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What is the rule of 7 in marketing?

The rule of seven states that, on average, prospects need to have an engagement with your company or proposition 7 times before they buy.  This is an average, so some prospects might buy on the first touch, some might take years.

What the rule of 7 is not

Sometimes the rule of 7 is stated as an absolute rule i.e. a prospect MUST see your advert, have a sales call and visit your website 7 times before they buy.  This is a nonsense for several reasons. Firstly, if it were this predictable marketeers and sales teams would have worked this out years ago and be counting down the touch points until they hit 7 and the point at which the money started rolling in. Secondly, it depends on the industry.   The touch points for switching accountants will be a lot longer than buying some chocolate. Thirdly, it depends on channels. Face to face meetings will be more likely to move prospects along a sales cycle than visiting a website.

The rule of seven is not a science as such, but rather a principle to help us understand the need to match our sales and marketing processes with the customer buying cycle.  A good way to explain the rule of 7 with pictures is through a bell curve.

Bell curves applied to the rule of 7

The most amazing thing about bell curves is that if the sample of things you are measuring is large enough, it always falls into a bell curve.  So, the heights of trees in a forest (if the sample is large enough) would fall into a bell curve, all the shoe sizes of kids in a school would fall into a bell curve, the number of likes the average Instagrammer needs before they get out of bed in the morning would fall into a bell curve.

So, you know a sample size is large enough if your data points fall into a bell curve. If you measured all the touchpoints, adverts, meetings, conversations and emails a customer needs, on average, before they buy your product or service, it will fall into a bell curve.

However, the people on the thin bit of the bell curve to the left are the outliers who buy after a chance meeting or a couple of touchpoints.  They did not need to see an advert 7 times only 3 times or perhaps once because the timing was perfect, and your message resonated.  But most people will on average need a lot more touch points.  The outliers to the right are the people who needed years to make a decision and pop out of the blue and talk about you as though they have been thinking about making a decision for years (they have!).

Origin of the rule of 7

Some people credit the rule of 7 to Elmo Lewis  who also came up with the AIDA principle.  For me it was The Marketing Guild in the UK, an organisation who used to publish content and advice and marketing tactics before the days it was all free online.  They conducted research in the 90’s and tracked the number of No’s telesales people had to hear before the customer said yes.  A no wasn’t necessarily a straight no but “not right now”, “Still thinking” etc.  And on average (yes that word again) people say “no” 7 times before they said yes.

Their point was simple, most sales teams lose money because they give up too early at the second “no” or the third “we are not ready at the moment”. And remember, some people will say no 8,9,10, 77 times before they say yes.  They also found it wasn’t always the rule of 7; in construction it was the rule of 5 and in training it was the rule of 8. And this research was carried out in the 1990’s so goodness knows what the rule will be for some industries with online channels.

Does the rule of 7 still apply?

Firstly, understand the simplicity of the principle and don’t get hung up on the statistics. Most customers will need, on average, a multitude of touch points from you before they buy.  Sending out one marketing blast is unlikely to work.

Secondly, compare your customers buying cycle to your sales and marketing cycle.  How long do customers take to decide?  Not from the moment they first start to talk to you, but from when they start to think about it.  It is probably wise once you have assessed that to add on a chunk of time to be safe.  In fact, a key reason most organisations don’t do this is because it is hard and takes a lot of effort to do it scientifically.  So, taking an educated guess on the back of an envelope, which you then double, is going to help much more than agonising over the “exact” figure.

Thirdly, analyse your sales and marketing process – how long does that run for and how do you keep people engaged through the process?  If it is too short, and you suspect you are only reaching those initial outliers on the bell curve then what a fantastic opportunity to make more of the steps and move further up the bell curve.

Perhaps the most important challenge is how to keep people engaged over the long term; to build trust without burning any bridges.

How on earth do we apply the rule of 7?

This is hard to do without automation.  In the right markets with large sales teams, it sort of happened organically as good organised salespeople kept maintaining touch points, spurred on by sales meetings and targets. 

In today’s world with online advertising the human brain has learnt to block out and filter most messages it is bombarded with (aided by pop up blockers, iOS updates and privacy laws) and so the job has become harder.  Who knows what the rule is for some markets thinking about online channels, perhaps as much as the rule of 77, maybe more?  So, automation is crucial and so is using robust tracking and analytic tools. This cannot be done by humans with a Rolodex anymore.

A good marketing automation platform doesn’t have to cost the earth and you can build some initial long-term campaigns easily. As you progress a good tracking architecture, content that engages and tells a story, as well as optimising automations once you have some data, are the key building blocks for applying the rule of 7.

The rule of 7 is all about building trust.

The automation is key as is the tracking and setting it up correctly and could be the opportunity to push you along that bell curve, so you are converting more prospects by extending the period with which you engage them. This is the easy part of the problem. Perhaps the harder part is working out how you build trust over the long term without repeating your message too much and without burning bridges.

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