In Online Advertising, Brands Shouldn't Equate Frequency and Blind Repetition

Proper Context and Timing Matter

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Back in Rust Belt HQ, there's a simple, tested paradigm about how frequency functions in the media equation for brands: Repetition reinforces learning, ergo memory.

You never know when a consumer might go to the store, so in your window to talk to them, you need a shot of persuasion that 's memorable. "Hypodermic marketing," as guru Jerry Zaltman called it, aims to inject a story that will endure -- at least until the next shopping trip. Great creative, properly absorbed, can last a lifetime.

Cognitive science suggests that a story is more memorable than a simple fact because it is easier for the brain to assimilate. If you want your brand to be top of mind when shopping time comes, engage people's emotions with a good story. If you want to be sure, tell it again. That's frequency in a nutshell. Repetition works -- ask any schoolteacher. And, because memories decay, if you tell the story closer in time to the moment the brain is supposed to remember it (such as during a shopping trip), it has more impact. If you want to be top of the class, tell it on the day they go shopping!

When the store is just a click away, the consumer doesn't need to remember much at all. For brand advertising, however, time and making a memorable impression are still big factors. All these neat concepts start to smell like dogma, however, when you look at what's possible with the internet. Consider the following research.

A recent, thorough study by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute stated: "Different streams of research present consistent implications for media planning: The media schedule should minimize the gap in time between a category purchase and the last advertising exposure." The authors call the concept "Continuous-Reach Advertising." I call it smart frequency planning. "Always on" has big implications for how to use online frequency strategically in brand advertising because of how it relates to emotion and storytelling.

In today's world, many planners treat online frequency as they have done for years: The object is repetition. The Ehrenberg-Bass study implies we should use frequency to cause recency. To do this, we need to use our extra (frequency) impressions to cover more time, as opposed to bludgeoning the message home with repetition. The trick is belling the cat, as usual, so how might we do it? The answer is modern ad-serving technology. These days a well-managed campaign with "give back," or Real Time Bidding, and world-class automation can yield pancake-flat delivery, per consumer, across time and across publishers. An actual reach per consumer of "1" is almost perfectly attainable. Instead of giving your target 20 ads on Tuesday and two ads every other day (not a stretch), give them one a day for as long as you can afford.

For this to work, conceptually, we have to believe the consumer actually saw each ad we served. On the internet, however, this is not a particularly good assumption for reasons we are all familiar with. However, the odds there can be managed with good placement, great creative or, in the near future, eye-tracking tags embedded in ads. In addition, we can compensate for unseen ads by allocating more frequency per consumer.

The next consideration is : Should our frequency be delivered per week, per day or per campaign? How about this? Forget about all that . Spread impressions evenly across the purchase cycle. Think: Always on. That strategy would maximize the chance that a consumer would get an impression at an optimal time. This assumes you can't know when shopping is , so each day is equally probable. That's always-on reach, it makes a lot of sense, has research to back it up, and now, some tools to make it happen.

In this model, frequency is used as a substitute for individual knowledge about shopping behavior, and as a substitute for the memorability of an emotional story -- which is difficult to tell with a banner ad. It's hard to imagine that we can impact the Goliaths of brand marketing, storytelling and shopping behavior, by combining banner ads and frequency. But, for fast purchase-cycle items, from gas to groceries, this may be exactly what's needed, and what's possible.

By using frequency strategically online, and not for blind repetition, brands might be able to reduce the requirement for memorability. Relevance means more than the right topic or context. It also means the right time.

Ted McConnell is exec VP-digital of the Advertising Research Foundation.
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