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Frequency's Second Chance
By Erwin Ephron

In the early years of Television, advertising was thought to work the way teaching did - through frequent repetition.

In the early years of Television, advertising was thought to work the way teaching did - through frequent repetition.

This assumption was given voice by Herb Krugman of General Electric with his early work on how consumers process information. Krugman identified three sequential stages in our interaction with ads: First Curiosity or What is it? Then Consideration or What of it? And finally, Recognition, it's that same ad again!

Effective Frequency

Agencies used the Krugman model in TV planning by turning it into "Effective Frequency," the idea that an ad message requires at least three exposures, close in time, to be effective.

As a result, from that point in the mid-1950s to the early 1990s frequency was king. Most major advertisers ran intermittent flights of heavy advertising to reach large numbers of consumers three or more times.

Then Came Reach

In the 1990's things suddenly changed. Single-source panel data, found that one exposure to a brand message in the week preceding a purchase had a far greater effect on brand share than additional exposures did. That clearly said frequency was waste.

Over the next several years the industry adjusted to this new thinking. Campaigns planned for continuous short interval reach at minimum frequency - described as "Recency Planning" - became the standard.

And that is where we are; creating plans that value reach and avoid frequency.

A Probability >1

Today that thinking is flawed. Audience exposure to an ad is no longer a given; it's a probability of less than one. With multi-tasking and commercial avoidance, a large part of a program's reported audience will not see the advertiser's message. That means it will often take more than a single exposure to reach a consumer with an ad. And that calls for frequency.

The Value of Frequency

An example: If a schedule has a reported audience of 1,000,000 and a 65% probability of the ad being seen, the true advertising audience is 650,000.

That adjustment is so simple it's tempting to also reduce the schedule's reach, which is a 50, by 35% and call it a 33. But 33 understates the ad reach because it ignores the value of frequency in giving viewers more opportunities to see the advertising.

With a second exposure, 65% of the viewers that did not see the ad the first time will now see it, bringing the ad reach up to a 44. And these reach additions will continue with the higher frequency groups.1

As we move from the ambiguous audience measure we call "Opportunity to See" to a more specific count of people seeing advertising, the role of frequency in building an advertising audience becomes obvious - and should make planning for reach easier.

Because there are light and heavy users of all media, try as we may, it's near impossible to buy reach without getting some frequency with those dollars.

The good news is that's a benefit, not a cost.


1 The final reach number will depend upon the frequency distribution of the audience; the higher the frequency, the higher the reach.


Erwin Ephron is an authority on advertising and the father of "recency planning." His fresh ideas about how ads work today have changed the way campaigns are planned throughout the world. Erwin

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