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Effective Ad Frequency: A Century's Worth of Growth

Sticking to tried and true methods is risky in today’s marketing environment. New technologies are invalidating long-held theories, and consumer behavior is changing because they have increased access to a wide variety of advertising media. 

However, inventing brand new strategies is equally risky: failures can damage a brand’s reputation and put a costly dent in you or your client’s marketing budget without any results. Thomas Smith published his groundbreaking “Successful Advertising” in 1885, and his emphasis on ad frequency has withstood the test of time. In fact, Trent Hamm, the founder of TheSimpleDollar, discussed its role in modern-day marketing thinking:

The thing is, most marketers understand that you tune out a lot of ads. You don’t notice most of them. That’s why they rely on repeating ads over and over and over again — if you notice only a small percentage of advertisements and product placements and Facebook insertions and news reports, if they create a ton of those things, you’ll eventually notice some of them and the idea will be placed in your head.


However, that doesn’t mean it’s best practice to duplicate those old ideas about ad frequency. In this article, we’ll explore how the key ideas of “Successful Advertising” have morphed throughout the past 136 years and how to step into high-frequency advertising to protect your brand and your budget.

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The early days of ad frequency 

One of the most recognizable — and maintained — advertising strategies in “Successful Advertising” is the focus on frequency. With his iconic list of what happens the first, second, third, and ultimately, 20th-time audiences encounter an ad, Smith wrote the playbook on how marketers would view how audiences view repetitive ads. While the list can be boiled down to “the more, the better,” it’s important to take a closer look at how the nuances of it impacted shoppers, even in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

For example, around the seventh or eighth exposure, audiences would get annoyed. (We see that same trend now, with HubSpot noting the sweet spot of touchpoints being around the eight-mark before diminishing returns set in.) But that annoyance is eventually displaced with uncertainty about dismissing the product and then certainty they shouldn’t dismiss the product. From there, positive consumer interest would pick back up.

But is that still true?

a lot changes in 100+ years 

For the 100 or so years following the book’s release, the concept of the 20 steps — or 20 exposures to the ad — remained largely true. However, as digital media and a rapid increase in technology took over across the 1980s, the idea that “more is better” started to fall away.

what has stayed true through time

These core tenets still resonate today:

  • Repeated exposure is a strong strategy for familiarizing new audiences with your brand.
  • The first few exposures to your advertisements will usually either be ignored or forgotten.
  • Advertising campaigns with the right frequency keep products top-of-mind and form more connections with the target market’s thoughts throughout the day.

ad frequency ideas that no longer apply

However, changing technology and culture have changed the way marketers think about consumers’ internal responses to high-frequency ads. It’s also changed why and when consumers make their choices. 

For example, the 15th step — “The 15th time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it” — has largely been eliminated except in the case of very high-ticket items. Modern credit structures and the growing trend of offering payment installments for everyday online purchases means fewer customers are putting off purchases.

Similarly, the 17th step — “The 17th time, they make a note to buy the product” — has been significantly affected by online ordering. The gap between wanting to acquire and product and acquiring the product is closing.

how omnichannel advertising impacts ad frequency

A crucial difference between the 1880s and today is the number of channels available for advertisements and how often shoppers are exposed to them. Instead of paper-based ads, in-store advertisements, and word of mouth, today’s marketers can use:

  • Physical advertising, such as billboards, signs, vehicle wraps, direct mail, and flyers
  • Digital marketing, such as social media marketing, content marketing, TV and OTT/CTV advertising, radio, and more

If you adopt a “more is better” mentality with all of these channels available, you’ll quickly overwhelm your audience. They’ll experience ad fatigue, and you’ll very quickly run through your marketing budget with very little reach.

Self-service vs managed service comparison chart
 

modern effective ad frequency 

While it’s important to know where the idea of high-frequency advertising came from, don’t adopt the traditional practice as your core approach. Instead, keep these important concepts in mind.

there is no one-size-fits-all formula 

While Thomas Smith may have had good research into what was going on in the head of the average 1885 shopper, even a well-researched average doesn’t do current digital marketers any good. You need to analyze real-time interactions to see how audiences are responding to the first view, second view, and so on. With today’s analytics, you can even build profiles of what audiences do before, during, and after the ad to gain insight into their conclusions. With this data, you can decide how many exposures are really the right fit.

looks out for ad fatigue 

The 20-step list touched a bit on ad fatigue around the eighth step: “The eighth time, they start to think, ‘Here’s that confounded ad again.” But annoyance today is far more impactful. Now, consumers have far more choices about both the ads they have to encounter and competitors for different products. They can purchase ad blockers, seek out your competitors, and share negative comments about your brand. 

what is effective ad frequency 

Effective frequency is similar to that sweet spot we discussed earlier. It’s the number of exposures or interactions with an advertisement that consumers must have. It sets the minimum bound of what it takes for audiences to notice and take action on an ad, but it also establishes the maximum optimal exposure before you start to fatigue your audience. 

Find this number and then implement your findings for more successful campaigns that lead to strong relationships with your core market.

ADOPT CURRENT AD FREQUENCY PRACTICES TO MANAGE BRAND REPUTATION

Marketing best practices update at the same pace as technology — or even faster. So make sure you’re taking into account both the multiple technology channels your market is using and the new technologies available for strong marketing analysis. Strategus is here to help make sure you find the optimal ad frequency for every campaign without relying on old generalizations.

 

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