Essential Guide to Increasing your Response Rates - Part 6: The truth about colour and response rates

30-Jul-2009 17:22:31

Colour always increases your response rates. True or false?

99% of the direct mail industry believe this is true. But the reality is reversed. In the final episode of his series on raising response rates in direct mail, Tony Attwood shows why adding colour to your mailshot can often do more harm than good.

"It appears that under certain conditions, advertisers may realise double benefits by employing less costly black and white rather than colour advertising and simultaneously achie ve enhanced ad effectiveness."

Journal of Consumer Research. Vol 22 page 135.

The general belief is that colour is good - use full colour in an advert and the response rate goes up. The general belief is wrong - it is much more complex than that. Colour can help, but it also can destroy response rates. It all depends on what else is going on at the same time. If you don't want to read this whole article, then skip down to the heading. In conclusion - the four key issues and read that bit through. But if you really want to know what is going on then please do read on....

The definitive academic study on this is the article by Joan Meyers-Levy and Laura A Peracchio (from the universities of Chicago and Wisconsin respectively) which appeared in Journal of Consumer Research Volume 22. Practical studies which compare response rates with and without colour back up the academic findings, although it is the academic approach which has allowed us to develop the complete theory of colour, and predict what will and what won't work.

A typical scenario

To begin, here is one example which comes from the past week. Events like this happen to me regularly, and this event is by no means atypical.

Four years ago I wrote and designed an advert for a company which ever since worked fairly well. Not a sensational hit, but enough to make the company money. Over the years I suggested some changes and experimentation but by and large the company was happy and too busy to make the changes, and generally they did not feel the need to change. But then a along came a printer-designer who said - "you are wasting your time here. Whoever told you to work in one colour is an idiot. You need full colour. Everyone knows colour sells - spend some money with us and you'll be amazed at response rates."

And so that's what they did. Of course it cost the company three times as much to prepare and produce and the
advert - and as we predicted the sales collapsed to just 10% of their previous level. To make sure there is no misunderstanding here, the customer was getting around 1% sale rate with one colour, and this dropped to 0.1% response rate with full colour.

I have seen it happen many times, and have actually been on the receiving end of it myself, when two members of the publishing company that is part of the Hamilton House group, decided to change the adverts that the Creative Team had produced.

They went their own way with colour and much higher levels of design, and once again the results collapsed. It is a common phenomenon.

Why and how colour can destroy response rates

As Meyers-Levy and Peracchio point out early in their academic article, "Understanding the effects of colour" when readers of an advert have little motivation to read it, their attitude to the product will tend to be influenced by simple things such as the colour and the physical attractiveness of the presentation. So initially the unmotivated reader becomes more positive about the piece, and there is a more positive response from two or four colour than from single colour.

This is of course what designers and printers who push colour in all circumstances instinctively feel - the colour makes the advert more attractive. And indeed if the reader is unmotivated, then feels the advert is attractive because of colour, and then places an order, the colour should be enhancing the response rates.

But in most cases the sale process in direct mail does not work remotely like this. Firstly, we are not sitting in an unmotivated state, just waiting for something to happen. We are engaged in other things - our brain power is being used up elsewhere. Second, even if we are sitting there with nothing much happening in our brains, for most of us purchases are made only after we look more critically and extensively at the advertisement and its claims.

The Meyers-Levy article says, when we are "motivated to process an ad critically and extensively with an eye toward substantiating the ad's assertions, it appears that colour may have one or two effects." On the one hand colour can use up lots of brain power and that can once again make us feel good about the advert. "Alternatively, colour may undermine ad claim substantiation by usurping resources that would otherwise have been devoted to processing substantiating information."

In other words, at the moment we are looking to substantiate the claims of the advert so that we can move to a purchase, the colour uses up so much of the resources in the brain we are willing to give to the processing of this issue, that we feel too much is asked of us, and we simply stop and turn away.

