What Advertising Can Teach Leaders

Managers who repeat their message often and deliberately see better and faster results.


In the advertising business, effective frequency is the number of times a person, on average, must be exposed to an advertising message before it is well understood by the viewer. The topic of effective frequency has been studied thoroughly over the past four decades.

The first major study was in the 1970s by psychologist Henry Krugman. The conclusion was that, on average, you needed a frequency of three before you could be assured that the message is fully internalised by the recipient.

The data suggested that with the first exposure your mind is engaged in determining what is being discussed. The second exposure causes you to ponder the relevance to you. With the third and future exposures, you are sorting out the details to determine actions you should take, if any.

In 1979 media researcher Mike Naples published a classic book that summarised many frequency studies and the collective guideline that clearly emerged was that the threshold of effectiveness for a message is three, and that is constantly referred to as effective frequency in the media world today.

Related: Tenacity Rules

Interestingly, discussion of frequency of expose to a message emerged in the past few years in the world of management with the publishing of an article in the Harvard Business Review that summarised the results of a large study which recorded and analysed the communications of managers to their people over a lengthy period.

The conclusion was that managers who deliberately repeated their messages, often in different forms (email, face-to-face, to a group, written document, etc.), saw better understanding of the objectives and better and faster results.

Basically, what we are talking about here is communications theory. The learning from both the advertising world and the business world is clear:

1. Make the message clear and concise

You should be able to summarise the essence of the message in one lead sentence that is easy to understand and is memorable.

2. Create opportunities to repeat it often

The advertising research is very relevant here. People need to hear the same message over and over. Soon they will realise you mean it and importantly, they know what you expect them to help bring about.

3. Create measures that accurately reflect progress toward the goal communicated in the message

The resulting measurement needs to be published regularly so people know where they stand. This also further reinforces the message.

Getting the organisation to march to one drummer in important, and the concept of effective frequency is worth remembering!