Marketing Attribution- Where Confusion Reigns

OptiMine attribution graphic

Ask any marketer how they define “marketing attribution” and you’re likely to get as many different definitions as the number of people you ask. Some believe attribution is all about identifying the magic sequence of ads and touchpoints that unlock the customer conversion, as if one can control how prospective customers interact with a complex ecosystem of messaging and marketing across multiple devices. Others may define attribution as assigning a special weight to an ad based on a fractional formula, and voilà, call it a day. Throw in some murky terminology like “top-down”, “bottom-up”, “u-shaped”, or “algorithmic”, and you can see where this movie ends: total confusion.

In some regards, this may just be a symptom of a nascent, emerging field. Market confusion precedes the coalescence and convergence around best practices, methodologies and standardized terminology. Only after does a mature market begin to take shape. But the confusion creates some real problems in the meantime. So why does this confusion – and solving it- matter? Two reasons: there can be blind adherence to methodology that can cause major damage for marketers; and, real opportunities are missed because overly narrow definitions of “marketing attribution” drive marketers to believe they have their attribution bases covered.On the methodology point, there is an overreliance in the market currently- fueled incorrectly by some industry analysts- that the only way you can achieve “attribution” is to track every customer across every device, for every ad in the mix. Not only is this completely impossible (even Google doesn’t have the computational power to pull this off), it completely ignores the fact that there are millions of reasons that have nothing to do with advertising that compel a customer to purchase. Factors like the hidden needs and beliefs of the consumer, the power of the brand promise, the economy, and even the weather on the day of the week the consumer decides to go shopping- all can drive purchases in ways that are much larger than the ads. Missing these elements can cause harm- whether by over-assigning credit to marketing that may have, in fact, had zero value, or by under-valuing marketing efforts that aren’t as easily trackable that boost awareness or pre-purchase education. But when the marketer blindly assumes there is only one way to solve the measurement problem, other bigger problems are spawned.

Narrower definitions of attribution are just as problematic. Some think of attribution as only pertaining to digital efforts, as if these efforts occur in a total vacuum of an electronic world that exists wholly separate from everything else. View-through conversion attribution focused on the interplay of display and paid search blindly ignores those pesky TV, Print and Radio ads that were running at the same time. But those traditional media people are on a different team, and this report needs to get out before the end of the day…

The marketing world and consumer landscape is changing at lightspeed, but one shouldn’t for expediency’s sake give in to the confusion around attribution. We must be better as marketers, and those who deploy attribution properly will have the sustaining advantage. To get there, it’s best the marketer starts with a more general definition of attribution that gets to the overall, essential goal: measuring the value of the impact or contribution a marketing campaign or an individual ad has on an outcome.  From this common starting point, marketers can then branch off to the other various pieces of the puzzle- targeting, personalization, or engagement – without missing the important, core question: what are all of these ads worth?