rule of seven

14 March 2019

Don’t Count On It: Marketing’s “Rule Of 7”

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Nonbeliever in Lucky Numbers; photo by Maciej Pienczewski on Unsplash

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

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

I came across some hardcore myth perpetration a few years ago when a college program (not USC) hired me to conduct marketing forensics on their digital agency. The agency had spent over $50,000 — nearly half of my 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 also not qualified — they could have come from spammers, competitors, or just the vaguely curious. For far less money per lead, the program could have purchased a list from a standardized testing company.

The bigger concern: how the agency justified these results.

Rather than acknowledge that the campaign had fallen short, the agency not only declared it a “success,” they recommended investing even more money into it. This included their Google advertising, which cost over $400 per lead. When I asked how they justified this recommendation, 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.”

Mmm, smell that fresh myth stench.

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 parents of teenagers can attest), exactly 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 vegans 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. I see this in email, where the repeat messages violate federal spam regulations. While this occasionally leads to a sale, it usually alienates the prospect.
  • To “go viral,” social media marketers contrive publicity stunts that have little to do with the client’s product, such as flash mobs or “influencer” endorsements.
  • Advertisers invest in media that make 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 for “awareness” and “exposure” and “impressions,” yet research shows that most impressions are virtually worthless.

The True Value Of An “Impression”

In his seminal 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 first get noticed by consumers — and only 20% of ads get both noticed and associated with the right brand. To further achieve salience, ads must clearly mention the brand name, review the brand’s distinctive assets, and, ideally, show the brand’s product in use.

I would add that an ad must also have some kind of emotional impact, whether it’s making the viewer smile, cry, crave, or panic.

So in digital media, forget salience — most ads struggle to achieve even basic “viewability”: many are seen only by bots, or are posted on areas of websites that people fail to notice, or consist of worthless one-second auto-video plays (yes, advertisers get charged for those).

Viewability was the problem with the digital agency’s campaign for the college program. Their tiny bland ads consisted of a generic stock photo and barely any copy (most digital ads have little space for words). Aside from generating zero salience, the ads also suffered virtually nonexistent response rates:

  • click rates < 0.5%
  • conversions of those clicks into email registrations on the destination website < 0.3%.

In sum, only 0.15% (15 out of every 10,000 impressions) converted into mere leads (questionable leads at that).

When I revealed these real numbers to the client (not the magical 7), they canceled all future work with the digital agency.

Key Takeaways:

  1. The quality of an ad impression matters more than the quantity. Contrast expensive Super Bowl ads that millions of people see and discuss, versus cheap banner ads that most people don’t notice or even try to block.
  2. There’s 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 many variables: the product, cost, ease of purchase, and timing. If any of those don’t fit the target customer, no amount of exposure matters.
  3. Too much ad repetition can create antipathy. In the case of email, unsolicited repetition may violate federal CAN-SPAM regulations. And retargeting ads (banner ads that appear to a consumer after they visit a website) are often perceived as “creepy” or a violation of privacy, hurting the advertiser’s brand.
  4. Numbers presented by agencies or consultants who profit from media buying must be critically questioned. Don’t accept mere “awareness” and definitely not “engagement.” Numbers matter — just not the ones the agencies count.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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