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The "Magic of Three" Disputed

Gerard Broussard and Jim Dravillas
The "Magic of Three" Disputed Gerard Broussard and Jim Dravillas

Media planners looking for advances in the century-old concept of effective frequency are in for a treat. During the past few years, new life has been breathed into this traditional approach to media scheduling. And, ironically, a new medium -- the internet -- has been used as a laboratory of learning for uncovering how to schedule advertising frequency more effectively and improve client media ROI up to 15 percent.

The concept of effective frequency is simple: Too much advertising repetition leads to overkill and waste; too little and no results. Smart media planners already know that broad-stroke magic numbers, such as three ad exposures to build awareness and one for high repeat-purchase packaged goods, serve as general guidelines in the absence of information specific to their brands. The reality is they rarely, if ever, know what the “real” magic frequency number is for individual products and services. 

The answer to media planners’ dilemma is single-source information that directly connects advertising exposure to advertising response. We currently live in a world where advertising plans are implemented and monitored with separate sets of numbers: one set describes target audience reach in the planning phase while other sources provide awareness and response information for results evaluation. But the internet offers a view of the world rarely seen -- one that directly connects advertising exposure and response.

Cookies linked to online ad-serving data allow brand surveys, website leads, and online sales to be tied back to the number of exposures received by each consumer. This environment makes it possible to produce real thresholds of repetition for ad effectiveness. Brand by brand, “real” magic numbers can now be determined on the web.

This frequency renaissance need not be isolated to online advertising. There’s great opportunity to extend this capability to offline media, creating single-source panels for TV, print, radio and other media. Using these panels to re-examine traditional media’s use of blunt frequency planning goals has the potential to produce tremendous impact to advertisers’ bottom lines. Imagine the gains in media ROI that could be achieved by fine tuning offline media schedules, which collectively account for more than 90 percent of an advertiser’s budget? Can the 15 percent incremental gains in online performance from frequency adjustment be translated to the response generated by TV and print? 

From “The Magic Number Three” to a breakthrough

To understand where the advancements gleaned from the web have taken us, we must first understand where we’ve been. The use of frequency to plan media has its roots in cognitive research. In the late 1800s, Herman Ebbinghaus built the world’s first frequency-anchored learning curve based on peoples’ ability to remember nonsense syllables through repetition. Seventy years later, this learning curve was adapted to advertising repetition when Paul Krugman’s work in the 1960s and 1970s materialized the earliest manifestation of a magic number for effective advertising.

The magic number of three repetitions was adopted as a rule of thumb for ad effectiveness. But savvy media planners knew that the “real” number depended on individual brand campaign DNA, including creative strength, message complexity, market share and competitive pressure, to name a few. And since no permanent single-source dataset existed to capture advertising exposure and individual response, media planners did not know how ad frequency worked to move awareness and/or sales metrics for their specific brands.

Then a breakthrough came. In the 1990s, John Philip Jones, a Syracuse University Professor, tied ad frequency directly to sales, using experimental Nielsen Homescan single-source data that combined campaign TV exposure and purchase behavior. Turning the magic number of three on its head, Jones found that one exposure, within a week of a purchase decision, was enough to influence a consumer to buy a particular product. From this finding, Jones and Erwin Ephron hatched the Recency media planning theory, which emphasized spreading advertising weight across a greater number of people at relatively low frequency levels.

There’s no doubt that Recency advanced the art of media planning. But the Jones analysis was based on packaged goods campaigns and prompted many planners to scratch their heads about applying Recency principles to high involvement, highly considered purchase items such as cars, financial products and technology. Without a consistent set of single-source data, how would they fill this gap?

Ad frequency learning on the web: tuning up the ROI

Breakthrough learning about ad frequency is alive and well on the internet in a single-source environment. Taking advantage of online advertising’s unique ability to link ad exposure and individual response, we have seen an emerging pattern of frequency-based consumer response to online media. We have used this learning to help clients get greater effectiveness out of online scheduling strategies. Time and again, for financial products, for technology purchases, for pharmaceutical products and for others, frequency has shown itself to be a contributing factor in improving brand scores, generating leads and delivering sales.

Branding and ad frequency

We have conducted scores of online surveys that link respondents’ brand perceptions directly to their number of online exposures to an ad campaign (see chart A). In every instance, multiple exposures have resulted in boosting brand metrics. 

Industry norms, such as those provided by online research company Dynamic Logic, have indicated the four-plus advertising level for maximizing brand lift. However, our studies found that the optimal number for a specific campaign ranges anywhere from three to seven exposures, depending on the client’s business category, campaign elements, baseline scores, et cetera. Effective frequency levels are uncovered through special analysis for many client brands. This allows planners to set appropriate frequency goals by client instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach.

Chart A

Source: Composite of mOne Online Brand Studies

Ad frequency and direct response: lead generation

We have also measured the direct impact of frequency on lead generation. In one custom analysis of single-source ad-serving and log file data, we examined the relationship between frequency and the likelihood to sign-up for an online financial service. Our hypothesis, informed partly by Recency theory, told us that people would be more likely to react to ads after seeing one or two executions, with the response rate quickly going downhill thereafter. But data from the custom analysis showed something never empirically demonstrated before: Response steadily improved from the first to the fourth exposure, and then declined afterwards (see chart B). This turn-of-the-cards insight proved to be invaluable for planning effective ad frequency.

