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A Better Understanding of Attribution


“How did you hear about our [product/position/service/brand/company]?” Select one.

  • TV
  • Print
  • Web
  • Billboard
  • Referral
  • Other

Where this question does pose some valuable insight about a single interaction, it falls short in providing holistic details around an interconnected marketing landscape (and not to mention survey respondent bias).

The Inter-connectivity of Marketing

We live in an interconnected world of advertising, not that advertising ever truly lived in a disconnected way.

Heavy advertising spend on social media can increase your organic traffic..

Likewise, TV campaigns drive second-screen searches.

Digital display advertising drives storefront foot traffic, in-store associates drive sales.

Attribution modeling is a job valued at 50% more per year than the average US salary.

What is Attribution Modeling?

Attribution Modelling tells the story of connectivity.

It shows how connected different marketing functions are, when looking at goal achievement. It discounts the one-man-army concept (i.e. the first question in this article) when looking at conversions, instead taking an “it takes a village” perspective (or rather it could discount this, it may reaffirm a single tactic deserves all of the credit but that’s less likely).

Basically, attribution modelling tells a marketer, business owner or an analyst which aspects of marketing and advertising contribute to an end goal. It looks at the overall picture, rather than just the final contributor to the conversion, referred to as “last-click” in digital advertising, last-touch, final touch, etc. It’s the marketing and advertising function that leads directly to the sale/purchase/conversion and can most easily be seen.

A clear benefit (or downside if you’re the one responsible for now needing to make sense of all of this!) of digital advertising, is the automated connectivity of marketing and attribution, which is needed to eliminate the respondent bias and survey errors in the first example. Not that this does not present an entire set of other problems, but when done right helps provide amazing, holistic insight into your marketing approach.

Types of Attribution Models:

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Last touch attribution is the classical attribution model, because it’s the easiest to connect. To use a sports analogy, it’s crediting the running back that gets the ball into the endzone or the baseball player’s stats for the amount of times he rounds the bases and touches home. But no one else is credited for assistance/support.

Time decay attribution credits the final activity with a higher weighted score and the supporting activities with a lesser score as they move away from the final activity. It is more of a hockey points system – 2 points for the goal and 1 for the assist (hockey does account 1 point to each, the first and second assist). This allows for a more complete picture of what is to be behind the final marketing function that brings in customer acquisition.

Linear attribution is the “all things are equal” approach. This is the team award approach (i.e. the entire team roster, so long as they played, wins the playoff title, not just a single player).

Position based attribution is a blend of most of the other approaches. More heavily weighted on the first and last touch attribution, with lesser weight provided on all of the functions between.

First touch attribution gives credit to the market function that first introduces a prospective customer to the company/brand. It would be similar to a baseball player’s “Run’s batted in”. This is a valuable attribution model when you want to look past retargeting and email, to get to the root of what valuable marketing initiatives are to be credited for bringing the awareness to the brand.

Which attribution model is best? See a previous article I wrote on the answer to good metrics, because it still applies here – “it depends.”

Why Is Attribution Modeling Important?

Attribution modeling is important for a complete view of performance, because very few, if any, marketing functions work independently of others. Traditionally, attribution is generally given to last touch (because that’s the most obvious and easily trackable) which provides a myopic view of performance and optimization.

Let me showcase the shortcoming of that mentality:

Your running paid search, behavioral display targeting, TV and retargeting. Last click shows that 95% of conversions come from retargeting (this is a stat made up for this example, but not one that is too far from realistic examples). You then make a conversion, data-driven decision to allocate more of your budget to where you’re seeing return. Slowly taking more budget away from the other areas and putting that straight to retargeting. You optimize similarly over the next couple of months until your budget is entirely consumed by the remarketing.

Where do these optimizations get you? Eventually to 0. It’s a race to the bottom, because retargeting is where conversions are coming from but it is a reactive strategy that depends on inputs from other areas.

Attribution Modeling & Funnel Alignment

One of the most rudimentary aspects of marketing and advertising is that of a Sales/Marketing Funnel. Bringing people from awareness through interest and onto commitment, or Lead Generation, Lead Nurturing & Sales Closing (don’t forget post-sale processes – they just don’t fit neatly into the “funnel figure”).

Image Credit: Niel Patel – How marketing funnels work

Proper attribution modelling can help you further segment these stages by looking at the individual activities that help generate Awareness, peak Interest, drive Sales and so on.

Consider the following example:

  1. Your company runs a national TV commercial to generate awareness
  2. Next your company runs a large-scale social media campaign targeting the same demographics as the TV placement targeted.
  3. Your commercial and social media reinforcement causes a spike in organic search traffic to your landing page for that specific product/service.
  4. Visitors to your website become placed into your Retargeting Audience and begin seeing ads over time.
  5. After seeing your retargeting ad a number of times, they convert.

You can neatly place this example into the funnel above (it isn’t always this convenient) and see how all of these activities supported the final conversion. One definite is that people, your target audience, market and prospective buyers, enter from the top – hence the blue arrows in the above image. The one thing the image does not portray is the fact that people are EXITING at each stage and the narrowing of the funnel are just people that are left being lead through the different stages of the buyer journey, which comes from brand reinforcement and purchase signals.

Please note, not all funnels are equal. They differ in size and how abruptly or gradually they narrow. They also differ in initiatives that pull a person through. Tactics that work in one company’s funnel may not in another and that’s where attribution modelling, alignment and tracking supports your marketing efforts.

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