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The FAQ on Frequency Caps

  |  April 7, 2011   |  Comments

Are numerous impressions a necessity?

Over the years, the industry's stance on frequency capping has vacillated dramatically. Planners used to set low caps, thinking that limiting ad exposure would produce more clicks. Since then, the thinking has shifted: many marketers are now of the mindset that numerous impressions are a necessity.

In part, it's a question of clutter. A glut of inventory leads marketers to assume banners simply aren't registering with consumers. But research shows this isn't necessarily so. Late last year, the Online Publishers Association (OPA) released the results of a biometric and eye tracking study, which measured viewing, visual fixation, and the emotional impact of nine different OPA ad units on CNN.com, MSNBC.com, and NYTimes.com. The study found that 96 percent of participants paid attention to the ad units. Sixty-seven percent noticed the ads within the first 10 seconds, and then returned their eyes to the ad again. Furthermore, those participants who looked at the OPA ad units after the first 10 seconds "generated stronger emotional response" to the ads than to the rest of the site page.

This data may not apply to all units across all sites, but it does validate the notion that "banner blindness" is not a universal dilemma. If that's the case, should media buyers be following in the footsteps of their predecessors and capping ad delivery so as not to frustrate or annoy?

The short answer is no, because frequency capping isn't about ad clutter alone. The optimal number of impressions served depends on any number of factors, including ad format and type of site, and understanding this can lead to a more effective campaign.

"Intrusive ad units like prestitials and pushdowns should definitely be frequency capped – you don't want to drive people crazy," says Jessica Siracusa, sales strategist with Blogads, which represents such sites as PerezHilton.com. "We cap these units at one per user per day." On the other hand, Siracusa confirms that for non-intrusive units – such as those intended for branding – it's better to deliver more ads. This may have an adverse effect on click-through rates, but "the brand is definitely impressing itself on the reader's mind throughout the ad run."

Says Andrew Budkofsky, EVP, sales and partnerships with video publisher Break Media, "I don't think there's a magic bullet to it, but it's important that a publisher be able to partner with brands to (maximize exposure) while being sensitive to audiences." On sites like Break.com, the company will look to campaign stipulations like dayparting and length of flight to guide decisions about the number of ad impressions it delivers.

At rich media and ad serving provider MediaMind (formerly Eyeblaster), the focus is on balance. "Frequency capping can be used for one of three objectives," says Ariel Geifman, principal research analyst at MediaMind. "It can reduce waste, optimize the spend by repeating exposures while yielding above-average dwell rate, or it can prevent consumer frustration by limiting an 'intrusive' creative execution to one or two exposures per viewer." Geifman warns buyers not to cap too low, noting that rich media ads can still enjoy a high engagement rate after five or six exposures. He also advocates a "story telling" approach to frequency capping that not only limits impressions, but "creates a sequence of rich and standard ads."

The question of how many ads is enough is akin to asking for an average click-through rate or a typical cost-per-click. Each campaign, with its unique objectives, ad units, and media plan, will have its own best practices in this respect. When in doubt, tap your media partner's expertise. The last thing a buyer wants to put a cap on is campaign success.

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Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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