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What Is the Difference Between Reach and Frequency?

An effective marketing and advertising campaign requires in-depth research to determine your ideal customer and how you can get their attention — and convince them to buy — with the right messaging. It also means reaching as many people who fall into that category as possible and ensuring they see your message. 

In a time when the average person sees up to 10,000 marketing messages every day, making yours stand out is no easy feat. Even if you get your message in front of an audience, it has to stand out to “stick” and be remembered amongst the thousands of other ads. 

Although the success of any campaign can be measured by how it achieves your desired outcome, such as leads or sales, setting it up for success also means paying attention to other advertising metrics. Measurements including reach and frequency can help you design a successful program and gain insights that help you in future campaigns. When you purchase advertising of any type, reach vs. frequency are two of the most important metrics to consider when evaluating outlets and allocating your budget. 

What Is Reach?

In the simplest terms, reach refers to the actual number of people who see your advertisement. For example, if your local newspaper sells 10,000 papers per day, your advertisement has the potential to be seen by at least 10,000 people. A direct mail piece mailed to 50,000 homes has a reach of 50,000.

Determining reach isn’t an exact science. It is based on estimates determined by circulation numbers, viewership ratings, listenership ratings, and clicks or views on websites. Sometimes, such as with outdoor ads like billboards, reach is estimated using population and traffic data. It doesn’t account for whether multiple people see the same message in the same spot. For example, a magazine in a waiting room is read by several people, potentially increasing advertising reach.  

The Pros of High Reach

Advertisers want to reach as many people who fit their target demographic as possible. The more eyes that see their message, the more potential to reach their goals. Other benefits of prioritizing reach include:

  • Expanded opportunities across platforms allow you to determine which platforms (e.g., print, online, direct mail) are most effective for reaching your customers.
  • Prioritizing reach creates touchpoints with new customers. 
  • Focus on a specific group of customers with a targeted offer. 
  • Tracking where you are achieving the highest reach at the lowest cost helps you refinance budget allocations. 
  • Potential identification of new target audiences based on results from specific sectors. 

The Cons of High Reach

Focusing only on the reach of your marketing message isn’t always a good thing. Some of the downsides include:

  • Easy for messages to get “lost in the noise” and fail to reach their targets because of competition.
  • Limited opportunity to create meaningful relationships with existing customers.
  • Limits your ability to guide potential customers through their buying journey with touchpoints. 
  • High reach doesn’t guarantee actual impressions; for instance, a bus stop ad might not be seen by reading or sleeping passengers. Direct mail pieces may be recycled without being read, or a newspaper subscriber may not read every section. 

How to Effectively Maximize Reach

Focusing on reaching as many potential customers as possible can quickly become expensive — and fruitless — if you aren’t attempting to reach the right ones. For example, sending a direct mail piece to every address in a particular town to advertise lawn care services isn’t a good use of your advertising dollars. Renters, apartment dwellers, or people who live in downtown areas and do not have lawns aren’t likely to respond. 

Therefore, maximizing reach requires doing some demographic research so you are reaching the right people, not just all of the people. At the same time, though, expanding your reach can be useful for actually performing demographic research when you’re trying to identify a new customer base. Instead of basing your strategy on preconceived ideas of your “ideal” customer, starting with a broad reach then identifying areas of more action allows you to refine the strategy as you go forward.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to determining the ideal reach for your campaign. It depends on your campaign goals and budget. If your focus is to build awareness, then extensive reach can be effective. If you have a limited budget and want people to take action, reaching a smaller audience, but more often, can be more effective. It increases the chance of people seeing and remembering your message.

Other Reach Considerations

Determining the ideal reach for your campaign also needs to take other considerations into account. For example:

  • Established businesses should maximize reach when marketing a special or seasonal opportunity. For example, if you have a single annual clearance sale, letting as many people know as possible can drive new and existing business.
  • Reach matters when introducing a new product or service. Let as many people as possible know about it!
  • Businesses or products with very little competition benefit from prioritizing reach. You still need to stand out with a relevant and meaningful message, but reiterating your message multiple times isn’t as important when you aren’t competing. 

What Is Frequency?

Frequency is the number of times someone within your target demographic sees a marketing message within the campaign period. Research indicates that most people need to be exposed to a message several times before they take action. 

Additional research has found that it can take up to ten or more impressions for a message to take hold; Facebook, for instance, recommends a frequency of one to two exposures per week for ten weeks for the best results. If you are doing a direct mail campaign and mail to the same list three times, you have a frequency of three. 

The Pros of High Frequency

Achieving high frequency increases the likelihood of your messages sticking in audience memory. However, it also provides some additional benefits. 

  • Frequent messages allow you to nurture relationships with customers.
  • Frequency creates different touchpoints to reach customers at all stages of their buying journey.
  • Repetition helps establish your brand, creating associations between your messages and your company.

The Cons of High Frequency

  • High frequency can be expensive.
  • High frequency can potentially be off-putting. Customers can become annoyed seeing the same messages repeatedly and may even take their business elsewhere. 
  • Persistence is required for success. It may take several impressions for your customers to respond. 

How to Determine Appropriate Frequency

Achieving frequency can be challenging, as the ways individuals use media have changed over the last decade. For example, research indicates that as many as 89% of television advertisements are ignored because viewers use their smartphones or do other things during commercial breaks. 

With that in mind, many marketers have adopted multi-channel strategies to achieve their frequency goals. For example, the same ad may appear on television and online, or advertisers may send direct mail pieces in addition to television ads. These strategies often include frequency caps, limiting the number of times individuals see the same message. Excessive frequency eventually results in diminishing returns and reduced effectiveness. 

Determining the “sweet spot” for frequency, then, can be challenging. It depends largely on the channel, your goals, and your budget.

Other Frequency Considerations

There are times when prioritizing frequency overreach is the key to marketing success. These include:

  • When you need to earn a buyer’s trust. Certain businesses, such as mortgage brokers, home services, education, and luxury items like automobiles, require trust. More frequent messaging helps establish that.  
  • When you want to establish your brand. Frequency is vital to achieving top-of-mind awareness.
  • There is a great deal of competition. When your market is saturated, standing out with repeated messages is a must. 

Striking a Balance Between Reach and Frequency

In a perfect world, there would be a simple formula for determining the ideal reach vs. frequency for any campaign. Unfortunately, that formula doesn’t exist, and striking a balance requires setting clear and specific goals and identifying your ideal audience.  

One framework for planning marketing campaigns is to divide them into three phases: Awareness, evaluation, and action. The first 2-3 impressions should build awareness and gain attention. The next stage, evaluation, is addressed by impressions 3-10 and focused on presenting the benefits of the brand and its position. Impressions beyond the 10th should focus on reiterating benefits and solidifying feelings about the brand.

Striking a balance between reach and frequency may require trial and error and making adjustments on the fly. But understanding how they work and relate to each other can get you started on the right track.