Chart B

Source: mOne proprietary analysis

Based on the findings of the detailed response analysis, we developed and implemented an elaborate ad delivery model to maximize the number of people exposed four times to the client’s advertising campaign while reducing the overkill against those that would potentially see 20 or more ads. In a head-to-head, in-market test, the new delivery model sent more messages to the lightly exposed and reduced ad waste among heavy media consumers. 

The result: 15 percent more leads than the traditional model that used no controls for ad frequency (see chart C).

Chart C

Ad frequency and sales

Ad frequency can also be directly linked to sales, as was the case with a pharmaceutical advertiser running an internet-only campaign. Online surveying showed that a four-plus frequency was key in moving intent to discuss the product with a physician, a crucial campaign goal.

A follow-up analysis went a step further than brand metrics. The evaluation correlated daily sales figures for the product with ad frequency and found that sales were highly related to the number of people exposed four or more times to the campaign (see chart D). Using a frequency-optimized method of ad delivery, the client could have achieved an incremental $500,000 in sales for the same campaign. 

The findings were critical for establishing online frequency objectives to maximize sales results in future advertising flights. These results clearly suggest that more repetition is needed for high-consideration purchases (pharmaceutical category) than for lower-involvement products like packaged goods, where Jones and Ephron found one ad exposure to be the order of the day.

Chart D

Spreading the word to offline media

Our analyses have demonstrated some surprise lessons regarding effective ad frequency, and these insights were consistently fed back into the media planning process for results improvement. The internet’s single-source electronic tracking capability made this work possible. We strongly recommend extending this capability to the larger-budgeted offline media world so that TV, magazine and radio ad frequency scheduling can be tuned to enhance advertising ROI.

The single-source opportunity will likely develop in offline media through two avenues:

• Digital media evolution -- In the TV world, proliferation of digital set-top boxes hold the promise of directly linking advertising activity to advertising results. Digital signal penetration is currently about 30 percent of U.S. homes, however, interactive program and commercial offerings are still in the nascent stages.

• Research measurement techniques – There’s a big industry push to create measurement systems that collect both media exposure and product usage data. Most notable among the efforts is Project Apollo, a venture that teams up Nielsen and Arbitron to combine TV, radio and print exposure with product usage scanner data in AC Nielsen panel households. Arbitron’s passive meter, a portable device that recognizes radio and TV audio signals, will play a key role in media data collection. 

While these prospects are still somewhat off in the horizon, we encourage the speedier evolution of these single-source products. Given the benefits shown to online advertisers, we look forward to a world where traditional media analysis will one day afford a true look at effective frequency on a brand-by-brand basis. The incremental gains to be reaped from optimizing TV and print frequency could be monumental. By continuing the journey of learning in a lab known as the internet, it’s possible to translate the sweet spot of ad frequency into media ROI gains for clients.

Additional resources:

Gerard Broussard participated in an iMedia Brand Summit panel discussion on marketing mix modeling. Read the transcripts here.

Read David Smith's evaluation of the Project Apollo Project.

Gerard Broussard is senior partner/director of media analytics and Jim Dravillas is partner/senior strategist, mOne Worldwide, New York.

Remember business goals still matter

Call it a strategic hazard. With the rise of content marketing, brands and agencies have come to see themselves as content producers. In fact, the "think like a publisher" mantra has become something of a battle cry for many digital marketers. But while some have questioned the merits of that strategy, others say the real trick is to remember your advertising roots, which means you can't ignore business goals.

"Some clients seem to think that front-end engagement is in itself an indication of success," says Dave Martin, SVP of media at Ignited. "In general you'll see views and clicks and other engagement metrics pop when you create an engaging piece of content. But because the content itself isn't an ad, and therefore doesn't have the same brand impact that a well-crafted ad might have, front-end metrics are not enough."

In other words, that YouTube video your team just posted may have gotten a ton of views, but it's not a success unless it drives an actual business goal. But unlike a TV spot that may have reached a wide audience, the trap with digital is that it's often very easy to mistake views for success.

"It's more critical with content marketing that you take a deeper look at what happened after the initial engagement," says Martin.

Check your social stats, but don't live and die by them

While there's no one measure of content marketing success, Gian LaVecchia, managing partner for digital content marketing at MEC, says you'd be hard-pressed to find a worthwhile content marketing campaign that didn't include many of the benchmark metrics we commonly associate with social.

"The most successful content marketers understand that the performance thrives at the intersection of social discovery and engagement," says LaVecchia. "That said, some of the most important success indicators fall within the realm of social engagement metrics -- sharing comments, likes, favorites, and retweets."

What is often harder to do, according to LaVecchia, is for a brand to translate those "soft metrics" into KPIs that a CMO can use. It is, after all, one thing to point to a spike in retweets for your brand, and something else entirely to say that those retweets drove a corresponding spike in sales. On the other hand, not every piece of branded content is going to correlate to a business goal.

