Frequency Caps and Cross-Media Campaigns

A few weeks ago, I was flipping through “Fortune” magazine when I came across an ad for energy company BP. I didn’t pay much attention — at least, not on a conscious level. Minutes later, though, as I was perusing the pages of BusinessWeek.com, I saw the ad again. It was identical to the print version in every way, right down to the location on the page.

Now, I have no real interest in BP as an investment opportunity (though I’m a driver who frequently — and grudgingly — invests in gas). Yet as a result of its appearance in these two locations, I took notice of this company’s ad. The experience was one of “cross-media déjà vu.” It got me to thinking about ad delivery and frequency.

These issues have plagued advertisers for as long as there’s been advertising. Online, the struggle usually takes the form of impression frequency. Determining optimal ad frequency has a lot to do with the Law of Diminishing Returns.

There comes a point at which it’s no longer favorable to continue delivering the same ad again and again. The cost simply outweighs the benefits. Excessively displaying ad material doesn’t just fail to incite consumer response and to waste good ad dollars. It can also result in a negative impression of your brand.

For years, the consensus has been the optimal number of impressions served to an Internet user is somewhere between one and five. Many campaign managers maintain it’s three — nothing you can say can convince them otherwise. Not long ago, researchers buttressed this latter theory by determining that while Internet users were most likely to convert the first time they saw an ad, each of the first three impressions displayed was over 100 percent better at converting than the “average impression.”

One would think this information would prove endlessly helpful to media buyers, but its release happened to coincide with an increase in the popularity of cross-media campaigns. How does an advertiser control frequency when ads also appear offline?

Few current campaigns are limited to one medium. Today’s consumers get their media from multiple sources, and often employ them simultaneously. There’s a good chance they’ll come across your ads both online and off-. You may be vigilantly delivering one impression per user on the Web, but your target audience could still be exposed to that same ad every day.

In BP’s case, this advertiser placed its ads in similar publications that cater to a near-identical target audience. As a North American business professional that uses the Web, the odds of my encountering both are pretty good. Given what we know about ad frequency online, does this help or hinder the effectiveness of BP’s ad? Where exactly is the line between effective branding and “ad nauseum?”

As it would be impossible to measure the frequency with which each and every consumer sees the ads across your campaign, there’s little an advertiser can do to avoid potential ad overexposure aside from capping ad delivery across each individual medium. But perhaps cross-media déjà vu isn’t a no-win situation. In fact, it may represent a valuable opportunity to improve both direct marketing and branding campaigns.

If the aforementioned study holds water, the first few ad impressions a consumer sees — regardless of where he sees them — could be the ideal amount both to prompt a conversion and prevent annoyance. So long as marketers keep ad delivery per medium to a minimum, they could hit this target straight on. The phenomenon also has potential where branding is concerned. By keeping ad creative and placement consistent, advertisers can help create a “mental cookie” that increases the chances their target consumer will remember their ad.

The rules of ad delivery are changing. They no longer apply to one medium alone. But this could actually work in our favor. It certainly worked for BP.

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