Is frequency capping a relic of the television advertising era or still relevant for the digital world?

Frequency capping – or reducing the number of times a consumer is exposed to an ad – was appropriate in a world dominated by television, but is it an anachronism in a digitally-driven media landscape? Asks InMobi's Jayesh Easwaramony

Frequency capping originated in the world of television advertising, which was expensive and where slots were scarce. It followed two simple metrics – reach and frequency. So if a media planner had already reached a certain target audience a couple of times, by frequency capping he ensured lower media wastage.  

Enter the era of digital and mobile, where three billion internet capable devices can be reached 200 times a day resulting in 600 billion digital advertising opportunities daily. Compared to the finite world of TV, digital is infinite inventory.

So is frequency capping still relevant in this new world? Media planners proud of their TV heritage insist on metrics like one or two per user per campaign. This is akin to relying on an archer’s precision to outshoot a man with a machine gun. ‘Hasta la vista, brand recall’ with this approach.

Moreover there is no way yet in the world of programmatic to frequency cap elegantly across many platforms. For example, there are audiences measured by cookies on websites and by device identifiers on mobile apps. So frequency capping with two different audience measurement systems is itself erroneous.  

Let us assume that we can get an unified measurement done. What should be the right frequency cap? Using a first principles approach, let us say the average screen size of a television is 42 inches today and the smartphone is six inches . If you add the clutter problem and mind dispersion — simply put, the mind multi-tasks more digitally than on lean back TV — your ability to engage on the ad unit will be at best one-fifth of TV.

I saw a study at an Australian conference where the active viewing time for an average ad second on TV — eyes on screen and on the ad — was twice that of YouTube and 15 times of Facebook for the same ad second. Attention and sales in the same survey had a correlation of 0.92. That is statistically significant.

So taking into consideration the above statistical approach, if you want to grow sales of your product and factor in attention diversion on digital, your frequency cap on digital should be at least 40 or in a worst case 70. In other words, you need to show the same user an ad between 40 and 70 times so that it creates an impact.

Some puritans may say this is too intrusive. Ask the same person: ‘How do you stand out on digital?’ Some 20 years ago in the heyday of TV, product life cycles were longer – three years even for fast moving consumer goods categories. Today, 10 to 12 product variants are out to capture multiple user segments in the same category; necessitating more launches per year to audiences who are not homogenous.

So the need to stand out has never been higher. And ideally, your frequency cap needs to be higher.

Not convinced? Let us look at China, where 42% of all advertising is on the smartphone. A commonly used advertising method by e-commerce giants and other brands in China is the roadblock. In the perhaps more familiar television variant, a roadblock is when the same ad plays simultaneously across commercial breaks on multiple channels, making it hard to miss the message – even if one were to change the channel. On digital, the roadblock basically tries to ‘buy out’ user attention for the whole day on certain platforms.

Saturation release is common in movie marketing. If you need to sell out your tickets of a film that you spent $200 million producing and 75% of your tickets get sold in first two weeks, you are better off overspending on the marketing for that duration.

The next time you want your digital marketing to resonate in the triple whammy era of  shrinking product life cycles, gaining market share faster and standing out in an infinite inventory world, start with frequency cap of 70 in the first two weeks. At the very least, you will have a much bigger learning set to optimise later

Marshall McLuhan said:  “Ads represent the main channel of intellectual and artistic effort in the modern world.” So if that’s true, show it more often to more people. Uncap your frequency first and fine tune it later. 

Jayesh Easwaramony is InMobi senior vice president and managing director for Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa


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