Caps Off to Frequency! A marketer’s guide to debunking Effective Frequency myths and understanding frequency in digital media – Part One

I felt compelled to write this piece after hearing about two different online display buys from colleagues outside of Media Experts. The first buy was an impression-based CPM buy that imposed a frequency cap of one impression per unique IP address, and this was achieved using their third-party ad serving software. The second buy was also impression-based and imposed a frequency cap of three impressions per unique IP address.

I’m certain that the planners and buyers of those two campaigns sincerely believed that they were getting the most value for their respective customers, content in the flawed belief that they were maximizing reach with their frequency cap of one or employing a long misunderstood “rule” of effective frequency by stopping the frequency at three per unique host.

And I’m sure that they sold it through to the customer this way.

There’s only one problem: these are two examples of the least effective way of buying, online or elsewhere. It is more likely to work counter to the desired results and produce nothing in the long run.

Here are the flaws:

An impression-based display buy will deliver a certain percentage of the impressions outside of the viewable area (i.e. below the “fold” or the bottom of the page but outside of portion of the web page that is visible on screen_. Tests conducted by Media Experts using RealVu’s ground breaking ad serving technology demonstrated that up to 56% of the impressions of a given ad buy can be delivered outside of the viewable area of a page. A frequency cap of one impression ensures that no one has a chance to see a fully loaded ad that lands outside of the viewable area.

Now for the biggest flaw; the industry “rule” that suggests an average frequency of three is the most effective is the most mis-understood, mis-used and mis-applied guideline. And it completely misses the mark.

In his 1992 paper entitled “A Frequency of Three”, Media Research Guru Erwin Ephron reminds us that this rule of three came from a study conducted by a Psychologist named Herbert Krugman who was working for General Electric in the early 1970’s when his study was produced. Here’s an excerpt from Ephron’s paper:

“Krugman convinced advertisers that a message communicates in three stages. And Krugman’s
“frequency of three” eventually became the Gospel of effective frequency planning which helped
support larger and larger television budgets. But Krugman never said three exposures are necessary, and misrepresenting Krugman on frequency became a continuing media scandal. According to Krugman there are only three levels of exposure in psychological, not media, terms: Curiosity, recognition and decision. What Krugman calls “frequency” is not what media planners would call “frequency.” Krugman doesn’t discuss media frequency at all.”

In fact, Krugman’s three levels of psychological exposure might only be achieved after multiple exposures from a myriad of media. The real trigger to the “decision” exposure is whether or not the message is relevant to that audience member and whether or not they are in the market for a given advertiser’s product or service.

Interestingly enough, Media buyers and planners continue to add to the confusion, claiming that this magic frequency of three is the “maximum” number or the “minimum” number or the right number per medium or per campaign or per different time periods. None of which makes any sense or provides advertisers with value. This high-minded nonsense is summed up best by a paper from Wayne State University’s Department of Marketing called “Beyond Effective Frequency: Evaluating Media Schedules Using Frequency Value Planning”.

“The practice of effective frequency planning (EFP) presents an enormous paradox. On
one hand, research suggests that it is used by the majority of media planners. On the other hand, it also suggests that the method makes little sense.”


In Part Two of Caps of to Frequency, we will share with you what Media Experts has incorporated into our practice, through experimentation and experience, to ensure we extract the greatest possible value for our customers.