People are extremely task-focused on the Web. That means they are much less open to content that is not directly related to the task at hand.

I’ve just read a very interesting study entitled “Memory for advertising and information content: Comparing the printed page to the computer screen.” A key finding of the study is that, “print is consistently better for recall than screen — The central theme to emerge from this study is that individuals have a better ability to recall after viewing materials in print rather than on screen.”

This is not surprising. Various studies have found that it can be 20-30 percent more difficult to read from a screen than it is from print. The Web has thus become a very functional place. People get on the Web, not to vacation, but to find cheap flights and hotels for their vacation.

“Brand-name recall was substantially lower for screen respondents,” according to the study. Again, this is not surprising. Google has built a major business by selling advertising that relates directly to what people are searching for. There is not a single banner ad on Google, not a single graphic trying to enhance brand recognition. Google knows its audience. It knows what works and doesn’t work on the Web.

“Information content viewed on a screen is nearly as likely to be remembered correctly as the same content in print form,” the study finds. By “information content” the study means content that is genuinely useful to the reader; content that supports the task at hand.

The study goes on to state that, “It seems entirely reasonable to believe that the Internet will do a good job disseminating time-dependent or other important factual information about products and services.”

The Web is not a great place to win hearts and minds. It is not a great place to convince people to do something they did not come to the Web already intending to do. Traditional marketing techniques, such as brand name repetition and the use of images to communicate brand attributes, don’t work as well on the Web.

What works well on the Web is a useful website that wastes no time and gets straight to the point. Vague, meaningless marketing fluff such as “solve tomorrow’s challenges, today” are either ignored or else annoy. They just get in the way of people who want to do things.

The Web is changing the nature of memory and recall. The Web is becoming an extension of our memory. We no longer need to remember as much when we have search engines that can ‘remember’ for us.

That changes the nature of communication. Instead of drilling a message home, hoping that it will stick in memory, communicators now need to be ready to be found when people search. Web communications becomes more about responding to the information needs of people, rather than seeking to influence and shape those needs.

The Web is about empowered information consumers who know what they want, or at least know that they want to find out more. Do you know what your customers want when they come to your website?

Gerry McGovern

“Memory for advertising and information content: Comparing the printed page to the computer screen,” Psychology & Marketing (August 2005)

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