To illustrate that tension between a specific business goal and engagement for the sake of increasing brand equity, LaVecchia points to a recent tweet by Ben & Jerry's commenting on Colorado's decision to legalize marijuana. The tweet registered more than 10,000 retweets and several thousand favorites -- clearly a lot of love, especially for a brand account -- but putting a meaningful business figure on what all that means is complex, bordering on impossible.

"Of course, the volume of social engagements was exceptional but more importantly, Ben & Jerry's elegantly tapped into one of the most significant news and cultural events in the U.S. while remaining true to the core tenants of the brand and its audience," says LaVecchia. "Obviously, the impact of that cultural immersion is significant and cannot be measured through traditional diagnostics, [but] the impact on long-term brand perceptions and favorability is real and cannot be ignored."

Does it resonate emotionally?

At its core, advertising is about making an emotional connection with the consumer. But if you're using content marketing, you need to find some way to gauge the emotional resonance of your message, says Tom Lorenzo, executive creative director of Situation Interactive.

"At some level, it's just [about] someone being exposed to our message," says Lorenzo. "It's the same as a print ad, but the difference is it's a much deeper impression because content marketing allows us to use storytelling to make a strong emotional connection with our audience."

That means brands need to be asking if their content is resonating emotionally. But, according to Lorenzo, that isn't necessarily the same thing as tracking how many people saw your message or shared it. Unfortunately, focus groups and tests only take you so far when determining emotional resonance. At some point, marketers need to trust their creative instincts and honestly ask themselves if their content is emotionally resonant.

Quality counts

We live in a data-driven world, and whether we like it or not the trend toward quantifying anything and everything will most likely continue. But a serious commitment to content marketing means that brands can't just look at the numbers, according to Chris Younger, principal and VP of strategy for Ayzenberg Group.

"The quantitative measure of content is the immediate, the qualitative is the lasting effect," says Younger. "That's why we remember the Old Spice 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' ads from a few years ago and not a banner ad you saw in the past."

Of course, quality is highly subjective and therefore difficult to reduce to data. After a campaign launches, marketers can and should use social metrics like comments, shares, and likes as proxies for quality. But making quality material -- whether it's a plain old ad or content marketing -- requires something of a judgment call, according to Younger, who says marketers need to ask if the material delivers a satisfying experience.

But a satisfying experience shouldn't be the end of the analysis. How content marketers often fail, according to Younger, is by making a series of assumptions after they've determined that they have quality content to publish.

First, says Younger, marketers incorrectly assume that everyone will see their content if it's good and available on a popular platform.

"Discoverability is still a big challenge," says Younger. "Just because you place it on YouTube doesn't mean everyone is waiting to see it."

Second, brands make the mistake of preaching to the choir. The content may be good, but if it only resonates with the brand's diehard fans, there won't be much marketing traction. So while positive comments are good, brands need to make sure those comments are coming from new voices if they want to grow their presence.

Lastly, good content isn't necessarily the same thing as the right content.

"A lot of content is being produced by brands, and a lot of it says nothing about the brand," says Younger. "It's almost as if the idea is that any content is good content."

That means that while the content itself might be successful by numerous measures, it will fail if it doesn't align with a larger strategy.

Consider the channel

When we talk about content marketing, we're really talking about a pretty diverse universe of material. At one end of the spectrum we have text-based content like blog posts and tweets. But there's also graphic content, which is especially popular and powerful on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. And of course, there's the granddaddy of content marketing -- video, which proliferates on YouTube and runs the gamut from quick viral hits to long-form narratives. Initially, content marketing was about maximizing eyeballs on these and other platforms, but increasingly the benchmarks for success are about costs, says Chris Ferguson, executive creative director of Tribal Worldwide.

"Content marketing has been measured by views, with the primary goal being brand awareness and affinity," says Ferguson. "But I think that has changed. More and more content marketing is measured on a cost-per-action or cost-per-engagement basis using metrics that are specific to the content and where it's placed."

By way of example, Ferguson points to a hypothetical video series on a platform like YouTube. In the past, it would have been sufficient to tally up the total number of views within a specific timeframe; if the view count was high, the campaign would be a success. But increasingly Ferguson says brands want to know how many people are going from one video to the next and what it costs to drive each one of those people across the series.

Success is a spectrum, not a destination

Talk to a group of marketers about content marketing and pretty quickly you'll hear someone mention Red Bull. When it comes to content marketing, Red Bull is pretty much the brand to beat. But what marketers sometimes fail to appreciate about Red Bull is that the brand isn't just about one-off stunts like "Stratos." Furthermore, the idea to skydive from space didn't just happen the day the brand decided to get into content marketing.

"I don't know anyone who did something once and was an expert at it," says Lisa Barone, VP of strategy at Overit. "I also don't know anyone who sent one tweet and found themselves an immediate following. Content marketing isn't a shortcut or a single blog post. It's an investment and it takes time to find what works and build the audience you need to spread your content."

In other words, success is something you build on, and a successful campaign is one that also gives you valuable lessons for the next go around.

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Young female doctor holding measuring tape and apple" image via Shutterstock.


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