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What Return to Expect on Your TV Ad Dollar

Before you pour money into airtime, determine how often you need to show your spot to get a return on your investment.

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Q: The first product I produced I brought to market via trade shows, reps and retail. This time I want to try TV direct sales. What I can't find are any statistics to help me determine how many exposures I need to purchase before I can expect a sale. Of course one would have to assume that I have the perfect product and that the ad has all the proper sales techniques employed.

With this in mind, are there any data to lead one to plan how much airtime should be purchased to realistically expect a return on your ad dollar? And if so, what is this statistic called, and where can I find this information? I'm assuming that this type of information is well-guarded in any company that's successful. Yet surely, someone must have a reputable opinion to share. I hate the thought of being at the mercy of an ad agency.

A: You pose a formidable question. Interestingly, the answer to your question is exactly the same as the answer to this puzzler: "How many times can you hit a man before he will decide to hit you back?" The answer, of course, is that it depends entirely on the man you hit, where you hit him, how hard you hit him and his interpretation of what your intentions were when you struck him.

Neurologically speaking, an individual's response to your "call to action" will be determined by two factors: salience (a fancy word for relevance) and repetition.

In your question, you ask that we assume that you have "the perfect product" and that it will be perfectly presented. In such a case (meaning, "in your dreams"), salience would be at the theoretical maximum, and the number of repetitions required to make the sale would be exactly one exposure. In other words, everyone who saw the ad would immediately order the product. So we had better not assume that you have "the perfect product" or that it will be perfectly presented. Instead, let's assume that your product is of average salience (relevance) and that it will be presented at least as well as the average product in a direct-response campaign.

My specific advice to you is to buy the book Ogilvy on Advertising and read it closely. This will help you craft a message that will speak to the felt need of your customer. Then, test your TV ad in a single cable zone that reaches no more than 10,000 households during the average commercial break. In this comparatively low-cost environment, you'll be free to tweak your campaign to maximum performance by changing only one variable at a time. The variables that will need to be monitored and tweaked are:

  • The times of day the ad is played.
  • The networks on which the ad is played.
  • The types of programming the ad follows.
  • Different wording and videography within the ad itself.
  • The number of times the same viewer has been reached before the sale is consummated.

When you've achieved an acceptable ratio of cost to return-on-investment, then you can safely expand your campaign into multiple markets and move to an island in the Bahamas.

Now that I've told you the real way to do it, I'll answer the question you originally asked, which was, "How much airtime would have to be purchased to realistically expect a return on your ad dollar?"

Assuming average salience, the identical viewer must be exposed to the identical ad at least three times within seven night's sleep before you can safely assume that you have "reached" the viewer. Let us know when to look for your ads on television, OK?

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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