You could have a career in media in and never understand the most important element of a media buy - frequency. Professional media planning and buying is more about cost per point and gross rating points. But, pound for pound, frequency is the yeast in the bread. When you put it in, everything rises.
What is Frequency?
Frequency is the number of times, or how frequently, your audience is reached by your message. This is really important. Think about how we learn. We learn by practice, or frequency. We learn by repeating our times tables over and over again. We created a song for our ABC's and we teach kids to sing that song over and over again. Frequency is the key to learning.
Your audience is no different. They learn about you through repetition of message. They connect you in their minds. Think about jingles. Jingles are so effective because they make a message memorable and, frequency plays the staring role in that memory. You have to hear something often enough to make it memorable. And, when you put it to music, it becomes unforgettable.
Frequency, as defined in the context of a media buy, is the number of times that the average user/listener/viewer is exposed to a single message is a week.
The Rule of Three
A very broad rule of thumb is to plan a minimum weekly frequency of three with every single media property. Many times frequency is foregone because the decision making group decides that they need be on a group of vendors or in specific programming. I understand the desire to reach more people. But, if you cannot present your message often enough then reach is irrelevant. Frequency is the first measure. Don’t add more media vendors until your frequency goal is met. The other option is to reduce the number of weeks for your campaign to add media vendors. Frequency should never be sacrificed.
You have to plan each media vendor separately and make sure that they are getting a weekly frequency of three. You can load all of your media vendors into software and get a three frequency in a week, but that is not effectively managing your buy. One media vendor may be delivering a 1.5 frequency while another may be delivering a 5. So, the money on the vendor with the 1.5 is a wasted opportunity.
Another mistake is to plan multiple messages with a three frequency. Each of your messages needs to be planned with frequency in mind. For example, when McDonalds plans a breakfast sandwich campaign, that message has it’s own audience; it’s on in the morning, and needs to be a minimum frequency, aside from the Big Mac dinner campaign.
Another mistake that many planners make is to look at the frequency across the duration of the buy and not the weekly number. Let’s say you buy a flight on TV over 6 weeks and the frequency is 4.1 after the 6 weeks is done. You may have a weekly frequency that is much lower than a 3. Be sure to request a weekly number if you are working with vendors. If you are building a buy in your own software, load your ratings and build one week of the campaign and look at your frequency.
In fact, I suggest that you request a weekly schedule, with a 3 frequency, from all of your vendors, and then purchase the number of weeks that your budget allows. Never pre-determine that you want your campaign to be on for a certain amount of time and accept less that a 3 frequency so that your campaign is longer.
Exceptions for the frequency rule come into play when you have a very well established brand, a non-stop presence in the media, and your message doesn’t change. These kinds of campaigns are very rare and are not the best use of a budget. But, they can work over time, and I mean years.
If you are thinking long term about the media plan, it's easy to get mired in the details. But, I challenge you to ponder what is important, and, plan buys that get even better results.