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Media Planner: Frequency Is Still Key to a Good TV Plan

Mar 23, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Probably the most over-discussed and misunderstood topic in television advertising is the subject of frequency. “Frequency” means the appropriate number of times that a given amount of television viewers see a specific commercial over a specific amount of time.
Although the television industry prides itself on its ability to reach the masses quickly, repetition of message is what causes a TV campaign to actually work. In any given week, most broadcast TV stations will reach 98% of the local population, so television truly stands alone today as a mass-reach medium.
Many years ago, a marketing researcher at General Electric Co. named Herbert Krugman developed the classic three-time frequency formula. His argument was that people learn in threes.
His theory holds that the first time we see a television commercial we identify the commercial and we begin to understand what it is.
The second time we see that commercial, we decide if the message is of interest to us or not.
The third time we see that commercial, we’re either not interested or we pay close attention and absorb the message in detail.
Mr. Krugman went on to state that the fourth, fifth and sixth times we see the same message, it has no additional value to us and simply serves as a reminder of the third exposure.
So does this mean a frequency of three should always be the goal? Usually not. Bear in mind that this research was done many years prior to the massive explosion in media choices, which today include hundreds of television channels, dozens of radio options, dozens of magazines and millions of Web sites, as well as outdoor, mobile phone and the daily barrage of direct mail. So it stands to reason that we need to re-examine what the proper frequency is for television today.
I grew up in a home where the daily newspaper was considered a must-read, but now with two teenagers I see how they refer to the newspaper as a dead-tree medium—they look at the newspaper as yesterday’s news. So why discuss newspapers when considering the topic of frequency? Because anyone who buys print advertising knows that multiple exposures of the same ad is required to generate impact and sales results.
In our work across the country with thousands of advertisers, we’ve learned many things about television, not the least of which is how to design the proper frequency into a television plan so that the advertiser is generating immediate and measurable sales results.
A good rule of thumb is that when planning a television campaign in an extremely competitive category, use a 4x or 5x campaign frequency. A higher frequency can help your message overwhelm the messages of the competition and strike a chord with the viewer faster.
In contrast, if you’re consulting a client who stands alone as the only television advertiser in its category in a specific market, then it can be adequately served with a high reach and a basic 3x campaign frequency. In other words, this client has the luxury of reaching out to more people less often since it is not directly competing with another similar TV campaign.
A few examples of frequency done right are as follows:
The Macy’s One-Day Sale plan targets several hundred targeted rating points of television over a 30-hour time period. Macy’s will air four to six television commercials in each hour of programming across three or four television stations. This generates a powerful result, since this approach combines the power of classic “road-blocking” with hyper-frequency. The net effect of the Macy’s One-Day Sale is massive reach along with massive frequency. It’s no wonder that when you shop at a Macy’s on the day of one of these events, you will see the store filled with buyers.
WebMD.com is another example of a television advertiser that distinctly understands its buying window. In a recent conversation with the folks at WebMD, we discussed the role of television in its plan. As a dot-com business. its singular goal is to generate massive inquiries on the Web site on the same day as its television campaign airs. WebMD.com focuses on Sunday advertising, as Sunday is often the most popular day for health care research online. Knowing this, WebMD.com dominates Sunday afternoon sporting events with a very high frequency plan over a limited time.
Let’s get down to what it takes to do this right.
First is the need to understand the buying window of the product. For example, a car dealer advertising on television has a very different buying window than, say, a furniture store. A car dealer needs to motivate massive amounts of car buyers very quickly over a 15-day buying cycle. In contrast, a furniture store needs to generate frequency over a longer buying cycle, since many people will shop for furniture for weeks instead of days.
How do you design the appropriate frequency into an auto dealer’s TV campaign? For many dealer campaigns, we recommend a plan to generate a 3x frequency over 72 hours. That means we will plan to reach about 35% of the entire population three times. Several things are factored into this frequency recommendation, including competitive dealers, competitive nameplates and used-car dealers. All of these play a role as a competitor to an individual dealer’s campaign.
Only by understanding the actual buying window for each specific advertiser are you able to make appropriate frequency recommendations.
Do your homework. Discuss with the client the actual buying cycle for its product. Then anticipate this buying cycle by one or two days so that your TV commercials have achieved the recommended frequency by the time the actual buying cycle begins. This is necessary because of what we now call Internet lag. Internet lag is the process that occurs when people see a TV commercial and then go to the advertiser’s Web site before they actually contact the advertiser. This is a phenomenon that has occurred over the last 10 years and was not factored into the original three-times frequency model.
In the end, the right frequency factors many things into the final equation. Massive sales and profit increases await an advertiser who bolsters the power of television with massive reach and frequency.
Adam Armbruster is a senior partner with Red Bank, N.J.-based retail and broadcasting consulting firm Eckstein, Summers, Armbruster & Co. He can be reached at adam@esacompany.com or 941-928-7192.

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