Mad Men-era advertising wiz, Herbert Krugman (Ted Bates, Inc., GE, and Raymond Loewy), took a special interest in consumer behavior. In order to plan efficient TV media buys, he did research in the late 1960s, on how many times consumers needed to see an ad for the same product or brand, before taking an action (i.e., buying). This is how he came up with his famous Theory of Effective Frequency for advertising.
Intuitively we know that repetition (frequency) is the basis of any learning process, and it’s no different for consumers learning about a product. However, since cost optimization is an important consideration in media planning, the issue for advertisers is to limit the frequency to the point where diminishing returns occur.
After some research, Krugman initially concluded that the magic number was three. In other words, after seeing or hearing about a product or brand three times, consumers would take an action. As he explained it,
- “The first time someone is exposed to your ad, you attract their attention, but nothing is really taken in, thus “What is it?”.
- The second time is when the consumer begins to engage with the relevance of the ad, and asks “So what?”
- And the third exposure to the ad is when the viewer decides whether “This is for me”, or whether they will choose to forget it.”
Of course, a number of factors impact this ad frequency theory, for example: how well known the product or brand is already, the audience category, the complexity of the product or message, the cost structure of the product, the saturation level of the market, and more.
Later research (including some done by Krugman) suggested the number was more than 3 . For example, Canadian Grant Hicks decided it was five touches, based on his research on financial advisors and their clients. Nielsen media guru Erwin Ephron’s work lead him to conclude it was three to five touches. More recently, a Nielsen study claims ten social media touches are needed to effect a behavior change.
Whether the number is 3 or 5 or more, the point here is that you’ve got to get your product in front of your customers multiple times in order for them to take the action you want.
Surprisingly, this isn’t always obvious to all businesses – I worked with a CEO once who wondered why the ONE direct mail campaign he approved didn’t bring in the results he wanted. And his product was fairly complex and new to the market – it would have benefitted from multiple advertising touches. Instead, he concluded that marketing wasn’t working for his product.
The great thing about digital marketing today is that there are many cost-effective ways to achieve your multiple marketing touches: email, social media, display advertising, websites, microsites, sponsorships, content marketing, etc. And you can test each channel in order to find the right combination for your customers and brand, with much less cost and effort than Herb Krugman could back in 1969 when TV, radio, and print were the primary advertising channels.
Sources for more information:
- Herbert E. Krugman. “The Impact of Television Advertising: Learning Without Involvement” Public Opinion Quarterly, volume 29, page 349, 1965.
- Herbert E. Krugman. “Why Three Exposures May Be Enough.” Journal of Advertising Research 12, 6 (1972): 11-14
- Batra, Rajeev, Donald R. Lehmann, Joanne Burke, and Jae Pae. “When Advertising Have An Impact? A Study of Tracking Data.” Journal of Advertising Research 35, 5 (1995): 19-32
- 1952 Burma-Shave streetcar sign, now at the Minnesota Historical Society
- “Thinking”, designed by Timothy Dilich, Evanston, Illinois