Advertising Half-Life & the Case for Frequency

A commonly repeated axiom in marketing is that it takes multiple exposures of an advertisement before a consumer takes action. Salesforce puts it at 6-8 repetitions across a variety of media touchpoints. The problem can be three-fold: (1) the consumer did not fully attend to the advertisement in early exposures, or didn’t catch all the relevant facts that could motivate their interest, (2) they did not catch the brand name or contact information, or (3) they could not remember the contact method. One important implication is that if your ad frequency is insufficient, your ad campaign is not likely to work.

Memory is an especially important element in direct response advertising since the contact method must be remembered in order for the buyer to connect. I have discussed the downsides of relying on a later Google search (interested buyers forgetting to do it, competitive clutter, lost attribution to original media). If you want to “hook” a buyer from the river of media, you have to enable immediate response. But for those who initially evade your fishing line, “frequency” (repeated ad exposures) is the key to capturing them next time around.

In our experience with our radio advertising clients, 95% of inbound calls for a radio ad occur within 2 minutes of the spot airing. This proves that if they don’t act immediately, then another ad exposure is required to capture them. If you are relying on consumers to remember to type in your URL or Google your company several minutes or hours or days after ad exposure, there is no doubt you are sub-optimizing inbound lead flow.  

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Why does this happen?

Most people know there is a difference between short-term and long-term memory. We generally store things like WiFi passwords and one-time phone numbers in short term memory. Long-term memories include things like childhood experiences and yes, brand images & associations. Items that are not repeated over time fade from short-term memory very rapidly, as shown empirically by Herman Ebbinghaus 100 years ago:

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The less important and more random the information, the less likely it is to be retained, even in the short run. Phone numbers are often random number strings and are not retained as well as words, images or ideas. That’s why website domain names work better than IP addresses, and why #250 Spoken Keywords work better than 10-digit phone numbers.

How do I catch the fish that got away?

Repetition. Which in advertising parlance is called “frequency”. Repeated ad exposure will not only solve the issue of “didn’t catch that brand name or reason to buy the first time”, but help move the advertiser contact information into long-term memory.  

For a short-term campaign, like 4-8 weeks, high frequency is the best path to high response. This is suitable for products and services that a lot of people can use today (vision care, weight loss, pain relief). For advertisers in categories like injury attorneys or roofers or real estate agents — for which most listeners or viewers have an infrequent need – it is more important to get their contact information into the long-term memory of future customers, so they know how to connect when the need arises. 

For example, relatively few radio listeners were in a car accident last week and need to sue somebody when they hear or see ads for the injury attorney. But if they had heard the call to action every month for years, they will be able to execute it when they are in the market for that service – even without needing to see one more iteration of the ad! Of course, maintaining a high frequency ad campaign can be cost-prohibitive over time, so the rule for this type of advertiser is “lower frequency, but consistent over time”. This amounts to “spaced repetition” (of the ads), which is cited as the best way to put information into long-term memory, which may never fade. 

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So advertisers, if you want to catch all the fish rather than some of the fish in the river of prospects, implement both an easy to remember contact method AND ensure the appropriate ad frequency for your product or service category. Radio can deliver the greatest Reach, while also delivering the most affordable Frequency.


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