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Print vs. digital media: What does the research say?

  • Article written by Dakota Murphey

    The debate between print and digital media has been raging for many years.

    Whether you work in marketing, advertising, publishing, education, or pretty much any other profession, you will probably know all about it, and will likely have questioned whether printed or digital forms of media are best suited to your specific needs.

    If you’re a teacher, for example, you may wonder whether teaching your students with tablets is better than the traditional paper-and-pen approach. Or, if you’re a marketer, you might ask yourself whether an online social media campaign will offer a better return on investment over bespoke-designed leaflets or direct mail.

    Here we answer both these questions and more, taking a look at the research, surveys and studies that have gone before.

    Security: Print media is safer, more secure and more trusted.

    One of the biggest questions surrounding the print vs. digital debate is which type of media is safer and more secure to use. Both have their various benefits after all; print media is an actual physical format you can literally hang on to, whereas digital media can be encrypted and easily replicated. Digital is also cheaper to produce and, typically, easier to store.

    According to a recent Two Sides survey by Toluna however, eight out of ten people actually resist this trend, keeping hard copies of important documents at home. This is because they believe it’s the most secure way of storing information. Moreover, 76% of the survey’s respondents were said to be concerned that electronically-held personal information was at a greater risk of being hacked, stolen, lost or damaged.

    You don’t have to look too hard to understand why people feel this way. Over recent years and mainly since the internet has become increasingly embedded in society, a number of high-profile scandals have emerged. From 2017’s Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal to 2013’s NSA-Edward Snowden outcry, people’s personal information has been being shared without their permission, leaving many feeling disdain and distrust towards the internet and digital-based media.

    While this may not solely relate to the digital vs. print debate, from a marketer’s perspective, it’s important to realise that not everyone trusts the internet. Research shows that many people get ‘frustrated’ by the adverts that constantly pop up while browsing, and users don’t appreciate their personal information being used to target adverts at them. They feel like they’re being spied on, and that it’s a huge invasion of their privacy.

    It’s no surprise then that print media is much more widely trusted than digital. It’s also safer and, since it’s invulnerable to the ever-increasing risk of cyber-attacks, more secure as well. Digital may have its merits but, when it comes to security, print seems to win out – at this moment in time.

    Science: Our brains better retain print media information

    With the rise of digital communication, our way of consuming information may have changed – but has it been for the better? Let’s take a look at some scientific, neurological studies which have looked at answering exactly that.

    Canada Post

    Back in 2015, a group of Canadian researchers looked into the neuroscience behind how people respond to direct mail and digital media. Using electroencephalography and eye tracking to check the response of 270 participants, the team found that direct mail was much easier to understand and more memorable than digital media, requiring 21% less cognitive effort to process. As such, respondents were found to process the information much more quickly, suggesting that direct mail gets the message across a lot faster.

    Temple University

    Another piece of research from 2015, Temple University’s USPS collaborative study looked at how humans responded to digital and printed adverts. Using eye tracking, core biometrics (heart rate, sweat, respiration, etc.) and fMRI (to image brain activity) to monitor patients, the team found that, while most participants processed digital content more quickly, they didn’t retain it or have as strong an emotional response to it as they did with printed media.

    What’s more, physical adverts were found to trigger activity in the ventral striatum – an area of the brain responsible for value and desirability towards products. Therefore, printed media signalled a greater intent from participants to purchase what they were being advertised.

    University of California

    In 2010, the University of California Irvine’s iMedEd program gave tablets to that year’s influx of medical students, using them as an education tool throughout the program. Four-years later, they collected the student’s grade scores and compared them against previous years – students who had been taught without tablets but had comparable GPA and MCAT scores going in.

    The results of the research found that teaching with tablets meant students scored 23% higher on their grades over old-fashioned teaching methods. What’s more, the researchers concluded by saying that digital media was more effective at teaching and better resonated with a younger audience than print media did.

    Future: Digital may continue to grow, but print will still thrive.

    Interestingly, despite printed media being more secure, more trusted and more likely to lead to a sale or conversion, it is still widely believed to be dying out; no longer needed in today’s modernity.

    However, looking at the research, that doesn’t seem to be true. While print media has seen a fairly substantial decline in the amount spent on it, it is still a multi-billion-pound industry. In fact, the UK is the fifth largest producer of print media across the planet, and currently has an approximate £14 billion turnover. That figure doesn’t sound like a dying out number to me.

    Therefore, looking towards the future, it seems that there is a place for both digital and printed media. Digital media may continue to grow as technology advances but, since consumers currently appear to prefer and trust printed media, it definitely won’t be killed off completely any time soon – in fact, I’d be surprised if it ever is.

    Dakota Murphey has a wealth of experience in business management and has previously worked as a business growth consultant for over 10 years. She now enjoys sharing her knowledge through her writing and connecting with other like-minded professionals. Find out what else she's been up to on Twitter: @Dakota_Murphey

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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