The Power Of Frequency In Advertising

(By Bob McCurdy)   To some the following might come off as heresy.  Let’s peel back the onion on an ad metric that flows off our tongues daily. It’s an important metric in our industry as it guides commercial scheduling, as well as the way we position our medium to advertisers and agencies.

The metric is “frequency” and most of us in radio sales take for granted that we fully understand the role it plays in advertising success. But do we?

Frequency’s contribution to ad success has been passed down from generation to generation of radio salespeople, similar to the way folklore is passed down, which is often without a lot of introspection.

It’s actually not a bad thing to occasionally analyze what we know we know, as we might find out what we know is not all its cracked up to be. So let’s walk on the wild side the next few paragraphs and put frequency’s role in marketing success under the microscope.

As it pertains to advertising, “reach and frequency” are bound together the way Lennon and McCartney or Rogers and Hammerstein are bound together musically. The importance of reach is pretty straightforward and has been receiving a lot of positive press of late, particularly as the marketing landscape continues to fragment.

But frequency, defined by Nielsen as, “the average number of times households or persons viewed/heard a given program, station or advertisement during a specific time period,” might not be quite as important as reach in contributing to ad campaign success, and in fact might simply be a byproduct of something else that matches reach in importance/impact. I am referring to affordable “presence,” as radio, more so than many other media options, due to its efficiency, enables advertisers to ensure their product/service is always “on the shelf,” in the forefront and “visible” to the consumer when the product/service is needed. Frequency is a byproduct of this affordable presence.

Does the number of times a consumer is exposed to a commercial automatically increase the likelihood of the product being purchased? Is advertising success that linear, simple, and predictable where purchases are directly correlated to the number of times someone is exposed to a message? Is someone exposed to a commercial three times, three times more likely to buy a product than someone exposed once? Is consumer purchasing behavior that malleable? Obviously not. Is it possible that for all these years we’ve wrongly been giving “frequency” marquee billing along with reach when it played more of a supporting role when it comes to driving advertising success?

What makes radio such a powerful advertising medium is its ability to generate large reach efficiently, with radio’s efficiency contributing to an advertiser’s continued presence, i.e. keeping an offer in front of the public. Frequency, the piling up of impressions against consumers, happens to be a by-product of this efficiency and presence, but it is “presence” brought about by radio’s efficiency that is the success driver and not the fact that someone simply heard a message multiple times.

It is continued presence which enables advertisers to deliver their message when it’s most relevant that drives results. To believe that frequency was the real success driver would require us to believe that consumers “learn” advertising the way they “learned” their ABCs or multiplication tables — via repetition. This is simply not the case. Repetition was necessary to learn that 5 x 7 = 35, but when a commercial is relevant it’s relevant, a single exposure can make the sale.

So it is actually reach x relevance (brought about by affordable ad presence) = advertising success, not reach x frequency. Splitting hairs, maybe. A subtle difference? Yes. But a difference nonetheless. Something to think about.

Bob McCurdy is Vice President of Sales for the Beasley Media Group.
This article was previously featured in Radio Ink



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