If at first you don't persuade, try, try again (The Rule of Six)

31 Jan

One of the most important principles of marketing is persistence.  Every marketer I’ve ever worked with has said that a target has to be exposed to your message at least six times before it sinks in.

At first, I wasn’t certain if I believed them.  After all, six times seems kind of arbitrary, and I never saw any scholarly research to back it up (I am so ancient that this was actually in the pre-Google days, and you had to go to the library to look anything up).

Yet as the years went by and I heard it from more and more people, I came to accept it…which just illustrates the power of this homely rule.

But there are also some important implications to this rule that most people forget, especially in this age of instant gratification.

If it takes six impressions to make an impact, the relationship between marketing and results is non-linear.  In a linear world, buying 1 week of ads would drive 10% awareness, 2 weeks 20%, and so on.  Here’s a quick table for emphasis:

Week 1: 10%
Week 2: 20%
Week 3: 30%
Week 4: 40%
Week 5: 50%
Week 6: 60% 

But in the non-linear world of the rule of 6, the results actually look more like this:

Week 1: 0%
Week 2: 0%
Week 3: 0%
Week 4: 0%
Week 5: 0%
Week 6: 60%

If you give up after Week 5, you’ll have spent 83% of the money and achieved 0% of your goal.  You can only achieve a worthwhile ROI if you have the stomach to stick with your guns and keep sending your message out, even without visible results.

I have a theory on why this principle works.  I believe that what’s actually happening is that a lot of the effects of marketing are exponential, rather than linear.  That’s why overnight success is generally an oxymoron.

What’s actually happening is that the press only picks up on the effects of “week six” marketing–the debut album, or the starring role in a sleeper hit that shocks Hollywood–and completely ignores the previous five weeks of marketing–the years of playing in clubs and building up a fan base, working for scale in indie movies and making the right contacts.

In my own life, I began 2002 as a failed entrepreneur who had managed to lose $6 million of investor money.  I had no job, no money, and no reasonable prospects (caveat: I did have degrees from Stanford and Harvard Business School, but we’ll ignore those for the time being).

It was around that time that I started getting involved in professional organizations such as SDForum and HBS Tech.  It was also around that time that I decided to change my hermit-like workaholic ways, and start reaching out to venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs.  And I started using something called Blogger that had recently been launched, and was being run by a single dogged entrepreneur named Evan Williams.

For years, it was difficult to see how those activities were making a difference.  Those were weeks 1-5.  But fast-forward to today, and all the little things and persistence ended up making a big difference.  I’ve met hundreds of wonderful people since then, including the founders at PBwiki, whom I invested in, and later joined, and PBwiki’s main VC backers.  And most of these good things have happened in just the past 18 months (helped along by a heck of a boom in our industry).

But if I had gotten discouraged with entrepreneurship and decided to cash in my chips by becoming a consultant or investment banker, I would never have had all these great experiences.

Marketing is hard, and the rule of six makes it harder.  You have to be willing to persist, even when all the standard measures scream for you to pull back and give up.  But if you’ve made the right call, and you persevere through day six, you may find you’ll get the chance to bask in the glory of your “overnight success.”

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