print media. When examining differences in comprehension, she found that participants better understood complex content when reading in a printed format.

Fast Company reported on one of Mangen’s studies in which participants read a 28-page story. One group read on a Kindle, and another read a printed booklet. According to Mangen, “Those who had read the print pocketbook gave more correct responses to questions having to do with time, temporality, and chronology...than those who had read on a Kindle.”

Both length and density of information play a role in comprehension as well, add Mangen. This means the layout and presentation of the content can be critical.

Branding

A recent Forbes article echoed these finding when it comes to marketing materials, stating that, “In addition to exploiting the customer's senses, paper may also be more effective for communicating detailed information. While most ads are designed to avoid any hint of information overload, sometimes a B2B sales effort may involve important documentation to ensure the customer needs are met. Providing this information in paper format may increase the customer's comprehension and recall.”

While digital media allow businesses greater reach, printed materials are in some cases more effective at enticing prospects to take action, enhancing recall of a brand, or conveying value.

The same study noted that print ads may result in better engagement and follow through. Functional MRIs (fMRIs) have shown that paper advertising activated the ventral striatum area of the brain, an “indicator of desire and valuation,” to a greater extent than digital ads.

Another study conducted by Bangor University and branding agency Millward Brown went a step further, revealing that “Physical material involves more emotional processing, which is important for memory and brand associations,” and that it can have a positive effect on the “internalization” of advertising.

CONCLUSION:

For various reasons, it may be optimal to distribute and read less complex materials—including simple how-to guides, marketing collateral, short fiction and some kinds of professional documentation—solely through digital channels. That said, studies have found improved comprehension and recall when content is consumed in a printed/analog format.

For professional services firms, a mix of formats is optimal. While digital media allow businesses greater reach, printed materials are in some cases more effective at enticing prospects to take action, enhancing recall of a brand, or conveying the value of a complex offerings.

At Lockhart, we help CPAs and other financial professionals retain high-value clients by elevating their image so people will perceive their true value as trusted advisors.

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March 20, 2019