In simple terms, if distractions are low and the reader feels a real need and desire to look at the advert, colour is a great boon - providing that we are willing to give the brain resources needed to decode the advert, and provided also we are not going to want to consider in any depth the claims made by the advert . The travel brochure is a perfect example - I want to go on holiday, I have gone out and got a brochure from the travel agent, and I sit down at home without distraction, totally focussed on finding the holiday of my dreams, and fairly sure that this is the country I want to go to. Colour then helps - as long as all this holds to the good. But if I am of a disbelieving mind - if I have been on holidays before where the promise of the brochure is not substantiated. Then the colour pictures can be a distraction, and I might turn to the Lonely Planet for a pure text discussion of the resort - without the unwanted distractions.

The disbelieving reader

So although the motivated reader might be helped to believe even more by colour, even a highly motivated reader can, on occasion, find colour too much. But much of the time we are not motivated, we are unmotivated. For the person at work surrounded by interruptions, receiving a cold mailshot through the post, motivation to read is very low and distractions are high. I am not ready to give over enough information to process the colour, and so I stop reading and junk the mailshot.

Everyday observation suggests high motivation to read mailshots is rare. We live in a world of ever increasing events - you will read elsewhere the suggestion that we now experience an incredible 3000 advertisements a day. Is it really possible that any of us is sitting around waiting for an advertisement to pop into our laps?

Of course it can happen. The gymnasium I attend has a waiting area, and if I come out of the changing rooms before my friends I will sit there and wait. In the changing area there is little to occupy my attention save the newspapers they have available to members. Unfortunately this normally means the Daily Mail, a newspaper I personally find unreadable. So I end up flipping through it in despair, and if I come to a colour advert it is possible I may pause for longer than I might otherwise.

But, I would contest boredom and frustration is hardly the basis on which to base an advertising campaign - especially in direct mail. The vast majority of your potential readers are not going to be sitting there desperate for anything to break the monotony. Text, illustrations and the motivation of the reader. However there is one more issue here - and that is the way in which the text and the
illustrations work together. Within this Factors section of the web site we shall be dealing with the issue of how illustrations affect advertisements when combined (as they invariably are) with text, as in such topics as Grabby Image Theory and Elaboration Likelihood Theory.

Images can distract from the message, and interfere with processing. But the research on colour cited here suggests that this interference can be reduced if the text not separated from the illustration. When text and illustration is separated, it is suggested, the extra brain resources needed to link the two factors together can lead to the reader giving up, or getting the wrong message totally.

Thus far - the four key issues

Pulling this together we can see that there are four issues here -

  • How many resources (that is how much brain power) the recipient of the advertisement is going to give to the advert
  • How many resources the advert demands that the recipient gives to the advert to make sense of the advert.
  • How believable is the claim of the advert. The more the reader has to work on the issue of considering the claim, the fewer resources there are to set aside for colour.
  • How well linked the image and the text are - the less the linking the more brain power is required to sort out the link, and the more likely it is that there is no available capacity left to handle colour images.

If the advertisement makes a high demand on brain power - for example by the use of colour - then there may not be enough resources left for the reader to turn the advert into something that is believable. This effect can be so strong that even when the reader is highly motivated to read the advert, the effect of the colour can reduce the reader's willingness to believe.

To put it another way, if the reader is highly motivated, and willing to believe (as for example where the reader has sought out a holiday brochure on a particular country, and wants to believe that it is a good place to go), then the colour will enhance the willingness to buy the holiday, because the motivation and resources are there.

But when the reader is not highly motivated to read, or when the reader is highly motivated but not already persuaded of the believability of the offer, then colour will get in the way, because it simply makes too many demands on the reader.

So, when doing a mailshot to committed readers - to people who believe in you, like you, have bought before, and are positive in their views towards you, then colour can work providing the offer is instantly believable. These people are motivated and believing, and they will put a lot of resources into reading the catalogue or brochure.

Likewise when mailing to unmotivated readers, those who have no interruptions, are willing to accept what you say, and are really happy to have something different to look at, colour can make the advertisement seem more interesting, because the brain power they are using thus far is quite limited. One might imagine perhaps a consumer mailing to people who spend all day at home, or who have a lot of free time on their hands and nothing much to do with it.

But when cold mailing businesses or schools, or when mailing an offer that is completely new and different, even to existing customers, you should use colour with extreme caution, and always experiment in terms of full colour (or indeed two colour) against one colour.

