Just before Christmas, I did a trip to Salt Lake City, and the ride-share driver who got me at the airport, after asking me what I did and after I explained my role in marketing, he said to me: “Ah, I was listening to a podcast the other day about ‘the buyer’s journey.’ Did you know that it used to be that a buyer might get about 20% of the way toward a purchase, and then a salesperson would enter the picture to help them along … but now, now because of the internet, people do a lot more of their own research, and a salesperson might not enter the picture until the buyer is 80% of the way there or more?”

I’m not making this up. And it took me a second to digest the fact that this Lyft driver was trying to school me in marketing, and then took me another second to get over the fact that “the buyer’s journey” has somehow slipped out of marketing’s ivory tower and down into the mainstream. And once I got past those two things, I said to him, “Yes, I knew that, but do you know how many impressions it takes to make an impression, because that’s the real question right now.”

NYC ads on streetOk, that bit, I made up. I didn’t really say that to him. But it is the question that’s been coming up a lot recently. In fact it was on a call recently where one of my colleagues said something to the effect: “It used to be that someone had to see or hear a message three to seven times before it registered, before they even took it in, but now with all the messages coming at people from the internet, they now say that you have to be exposed to a message twenty times before it registers or makes an impression.”

I challenged him and the team to find documentation to support that statement. Twenty times? Not much was forthcoming on that, but I did get a lot of info about the buyer’s journey that actually agreed with the ride-share driver. Do an online search and you’ll find statistics quoted that buyers are anywhere from 57% to 80% along in researching a product before a salesperson gets involved.

So let’s call it an average of 70%. Cindy Zuelsdorf, at our sister company, Kokoro Marketing, calls it the Rule of 70.

If we agree that people are 70% of the way along in their research, then clearly it is critical to get your messages out there in front of them early in their journey. You need to get noticed if you’re going to join those buyers on those journeys.

And that brings us to our question of how many impressions does it take to make an impression? Or, what is the “effective frequency” of a marketing message? That is, the number of times a message needs to be seen/heard before a response is generated and before continued exposure no longer adds to the response rate (or becomes annoying).

man walking by large adAnd that leads to another marketing rule, often quoted: the Rule of 7. It says that a prospect needs to be exposed to your message at least seven times before they notice it or take an action (or sometimes they say from six to eight times). Where that number came from originally seems to be a bit of a mystery. No one that I’ve found seems to be able to quote a real scientific source. It is as if it has been so widely quoted, everyone just accepts it as fact, even for the digital age. My online search on the Rule of 7 turned up a zillion results (well, more precisely, over 350 million in 0.33 seconds, Google tells me). Whether it’s backed by any science or not, it sounds good, and it kind of makes sense, right?

Actually, I’ve become dubious. And I’m not the only one. Not dubious about the importance of repeat contact, because that’s something in the basic psychology of learning.

What I’m questioning is whether there can be a precise number of hits that applies universally in marketing. There are differences between consumer marketing and B2B, there are differences between industries, differences between startup companies launching their first product (or trying to create interest in order to get funding) and multinationals adding an incremental advance over last year’s model.

old Pepsi adThere is a slew of variables that really don’t seem to lend themselves to neat little “marketing rules.” I’m going to continue to research this question, and in fact have already ordered a couple of books that look to address the topic more thoroughly (look for book reports from me here at a later date). But in the meantime, if anyone out there has their own thoughts on this or any evidence-based conclusions to share, I’d love to hear them.

Also in the meantime, another thing that we marketers can do is look closely at the statistics we have in front of us every day. If the Rule of 70 is true or anywhere near true, and your potential customers are in fact out there researching long before they contact you or return your calls, then the logical place they are doing their research is on your website, right? That’s your storefront. And if that’s the case, a simple way to gauge some of your marketing’s effectiveness, at a minimum, is to look for spikes in your website traffic and see if you can associate the blips and bumps with specific marketing activities or campaigns. Everything should be driving the truly interested buyer back to your site.

One last thing.

I did find some validation to the must-see-your-message-twenty-times claim cited earlier. One article referenced a Microsoft study that concluded that between six and twenty exposures were necessary for audio messages. And the most often-quoted piece, by Thomas Smith, lays out how it takes twenty views before a purchase is made. Here’s his list:

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.

It’s from “Successful Advertising,” published in 1885 (that’s not a typo). Seems not a lot has changed in marketing theory since then. And, without being able to be precise in any meaningful way, everyone does still agree that repetition is important. You need to repeat your message, you need to repeat your message. You need to repeat your message.