The Frequency Cap Is Your Friend

I can’t believe I’m writing on this topic. Surely it’s been covered time and again in a vast variety of venues: columns, books, panel discussions, lectures, negotiations, and so on. Astonishingly, some people still aren’t getting the message.

I was visiting some site last week — can’t remember which — and had the most unsatisfactory user experience. The first page I hit loaded a 468 x 60-ish banner ad for a very well known liquor brand. There was a tiny video window inside the ad that began playing (audio and video) automatically. It caught my attention immediately. For a split second, I thought I might actually see something cool.

Alas, I was disappointed. It was a lone actor, dressed in a terrible costume, speaking to the camera. The video’s production quality was awful. The actor wasn’t much better. It actually seemed as if this advertiser paid some guy off the street to use his digital video camera to film himself in a silly costume saying three or four lines. It wasn’t even good bad in the sense that it didn’t qualify as kitsch.

For whatever reason, the sound was extremely loud. By the time I found the volume control, the ad was finished playing. Thankfully, it was a very short video. When that distraction fell still and silent, I was able to take in the rest of the ad. The design was awful. Were it not for the terrible gimmick, I’d have ignored it. Instead, it caught my eye, annoyed me, and left a bad taste in my mouth. Not the right kind of attention to attract. It was a study in how not to do online advertising. Trust me, seeing the ad that one time was bad enough.

I clicked to go deeper into the site. To my amazement, the next page brought up the same dreadful ad. Again, I rushed to mute the audio, to no avail. My only comfort was the realization the ad didn’t loop.

I clicked to view another page of the site. Inconceivably, another version of the same ad appeared, this time a skyscraper. The poor halfwit in the video spewed his foolish pitch yet again. None of the content even changed. It might have been interesting if successive ads told an ongoing story or somehow progressed. But no. It was identical content, both in the video and in the remainder of the banner.

“X-Files” fans may remember one of the sillier episodes. An abducted human was in a cage near an alien who apparently was also abducted. The alien had his head between his knees and was rocking back and forth, repeating, “This is not happening. This is not happening.”

That’s about how I felt.

This ad was so bad, I would be embarrassed if my company had produced it. I can’t imagine what agency (to say nothing of the brand manager) would allow such a hideous beast to go live. These people were obviously asleep at the wheel.

I could go on about the tremendous negative impact even a single viewing of this ad might have on the brand. It really was that bad. What made it worse was seeing it three times in a row, inside of 90 seconds. I could not understand how this could happen. I still don’t.

Bottom line: Frequency cap most rich media. The more intrusive and potentially annoying an ad is, the more essential the frequency cap becomes. Page takeovers, interstitials, anything with autoplay audio, even pop-ups and -unders; all benefit from frequency caps. Once per user, per day, is a good rule of thumb.

Here’s another tidbit: Some frequency caps work on a per-ad basis. You want something that stretches across all the rich media ads in your campaign.

Otherwise, if the 468 x 60 version of the ad had a frequency cap, I could still be exposed to the same ad in a different format. In my example above, it was the exact same ad, only in a different size. It’s no less annoying to have that fool pitch me to drink his brand of alcohol in a differently sized or shaped ad than it would be to see the same size over again.

This experience epitomizes much of what’s wrong with online advertising. As we push toward more rich media, more intrusive ad formats, and a heavier focus on brand, we’ll collectively shoot ourselves in the foot if we allow this kind of trash to go on… and on.

Jeremy is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

Nominations are open for the 2004 ClickZ Marketing Excellence Awards.

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