Rule Of 7 Loaded Dice

19 June 2016

How Lazy Marketers Gamble With Your Money: The Mythical “Rule Of 7”

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Marketing Analyst…

One advantage of phone calls is no one can see you rolling your eyes. Because while listening to a lazy ad agency explain their strategy and campaign results, my eyes rolled harder than the dice at a Vegas craps table.

I was on a conference call with one of my clients, a college program, and their digital ad agency, a giant firm that usually works with Fortune 500 clients. 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 leads — not students, not applicants, not even qualified leads, just 250 email addresses of people from around the world who could be spammers, competitors, or just the vaguely curious.

It was bad enough that these questionable leads cost $200/each (a useful list of standardized test takers would have cost less per lead). A glance at the data showed that each lead from Google Ads cost 2 1/2 times more than each lead from Facebook Ads — yet the agency was encouraging even more expenditures on Google, declaring the campaign a “success.”

When asked how they were measuring “success,” the agency claimed, “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.”

Holy loaded craps game. Could it get anymore deceitful than this?

To explain my scorn and disbelief, let’s dissect that “5 to 10 times” claim, a variation of the mythical “Rule of 7.”

7 Reasons Why “The Rule Of 7” Is A Myth

The Rule of 7 claims that consumers need to be exposed to a marketing message at least 7 times. And while some people do need repeat prodding before they act (“Freddy, you need more exercise”), here’s why a client should NEVER allow their agency to use that rule.

  1. There’s no proof. Absolutely no studies have verified a specific number of exposures leading to sales. Now, a large digital ad agency could produce their own findings based on the data they’ve accumulated over multiple clients and many years. But that would involve work, and citing a widespread myth is much easier. So if an agency ever pulls the Rule of 7 on you, respond with two words: prove it.
  1. Results vary depending on product, cost, ease of purchase, type of consumer, and timing. I may see an ad for a pizza, and immediately call for a delivery. I may see another ad for a vacation home in Tahiti, and just sigh, “someday.” A diet-conscious billionaire seeing the same ads might have the completely opposite response. That is, if the stock market is doing well, and it happens to be deep frozen winter where he is.
  1. Some consumers won’t budge no matter how many ads they see. Whether it’s a politician you can’t stand, or a pharmaceutical product you don’t need, no amount of advertising will move you. Targeting the right audience is critical. Even a mass market campaign that tries to appeal to everybody can fail — consider all the Hollywood bombs that have been marketed across all media. So remember: awareness alone is never enough; a “successful” marketing campaign also drives desire and action.
  1. Too much ad repetition can create antipathy, particularly if it’s terrible advertising. Ask anyone who sat through the onslaught of fantasy football ads last year — we rejoiced when regulators temporarily clammed them up. Or consider retargeting banner ads — marketing by stalking — which follow you across the web, and which most consumers find creepy. (By the way, the digital ad agency also purchased retargeting ads for my client, but they couldn’t produce any stats to justify the risk.)
  1. General “Impressions” are hard to measure, even deceptive. Hundreds of articles have been written about controversial online ad “viewability,” including the deceptive number of “impressions” (ads seen by bots, or posted on parts of websites that people don’t notice, or even 1 second auto-video plays that count as an “impression”). Offline is even harder: how do you know whether people are noticing your billboard, hearing your radio commercial at 3 a.m., or paying attention to the dude on the corner spinning your sign? Methods exist to roughly measure their effectiveness — such as unique web addresses — but few advertisers employ them.
  1. Individual aggregate impressions are impossible to measure. Given the difficulty of measuring impressions in general, how can you count impressions on one person? For online ads, you can use cookies, but despite the seemingly precise numbers, they’re far from perfect, particularly if a consumer purges cookies from their browser or switches between their phone and their computer. Even if you survey a consumer about their advertising views, they will struggle to remember. For example, in the past 3 months, exactly how many messages have you seen or heard encouraging you to support a particular politician?
  1. Quality of exposure matters as much as — if not more than — quantity. Apple’s “1984” ad has been called the greatest TV commercial of all time, yet it ran just once — during the Super Bowl when most viewers pay attention to ads. The key: “1984” was so provocatively made, people are still talking about it more than 30 years later. Compare that to all the ads on Google you’ve ever seen — how many inspired you? How many do you even remember — and how many will you remember in 30 years?

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

So on that note, how can a tiny, text-based Google Ad, or a 1-second glance at an auto-play video, create any kind of salience?

Professor Sharp further argues that building a brand and retaining market share both require continuous advertising, but if consumers don’t notice the ads or remember the brand, all the “impressions” simply don’t add up.

After Math

After the conference call, I wrote a scathing evaluation of both the digital ad agency’s work and how they tried to represent it. I didn’t outright recommend that they be fired, because I couldn’t determine whether they were intentionally misleading my client or just needed educating. They’re certainly not alone in perpetrating myths — many marketers gullibly and guilelessly tout the Rule of 7. But given this agency’s size, claims of expertise, and over 20 years in business, I expected significantly more effort and critical thinking. Calling a failed campaign “successful” left a really bad impression.

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches 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.

One Response

  1. “If it’s as simple as putting an advertisement in front of someone’s eyes 5-10 times before they buy, explain to me again why we’re paying you so much?”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.