Marketing and Research Consulting for a Brave New World
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It is said that the typical consumer is exposed to thousands of advertising messages in a day.  A typical supermarket carries 40,000 products where only 400 are bought over the course of a year by the average shopper.  Across business and personal e-mail, you might get hundreds of e-mails in a day.  The only way we survive this demand for our attention without our heads exploding is by having a relevance filter.  It has become a relevance world.

Then I started to think, if it’s about relevance it can’t be about reach and frequency.  One of the most basic concepts in media planning and buying is past its “sell by” date in digital media.

The basic concept behind reach and frequency planning is that you have finite media resources and it takes a certain number of impressions to have an impact (1or 2 if you are focused on recency thinking; maybe 3-5 if you think you are teaching someone a new message) where more than that leads to waste.  Hence, beyond that “optimal frequency” where diminishing returns would set in, you ensure your dollars are buying reach.  The problem with this thinking is that in digital media and in stores, messages are pullable by people on their terms based on what is relevant to them.  Also, consumers can generate brand messages via sharing which cost you nothing. Certainly an experiment can be designed to prove that  in a digital and social media world, consumers define optimal frequency not you the marketer.

If I am getting serious about buying a car, I might search 15 times for something that is auto related.  Doesn’t the auto marketer want to be prominent in those results each time?  If I go to websites to compare autos and to configure a car, don’t you want to deliver a message each time?  As I do other stuff online, wouldn’t it make sense to serve up advertising that is relevant to what I also happen to be shopping for?  If I retweet an article via ShareThis on environmentally friendly cars, doesn’t that tell you a lot about me especially if you are in the “green car” business?

Think about fans to a Facebook page for a given brand.  This is the ultimate in “frequency capping doesn’t matter” thinking.  14 million or so like the Coca-Cola Facebook page which is probably a small percentage of those who drink Coke among those on Facebook.  Yet in a given day, fans post hundreds of comments on the wall.  Low reach, huge frequency but no one is capping how many messages are allowed in a day.  In this context, we don’t think about frequency we think about engagement…building a fan base that represents a brand runway that Coke has created.

When you have a pullable medium, meaning I can seek out the brand messages, rather than them seeking me out, like the fabric of digital touchpoints represents, relevance and availability become more important concepts than frequency.  Serve as many digital messages that are relevant as you can that either you or fans create.  That is what the digital opportunity is about for marketers…consumer requested and consumer-generated content in relevant ways.

Acknowledgement: I thank Craig McDonald, CMO for Covario, for this blog as the phrase “reach and relevance not reach and frequency” came out during our recent lunch conversation in New York.

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4 Responses to “Hey media planners: it’s about relevant messages and plenty of them”

  1. Josh Chasin

    Hey Joel. Interesting you argue for higher frequency in a relevance concept. I’ve argued that since relevance is pliable (e.g. place in purchase cycle can move a message in and out of relevance) that lower frequencies will work– if the impression hits in the window of relevance.

  2. joel rubinson

    I suspect that both statements have truth. lower freq will have more effect if the message is delivered at the right time, right person, right place, etc. and the response curve to frequency will be much more linear. for example,
    general ad effect = a*(F^.5)
    target ad effect =2*a*(F^.8)

  3. Hey Joel,
    Missed your almost feverish activities on Twitter, glad you are back. Good point! Traditional audience research seems to be a dead art by now. The instruments of reach and frequency are less suitable in these times of social media. Relevance, trust and engagement seem to be better concepts.

    Relevance in terms of where you are in the buying process. Now that consumers go through that process almost completely online, it is easier to become relevant (time, place, etc.) and fewer contacts are needed.
    Trust now has a social dimension. With the decrease of trust in traditional anchor media and the increase in trust in what your “friends” on social networks say and do, brand campaigns have become a different ballgame. The social network contacts and closeness of these contacts determine more and more trust in brands and products.
    And the last one is engagement. Engagement is the level of positive arousal of a medium or message. It generates a learning state in which content gets accross and can leave a permanent trace in the mind. It is also a driving force in virals and stimulates consumers to share and repeat contacts.

    To wrap up, traditional mediaplanning with reach and frequency is essentially static: as if the real world is frozen.
    Digital mediaplanning is dynamic. It is looking at the world as a fluid process and tries to understand and act upon consumers as changing actors.
    That is a completely different concept! Reach and frequency in itself are not wrong, but they are missing the point.

  4. Hi Joel, thanks for your post and I agree with a little addition. First of all, about seven years ago I presented at a conference stating that relevance would be the future of advertising. I was wrong as a year after this presentation engagement was the new new. But at least we’re looking for metrics that go beyond stating “if twice isn’t impactful, maybe we need four exposures”.

    The addition is that for paid media the costs for the advertiser are still based on the number of delivered exposures (or sometimes clicks). This means that delivering four exposures is simply twice as expensive than delivering two. Basically the same model as direct mail, to reach me once you need one stamp and to reach me twice you need two stamps. In such a paid media world frequency so clearly relates to money that advertisers do need to understand diminishing returns and frequencies.

    Final note, I don’t believe in too generic rules about frequencies (the good old 3+ for television). Instead diminishing returns should be looked at specifically in relation with the campaign, creative, objectives, etc.