by Freddy J. Nager, Founder + Director of Marketing Forensics…

The market space abounds with myths. Some mistakenly believe social media is a substitute for advertising (never). Others erroneously claim that consumers want relationships with brands (a rarity).

And it’s not just amateurs who tout these myths; agencies and consultants also cite them and, worse, implement them into their campaign strategies for clients.

We came across myth perpetration recently when a college program hired us to audit the work of their digital ad agency. The agency had spent over $50,000 — nearly half of the client’s annual marketing budget — on just 3 months of digital ads to attract new students. The result: approximately 250 email addresses — not applications for admission, just addresses. Although costing $200 each, these soft leads were not qualified — they could have come from spammers, competitors, or just the vaguely curious. The program could have purchased leads from a standardized testing company for far less.

The bigger concern: how the agency justified these results.

Rather than acknowledge that the campaign had failed — which campaigns often do — the agency declared it a “success,” and recommended investing even more money into it. This included Google advertising, which cost over $400 per lead. When asked for the basis of their assessment, the agency replied, “The campaign generated a lot of impressions. And everyone knows that consumers need to see an ad 5 to 10 times before they make a purchase.”

And that’s where the myth came in.

Beware Of Marketing’s “Rule Of 7”

The agency’s “5 to 10 times” claim is a variation of the mythical “Rule of 7,” which claims that consumers need to see a marketing message at least 7 times before they take action. While some people certainly need repeat messaging before they act (as any parent of a teenager can attest), absolutely zero studies have verified a specific number of exposures leading to sales.

Research aside, the Rule of 7 fails even basic reasoning. For example, a beef processor could advertise to vegetarians 7 times (or 700 times) and never convert a single one.

Nonetheless, the Rule of 7 has spread, leading to the following marketing hazards:

  • Sales reps repeatedly contact prospects, despite receiving no response or even rejections. We see this particularly in email, where the repeat messages essentially become SPAM in possible violation of federal regulations. While this does lead to the occasional sale, it usually alienates the person on the receiving end.
  • In order to “go viral,” social media marketers contrive publicity stunts that have little to do with the client’s product — such as flash mobs, controversial videos relying on borrowed interest, or expensive contests that attract freeloaders — arguing that all the views and clicks and likes build awareness that will eventually lead to sales.
  • Advertisers invest in media options that provide little to no emotional impact on the target audience: a fleeting product placement in a film, a digital banner ad hidden in the margins of a website, a small logo-only sign at a baseball stadium.

All this is done in the name of “awareness” and “exposure” and “impressions,” yet research shows that most impressions are virtually worthless.

The True Value Of An “Impression”

In his book How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, Professor Byron Sharp finds that the secret to advertising success is “salience”: how ads build and refresh memories. To accomplish this, ads must get noticed by consumers — and only 20% of ads get both noticed and associated with the right brand. The ads must also clearly mention the brand name, review the brand’s distinctive assets, and ideally, show the brand’s product in use.

Most ads don’t bother with most of those requirements. Indeed, in digital media, most struggle to achieve basic “viewability”: many online ads are seen only by bots, are posted on areas of websites that people fail to notice, or consist of one-second auto-video plays (yes, advertisers get charged for those).

This was the case with the digital agency’s campaign for the college program. Their small ads on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google consisted of a generic stock photo of young people in suits and very little copy (most digital ads have little space for words). In addition to having zero salience, the ad generated dismal response rates: the click rates were less than 0.5%, and the conversions on the destination website were less than 0.3% (dedicated landing pages convert 3% on average).

When we revealed our findings to the client, they canceled all future advertising with the digital agency. Although we could not confirm whether the agency was intentionally deceptive or simply uninformed, the client agreed that all those impressions were far less than impressive.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Note that the quality of an ad impression matters far more than the quantity. Consider expensive Super Bowl ads that millions of people enjoy watching and discussing, versus cheap banner ads that many consumers try to block.
  2. Remember that there is no such phenomenon as automatic sales based on a certain number of exposures — otherwise, marketing would be the easiest investment in business. Campaign results depend on the product, cost, ease of purchase, type of consumer, and timing. If any of these variables doesn’t fit the target customer, no amount of exposure will persuade them to buy.
  3. Avoid too much ad repetition, which can create antipathy, particularly if the ads are uninteresting or annoying. In the case of email, unsolicited repetition may violate federal CAN-SPAM regulations. In the case of retargeting ads (banner ads that appear to a consumer after they’ve visited a website), the ads may be seen as “creepy,” hurting the brand.
  4. Question the numbers presented by agencies or consultants who profit from media buying. Total impressions on an individual consumer are impossible to measure, even in digital media. Ultimately, the only metric that matters is the number of qualified leads: potential customers who signify a strong interest in the product or actually make a purchase.

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2 Responses to “Marketing’s Mythical Rule of 7: Why It’s Hazardous To Your Business”

  1. Mark Armstrong

    An extremely interesting point about ads being successful when they “build and refresh memories,” and that they have to get noticed before they can do that– which jibes with the importance of visual marketing, and telling stories that make an emotional connection. Great read, Freddy, thanks.

    • Freddy Nager

      Thanks, Mark. Yes, these points about being noticeable and memorable seem common sense and time-honored, dating back to Ogilvy and Bernbach and perhaps to ancient philosophers. Yet somehow modern marketers have come to believe that the digital equivalent of a classified ad — small space, a few words or seconds — is enough to build a brand and excite consumers. It makes me believe that digital media, social in particular, helped prolong the recession, since most companies did not do the requisite marketing to turn around their businesses.

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