The panel he led at @d:Tech also addressed a lot of these points and the discussion about reach and frequency and its effect on our business was one of the best had during the two-day conference.
Since then, however, I’ve had more than one discussion with very knowledgeable media and marketing professionals in this space who aren’t convinced that reach/frequency really matters when discussing online advertising. One fellow called the R/F discussion a “non-starter” for interactive.
The main reason most of those unconvinced give for why reach & frequency shouldn’t matter to the web is that the medium’s inherent nature as being first and foremost a direct marketing channel. I would agree that most of the Internet’s killer app as demonstrated to date has been as just that. But I disagree that reach & frequency have no place in determining values of online marketing.
The reason I do believe in R/F as being one of the fundamental pieces missing from the interactive puzzle is this:
It allows for the representation of the medium's communication delivery in terms that can be expressed in the context of other media. I agree that the most compelling aspect of Internet marketing to date is the medium's ability to best utilize database driven systems (read, ‘direct marketing’). However, those systems aren't entirely good, yet, at delivering messages based on anything other than machine-level data.
This is not true for sites that survey their users regularly and require registration, but for most sites and the technology they use, this is the case. If we believe that the medium CAN actually be used for the purposes of branding, then the only way to carry on the rhetorical discourse of convincing an individual that a particular product or service will alter their relationship with the world around them for the purposes of moving product is to proxy the appropriate number of people that must be touched by the message to get X widgets sold through the use of reach. That's essentially why it is used in traditional media, and the same would hold true for online. Otherwise, online as a medium, will maintain a more ghettoized placement in the overall marketing mix and always play the role of a medium separate from all the rest, always being on its own flow chart, if you will.
That said, technologies that collect audience data from pre-existing sources such as ad servers, content servers and email databases, and merge them with other data sources such as subscription or registration databases to not only extract greater understanding of value of an audience, but also identify that audience as saleable ad inventory, could bring to the party the kind of thing that one-to-one adherents are pointing to as being the most compelling use of the Internet as a marketing tool.
In lieu of this kind of technology (which, when all is said and done, is still more like Zeno's arrow -- always halving the distance without ever quite reaching the target), things like "reach" and "frequency" are necessary.
And finally, my oft-used phrase when discussing the matter of metrics used in offline media applied to online media: if you want to convert the natives it is best to use their language. For good or ill, part of the "sale" of the interactive medium to general market advertisers relies on talking to them in a language they understand. This includes talk of "reach & frequency."
I would say that ULTIMATELY the Internet as a marketing tool has to be based in some measure on its ability to use database systems that allow for unique identification of individuals in an audience as prospective consumers. But a position such as this just won't truly realize itself until a new generation of brand managers and media directors for whom technology is not scary and for whom data-driven marketing is "de rigueur" are working together. And it is already starting to happen; we just need a little more time.
Until then, reach & frequency are the best methods at our disposal for determining communication delivery value for a client that would use the medium as a tool for branding and not just to elicit impulse sale.