But what of the individual colours?

It is often reported that there is a link between behaviour and individual colour. If this is so then the use of colour - particularly spot colour - could be beneificial in certain circumstances. While we might still take note of the colour theory above, we might use the colour that increases appetite when selling food, the colour that generates a feeling of warmth in selling winter clothing etc.
Sadly, the amount of scientific verification of such colour effects is limited in the extreme - although that has not stopped the direct mail literature being filled with "scientists have discovered" type comments.

The general feeling among writers on the topic is that red, yellow and orange are higharousal colours, and blue, green and most violets are low-arousal colours. At the same time it is argued that the tone of the colour (its brilliance or lightness) can change the message you are delivering.. So we get the idea that a light blue-green of the tropical lagoon evokes tranquillity, while brilliant turquoise gives you the extra stimulating of the tropical ocean (or I suppose sea sickness).. Thus the idea comes about that colour induces psychological effects and feeling, and thus can be used to enhance the words that sell the product.

None of this means that colour on its own can increase the level of attention given to your mailshots - but rather that as long as you avoid using colour in a way that will put people off, and you avoid grabby image issues, some use of colour, even within an audience that does not want to know about your message, can help a little. What it does not mean is that colour increases readership, that colour adds to the level of remembrance or gives a more lasting impression overall. This last notion - that colour makes a mailshot more memorable is one that you will find often stated in articles (most particularly articles that don't give much in the way of explanation as to how the research was done.) Some such articles even quote a percentage increase in the amount that colour increases the ability to remember the piece. 39% is a figure that floats around.

But what is most likely happening here is that before we get to the colour effect people are splitting into two groups - those interested and those not. Those who are already disposed towards the advert might then remember it better because of the colour. But simultaneously the number of people disposed to the advert has declined because they were put off by the colour in the first place. So we might argue that in many cases colour can reduce the number of people who look at your advert for more than a second or two, but of those who do struggle on, more remember what they saw.

There are many other such pro-colour arguments which upon investigation turn out to be two edged. Take, for example, the often quoted comment from Leatrice Eiseman, Director of the Pantone Colour Institute: “Memory retention studies tell us that consumers are up to 78% more likely to remember a word or phrase printed in colour than in black and white. The human eye is drawn to colour. Colour activates the right brain, while the printed word activates the left brain. When colour is combined with the written word, it impacts consumers with the triple whammy of greater recall, recognition and attention.”

Such an argument would seem to challenge all that I am saying here, and contradict all the academic research above. But, the argument is full of holes. "Memory retention studies" are not some universal thing that can be cited in this way. There are three major memories in people - very short term, short term, and long term. Each works in utterly different ways. Short term, for example, does indeed remember the actual event, the actual words, the actual colour. The long term memory however is based on meaning.

So if we are talking about short term memory here, then yes, putting a word suddenly in colour amidst black text will make that word more memorable - but it does not necessarily make the whole concept move into the long term memory - unless it is to remember "that strange advert in which one word suddenly popped up in red".

Designers have been trying the trick of changing colour or font size within texts for years - and the problem is that no one is reporting any real impact on response rates - just getting the eye to jump to a particular phrase or word does not of itself make people respond more readily to direct mail. Likewise it is true that the human eye is drawn to colour. When we see a wasp, what we
actually see is yellow and black, and take our hand away. Black on yellow attracts our attention - which is why printing black text on yellow can work really well as an attention grabber. But the text then has to do its job - and it is the text that will then provide the greater recall - not the colour.

So in one sense the Pantone argument is correct - colour and text can combine in the yellow and black example - but the notion that this one off example can be generalised outwards remains unproven. For me the answer remains the same - beware of assertions, study the facts, and the facts seem to suggest that colour is not the answer to everyone's prayers.

This article was written by Tony Attwood of Hamilton House Mailings plc. If you would like Tony to comment on your latest direct mail shot, without charge and without obligation,
please call 01536 399 000 or simply email a copy of your piece to with a note saying “please review”. Please also give your phone number so Tony can call you back.

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Topics: Direct Mail