Why Advertising is Rarely Scalable

Posted by on March 14, 2011

The Monday Morning Memo for March 14, 2011

Most people believe advertising is scalable. These people are right.

And they are wrong.

SCALABLE:  When a large-scale problem can be solved by the straight-line, linear expansion of a small-scale solution, that solution is scalable.  Example: You want to put a box of loose snapshots into photo albums. One album holds exactly 50 snapshots. This problem is scalable. Count the snapshots, divide by fifty, then buy that many photo albums
Direct Response ads – those high-impact ads crafted to hit a target with maximum impact and trigger a purchase with a single exposure – are scalable. Reach 10 times as many targets and you’ll make 10 times as many sales.

But most ads are not scalable, due to the vagaries of relevance, sleep and time. Non-scalable ads must be repeated until you reach a threshold called “breakthrough.”

BREAKTHROUGH: The best way to understand breakthrough and how it differs from scalability is to consider the following statistic: There will be exactly 20 traffic fatalities for each 100 cars that try to navigate a particular corner at 100 MPH. We have the data. It is conclusive. Numbers don’t lie. Apply scalability to this data and you’ll wrongly predict there will be 2 fatalities for each 100 cars that try to navigate the corner at 10 MPH.  Breakthrough is best understood as the speed-threshold at which a car becomes dangerously unstable in the corner. Breakthrough is that moment when the rules of the equation change dramatically.

Q: “So how long will it be before my advertising reaches breakthrough? How many repetitions will be required before my customer finally takes action?”

A: Your moment of breakthrough will be determined by 2 variables. The first of these is relevance.

RELEVANCE: Does the target need the product or can a desire be stimulated for it? Direct response ads perform poorly for categories that have “moments of need” that are well defined. It’s hard to sell an engagement ring to a person who has no interest in getting engaged. Likewise, how do you convince a person to buy new tires when the car simply doesn’t need them, or a new hot water heater when the old one is working fine? When your product or service category doesn’t have the requisites for direct response marketing, your best option is to become the solution-provider the customer remembers immediately when their moment of need finally arises.

“Sounds great. But how much time is that going to take?”

We can answer that question only after we’ve answered this one: How memorable was your message? We’re back to that issue of relevance again.
Involuntary, automatic recall is known as procedural memory among cognitive neuroscientists and the rules of its creation are simple: Relevance x Repetition = Procedural Memory. In other words, the amount of repetition your message will need will be determined by its relevance and one last thing…

SLEEP: the second variable.

Sleep erases advertising. This is why 12 repetitions spread over 12 months don’t have the same effect as 12 repetitions in 1 month.  Becoming a household word in the mind of your public is like climbing a muddy mountain. Three steps forward and you slide 2 steps back during the night. Three steps forward, two steps back.

But don’t despair. Breakthrough is on the horizon. Can you see it sparkling there in the distance? Cross that threshold and everything around you will come alive. You can do it. I have faith in you.

Need some help?

Come to Wizard Academy.

(Sigh.) I’m sorry for that sneaky little sales pitch. In the end, I just can’t quit being an ad guy.

Roy H. Williams

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