Trading Frequency for Sequency in content marketing

Content marketers need to approach frequency very differently to Mad Men-era advertisers

July 31, 2017

Trading Frequency for Sequency in content marketing
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…

That was how Thomas Smith, in his 1885 book Successful Advertising, tackled the concept of frequency in advertising – or rather, how he started to tackle it. His description of how effective frequency (the number of times someone is exposed to an ad) contributes to campaign effectiveness was only just getting started. According to Smith, it was only on the twentieth occasion that somebody sees an ad that they actually got around to buying what it was selling.

Smith captured one of the dilemmas that would keep smart marketers thinking for more than 125 years. How can you be sure you are reaching your target audience often enough to be memorable and capture their attention – and yet not so often that you’re effectively paying to irritate them and make them swear never to buy from you again?

The same dilemma holds true for marketers today. Ideas about the ideal frequency for advertising have evolved but they still keep to the principle that, to be effective, you need to expose people to your ad multiple times. The question that springs to mind when I think about frequency is whether this basic assumption itself needs to change. When marketers are investing to engage people with content on social media, do they need a different approach to frequency altogether?

The ideal frequency for advertising – a moving target
It’s worth considering the very big evolutionary leaps that the concept of frequency in advertising has already made. Smith’s strategy was extreme. If he tried to bombard the same person 20 times today, he’d most likely be making a one-man contribution to the rise of ad blocking. It was extreme because he was operating in an era of print advertising when estimating the amount of times that any one person saw your ad involved huge amounts of guesswork. Actively managing frequency wasn’t really an option – but Smith knew that the more times someone saw his ad, the more likely they were to notice and act on it.

Eight decades on from Thomas Smith, in 1965, Herbert E. Krugman wrote The Impact of TV Advertising, which pretty much defined best practice on frequency. Krugman believed in an optimum frequency of three. Show an ad to someone three times and you’d help them move through the ‘psychological levels’ from curiosity to recognition and eventually, decision. However, he also clarified the increasingly important idea that somebody could see your ad too often.

If the frequency went above three, Krugman reasoned, you were simply paying to replicate a memory that was already there. “There is a myth in the advertising world that viewers will forget your message if you don't repeat your advertising often enough,” he wrote. “It is this myth that supports many large advertising expenditures. I would rather say the public comes closer to forgetting nothing they have seen on TV. They just "put it out of their minds" until and unless it has some use . . . and [then] the response to the commercial continues."

It’s debateable whether TV advertisers have really followed Krugman’s advice since then. Media buyers in the golden age of TV often aimed to reach people three to five times each week. FMCG advertisers might get more sophisticated, upping the frequency in the days before people were most likely to go shopping. Advertisers have always been tempted to err on the side of showing an ad too often rather than not often enough.

Frequency in the digital advertising age
In practice, managing frequency ought to be simpler in the digital advertising era – but on many platforms, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve lost count of the number of times the same ads seem to follow me around the internet. I think some of this comes down to a lack of transparency in the way ads are often bought and sold – something the early years of programmatic didn't help with. The net result is that the frequency with which people are served the same ads often feels like it’s on the rise.

Why the frequency concept needs to evolve
Frequency, then, can feel as much of a challenge for marketers today as it did back in 1965 or 1885. However, the nature of the challenge is changing – and nothing is changing it more than the growing importance of social media and content marketing.

These two trends change the balancing act around frequency in two very important ways. Firstly, a social media feed is very different media environment to a TV ad break – or a full-page print ad. People expect to see a lot of different content (updates from their connections and the people and brands they follow) and to see most of that content once only. If they want to engage with something, they are trained to engage with it when they first see it. Showing people the same marketing messages repeatedly in the hope that they will change their minds and engage eventually doesn’t really align with this experience. It feels more interruptive and less personalised as a result.

Human attention needs a fresh form of frequency
The other issue is the increasingly demanding nature of human attention. When we engage with a social media feed, that attention is actively seeking out rewarding content that floods our brains with dopamine and makes us feel good. We’re training our brains to focus on things with value – and screen out those that we know don’t have much to offer.

This means that marketing messages don’t have the chance to slowly impinge on people’s consciousness through repeated exposure. If they didn’t reward attention first time around, then the lack of a dopamine hit means that attention is less likely to be paid next time – and less again, the time after that. Rather than a positive cumulative effect, a piece of content is more likely to be screened out the more often someone sees it.

This is why social media content marketers need to move on from trying to find the optimum frequency – and focus on delivering the right ‘sequency’. Rather than showing the same content over and over, they need to target people with new pieces of content on a regular basis. This is the way to have the best of both worlds when it comes to repeated exposures. You are far less likely to show someone the same piece of content in a way that could be counter-productive – and yet you still get the benefits of priming them to pay attention to your particular brand.

Working with the dopamine – not against it
Neuroscience backs me up on this. The same dopamine effect that works against ads shown to the same people time and time again, works in favour of brands that deliver a sequence of related content to their audiences. The dopamine trains our brains that a particular person or a brand was a source of something interesting and worthwhile last time around. When that brand starts to deliver other relevant content it reinforces the association. It’s something that the research agency TNS refers to as ‘Fresh Consistency’ – recognition combined with novelty that primes us to notice a brand at the same time as giving new reasons to pay attention to it.

The sequency-based approach to Sponsored Content on LinkedIn
The most effective approach to running Sponsored Content campaigns on LinkedIn is sequency-based rather than frequency-based. We recommend that marketers run several pieces of Sponsored Content simultaneously, adding new content regularly and swapping out pieces that don’t perform as strongly as the rest. This helps to keep your audience’s experience of your content fresh. The more relevant pieces of content that you are able to deliver, the more primed people become to look out for your content in their feed.

New Matched Audience targeting options on LinkedIn give you even more options for delivering sequences of relevant content to target audiences. With website retargeting you can create a customised audience segment of people who’ve clicked through to specific content pages on your website. You can exclude this segment from Sponsored Content promoting the pieces they’ve already engaged with, and target them specifically with related content that builds on the topics they’ve already shown an interest in.

Is content marketing still content marketing if it’s attempting to bombard people’s attention into submission by applying the principles of Thomas Smith from over a century ago? I’d argue that it isn’t. Such activity is abandoning the principle that it's the audience that chooses to engage with you – and that it’s your role to keep giving them content worth engaging with. Frequency is far less of a relevant and effective lever for content marketers than sequency is. B2B content marketers increasingly have the tools to deliver consistently fresh content experiences on LinkedIn. There’s never been a better time to use them.