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When it comes to your message, how much is enough?

Posted by on June 7th, 2019
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Messaging, Storytelling   

We counsel our clients to repeat, repeat, repeat: Get a good message and stick with it—in print, digital, and spoken communications.

In fact, we often say that someone needs to hear a message 14 times before they will take action based on that message.

I recently went looking for the original source material for that fact. We’d initially heard the “14 times rule” as an adage in advertising and wondered if prevailing wisdom—especially in an age of social media—had changed.

The term for the number of times someone has to hear a message before acting on it is called “effective frequency.” So what’s the effective frequency for your organization’s message?

While there is a lot of conflicting information out there, everyone agrees on one thing: Repeating your message is a good thing.

I found this from a blog American Express publishes for its business customers:

So how frequent must your communications be to reach and activate your audience? Long-standing research in advertising tells us that it takes three to seven impressions before a message registers. A frequency of fewer than three messages is a waste of money. But a frequency beyond seven continues to have a cumulative benefit; diminishing returns doesn’t set in for a good while. You’ll get tired of your ads long before your prospect does.

We agree. That’s what we tell our nonprofit clients who worry that their message is getting stale, or that a donor who hears the exact same message from everyone she talks to is going to be bored at best and suspicious at most. Don’t confuse your boredom with hers: She’s not paying nearly as much attention to your communications as you wish she were.

From a blog on The Financial Brand we found this:

Marketing experts like to debate the “right ways” to calculate effective frequency. Some say repeating a message three times will work, while many believe the “Rule of 7″ applies. There was a study from Microsoft investigating the optimal number of exposures required for audio messages. They concluded between 6 and 20 was best.

This was oft quoted in my reading:

The 1st time people look at an ad, they don’t see it.
The 2nd time, they don’t notice it.
The 3rd time, they are aware that it is there.
The 4th time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it before.
The 5th time, they actually read the ad.
The 6th time, they thumb their nose at it.
The 7th time, they get a little irritated with it.
The 8th time, they think, “Here’s that confounded ad again.”
The 9th time, they wonder if they’re missing out on something.
The 10th time, they ask their friends or neighbors if they’ve tried it.
The 11th time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.
The 12th time, they start to think that it must be a good product.
The 13th time, they start to feel the product has value.
The 14th time, they start to feel like they’ve wanted a product like this for a long time.
The 15th time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it.
The 16th time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.
The 17th time, they make a commitment to buy the product.
The 18th time, they curse their poverty because they can’t buy this terrific product.
The 19th time, they count their money very carefully.
The 20th time prospects see the ad, they buy what it is offering.

This is even more interesting when you note that it was written in 1885. If you really think about, people haven’t changed much. But the amount of information coming at us has.

One research abstract we found had this to say on message frequency:

Studies suggest that repeated statements are perceived as more truthful than statements made less frequently, “presumably because repetition imbues the statement with familiarity.” In simple terms: Frequency breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds trust.

Similarly, studies show that repeated exposure to an opinion makes people believe the opinion is more prevalent, even if the source of that opinion is only a single person.

So not only do consumers remember a statement that gets repeated, they are more likely to believe it, and think it is the popular opinion.

In summary, we could not find a study that unequivocally claimed the “14 times rule”, but the general takeaway is that a frequency of between 7 and 20 is needed. And since there’s no empirical data that gets more precise than the “14 times rule”, we’re sticking with it.

If you’re a nonprofit, no matter how large or small your budget, the most powerful tool at your disposal is disciplined repetition of a compelling set of key messages. These messages should be used by everyone who speaks and writes about your organization and its work. What you lack in the ability to target your audience with paid advertising, you can make up for with consistent repetition in your everyday communications over time.

We want to know what you think. What effective frequency have you applied to your communications?

*Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2015 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.

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