Mad Men-era advertising wiz, Herbert Krugman, took a special interest in consumer behavior. In order to plan better 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 ad media planning, the issue for media planners 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 3 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.

So how many times do consumers need to see an ad before taking a purchase action?

Later researchers suggested the number was more than 3. For example, Canadian Grant Hicks decided it was 5 touches, based on his research with financial advisors and their clients. Nielsen media guru Erwin Ephron’s work lead him to conclude it was 3-5 touches. More recently, a Nielsen study claims 10 social media touches are needed to effect a behavior change.

Whether the number is 3 or 5 or more, you’ve got to get your product in front of your target audience multiple times in order for them to take the action you want

This isn’t always obvious to all businesses – we’ve all worked with that senior manager who wonders why ONE direct mail campaign doesn’t bring in the results he wanted. And then concludes that “marketing doesn’t work”. Most likely, the product would have benefitted from multiple advertising touches.

The great thing about digital marketing today is that there are many cost-effective ways to affect your multiple marketing touches: email, social media, websites,  sponsorships, content marketing, etc. And you can test each channel in order to find the right combination for your customers and brand, with less cost and effort than in 1969 when Herb Krugman did his research.

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