Walt Clark

How many times do customers need to see an ad before they buy?

Advertising has been around as long as humans have existed – yeah, we’re talking about cavemen. However, it is only in the last 200 years that it has taken on greater focus and serious study.

Consider Thomas Smith’s 1885 explanation of “Successful Advertising”:

  • The first time people look at any given ad, they don’t even see it.
  • The second time, they don’t notice it.
  • The third time, they are aware that it is there.
  • The fourth time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it somewhere before.
  • The fifth time, they actually read the ad.
  • The sixth time they thumb their nose at it.
  • The seventh time, they start to get a little irritated with it.
  • The eighth time, they start to think, “Here’s that confounded ad again.”
  • The ninth time, they start to wonder if they’re missing out on something.
  • The tenth time, they ask their friends and neighbors if they’ve tried it.
  • The eleventh time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.
  • The twelfth time, they start to think that it must be a good product.
  • The thirteenth time, they start to feel the product has value.
  • The fourteenth time, they start to remember wanting a product exactly like this for a long time.
  • The fifteenth time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it.
  • The sixteenth time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.
  • The seventeenth time, they make a note to buy the product.
  • The eighteenth time, they curse their poverty for not allowing them to buy this terrific product.
  • The nineteenth time, they count their money very carefully.
  • The twentieth time prospects see the ad, they buy what is offering.

While Thomas’ writing may not apply directly to every business, his story does a good job of highlighting the journey buyers go through when considering different brands.

Advertising serves to inform, persuade, and remind potential customers about a company’s products or services.

Adding to the complexity is how you measure the ways people see ads.

In television, there are industries dedicated to measuring how many eyes are watching programs using metrics like target and gross rating points. In the past, it was possible to get an estimate based only on household surveys.

With social media, we now have the ability to access powerful analytics tools to measure not only how many people see certain ads, but how they engage with them. In turn, this allows us to find a better answer to the question “How many times does my audience need to see my ads to have an impact?” and “What is the right frequency to make the sale?”

Today we are going to look at how frequency comes into play with Facebook campaigns (and why it may be the most important metric you haven’t yet considered).

Let’s quickly define some terms:

  • An impression is the number of times a piece of content appears on a screen.
  • Reach is the number of unique individuals that a piece of content was shown to.
  • Frequency is the ratio of impressions to reach.

Looking at this, we can figure how often an audience is seeing our messaging.

For example, if my ad has a reach of 1,000 people and had 5,000 impressions, then my frequency would be five.

Another way to put this is that, on average, a person in my campaign was shown my ad five times.

In Thomas Smith’s story, he stated that a person needed to see his ads twenty times before they bought something from him. If the same applied to his social ads, that means he would need to have a frequency of twenty to influence his potential buyers to make a purchase.

The question is what would a frequency of twenty actually cost to advertisers?

Mark Zuckerberg’s Auction House

The way advertising works on Facebook is by way of an auction. You are bidding against other advertisers to appear in a given user’s newsfeed.

Unlike a traditional auction, where the person with the most money wins, Facebook gives advertisers a handicap called a Relevance Score. This score is calculated by evaluating an ad’s copy and imagery, as well as how users respond to the ad.

For example, if a lot of people are engaging with the ad, over time the relevance score will increase, making the ad cheaper to run. If people are hiding the ad or not engaging with it, this lowers the score, making it more expensive to run the same ad.

Your bid and relevance score are put together to determine whether your ad ends up in the newsfeed.

  • Great ad copy and imagery + Ad engagement + time = increase in relevance score → cheaper to run the ad
  • Poor ad copy and imagery + Lack of ad engagement + time = decrease in relevance score → more expensive ad

Why frequency matters

While frequency is not a direct part of your relevance score, it has a tremendous effect on what you will end up having to pay and if customers, in the end, will actually buy from you.

Here’s why:

(Disclaimer: the following data comes from a variety of randomly selected industries with about $100,000 in ad spend.)

I looked at Facebook campaign data from the past two years to see if there was any connection between cost and frequency. I grouped campaigns based on their frequencies.

When you look at the average Cost per Click (CPC) for campaigns at different frequency levels, you can see that as frequency increases, campaigns become more expensive.

Campaigns that had a frequency between one and two had the lowest cost with an average CPC of $0.34. Campaigns that had a frequency between eight and nine had the highest cost with a CPC of $2.63.

When you take those same frequency groupings and compare them to click through rate (CTR) you can see a similar trend, but reversed.

Campaigns that had a frequency between one and two had an average CTR of 4.02%, while the lowest CTR of 0.40% came from campaigns with a frequency between six and seven.

This fits in with what we know about how Facebook’s auction system works. As people stop interacting with an ad, the cost to keep showing it will increase.

What is interesting to note is how this data also supports Thomas Smith’s idea that advertising impacts buyer behavior down the road, as we see a large increase in CTR and a decrease in cost between the seven and eight frequency mark.

The impact of frequency is not necessarily the purchase that happens today, but what happens in the future.

What does this mean?

We can see from the data that it’s cheapest to show an ad between one and two times. In the fast-paced world of social media, this isn’t surprising, as attention spans dwindle and there is greater competition for attention.

Connecting this to a long-term strategy, Facebook released a study showing that a weekly frequency of 1.5 was an effective rate to capturing 95% of potential brand lift.

For businesses trying to engage with their audiences on Facebook, regularly producing fresh content is not only the best way to grab their attention, but also the most cost-effective way to advertise on the platform.

While each campaign will have a limited frequency, the aggregate of your different campaigns can boost what is your effective frequency, allowing your messages to be seen by your target audience regularly in the long-term.

Running multiple ads over the course of the month can help you control your CPC while making sure you are getting your message out to your audience enough times to be remembered.

Use frequency as a guidepost to help you determine whether you are overpaying or alienating your audience from too much of the same thing.