Relevance of ‘Frequency’?

Most marketers understand concepts of reach and frequency very well. Significant amount of time (and money) are spent in maximising reach and optimising frequency to achieve brand goals — awareness, consideration, trial, sales, advocacy, etc. The concept of frequency emerged when the world was disconnected and the media was analogue. The basic assumption behind ‘frequency’ was based on a simple belief — repeat exposure to advertising leads to better comprehension and therefore awareness or consideration or trial or sales.

In a nutshell it assumed that the people receiving advertising were a bit slow (in message comprehension) and repeat frequency was required to educate them. It almost looked like a ‘social service’ that is paying dollars for repeat exposure so that wider society can be educated about greater good of products and services sold in the marketplace. The concept was very promising and marketers flocked to it. It was included in the marketing theory and maximising reach at three plus frequency (at least) became a gospel. As a result we now get bombarded with the same ad copy (often boring) again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Until media planners run out of options to spend their budgets.

This approach worked well for many decades and the industry kept getting better at it. It was a picture perfect party before Internet came to the party along with band of digital devices – mobile phones, gaming consoles, MP3 players, tablets, etc. – connecting people across demographics, geographies, and passion points. It made access to information and entertainment really easy. It provided avenues for people to observe, express, and share their opinions in real-time. It permanently changed the way people receive, accept, and interpret advertising.

Today, in this hyper-connected world, people respond to advertising in a very different manner. When a person is exposed to an advertising message for the first time it either fails to catch attention or generates curiosity. If it fails to catch attention then repeating it a few more times with a hope that next time the person will be receptive is similar to ‘not writing an exam but hoping to pass — behavior.

Let’s consider the second scenario when the ad actually generates curiosity. There are multiple reasons for being curious. The person exposed to advertising might be in-market for buying the advertised product (service) or have just bought it or is in general interested in the category (for example auto enthusiast, techie, foodie) or has an opinion based on past/peer group experience. In any case curiosity is likely to trigger information search, evaluation of reviews, seeking guidance and expressing opinions in non-linear manner. So next time the person is exposed to the same advertising message it looks less relevant, as it is the same mass message and the person knows much more than what is stated in the message. Third time the same ad is displayed or aired it becomes a mild irritant and fourth time it turns into nuisance.

There are exceptions when the advertising is very entertaining and in such cases people actually share it as entertainment through various digital platforms leading to free exposure through ‘earned media’. When one takes a hard look at ads around us it is disappointing to see that they’re largely about exaggerated product claims and are terribly low on entertaining value. When was the last time you watched a boring piece of content and then repeated its viewing? But the industry ends up spending millions and millions of dollars on repeat exposure of advertising that is low on entertainment value thereby causing negative sentiment from people who are subjected to it.

So what should we do? First we must better understand people who receive advertising and respect the fact that people want simple yet meaningful messages delivered to them in real-time. Post that they’re smart enough to figure out things on their own and through support from their networks. Secondly we need to enable their quest for more information/evaluation/entertainment by providing tools and applications that can enhance their experience. Most importantly we need customised creative units that help in generating curiosity and provide a bit of entertainment.

This column was originally published on Sept. 13, 2010 on ClickZ.Asia.

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