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What the heck is “attribution,” anyways?

8 mins read

Measuring your campaigns is one of the most challenging things about marketing. Everyone wants to get a good return on investment or “ROI” from their campaigns. That’s why we set up analytics, tracking numbers, and customer feedback forms. But when you have multiple types of advertising working together to bring in customers, things can get a little trickier. Enter attribution modeling.

I usually try to stay away from marketing buzzwords in my articles, but this important concept gets a pass. Not considering attribution is one of the biggest mistakes I see business owners making day after day.

When you calculate ROI with an attribution model, you give value to each customer touchpoint based on how strongly it influenced the person to buy. For example, if a person had 5 experiences with your brand before buying – seeing an ad, reading your content, talking to your sales staff, and so on – an attribution model would give each of those touchpoints credit.

Let’s dive in a bit deeper into why attribution is important and learn how the heck we can measure it in the digital age.

Why is attribution so important?

You may have heard the old saying that it takes “7 touches” from different advertising mediums to create a buyer. That figure is kind of baloney – the theory is decades old and has never actually been tested. But there’s a reason this adage has stuck around so long: Even before the internet, most marketers agreed that people were more comfortable pulling out their wallets after a few experiences with a brand.

This is how a typical buyer journey might have looked back when the “7 touches” rule was originally penned. The customer might have a couple of conversations and consume a few ads before making a purchasing decision, which would be helped by brand recognition and trust:

Buyers like this certainly still exist. But there’s a new type of customer in town. This digitally-savvy buyer depends heavily on online research, forum discussions and social media messaging to make her decision. That “7 touches” rule is more important than ever – in fact, some analysts say up to 13 brand experiences in a short window are needed to convert modern buyers. Here’s how the buyer journey can look in the digital age:


Here comes the tricky part for ROI measurement. If multiple channels influence your customer before they dive in, what marketing method gets the glory? The logo in the hockey arena they see every day? The social media article you posted last week, the friend who gave you a good review, or the Google ad they clicked on when they were ready to buy?

Many businesses depend on what is called “last touch attribution.” They’ll give all the credit to the last marketing method a person uses before converting – often a search ad or a directory listing. This can cut out things that are a major part of that buyer’s journey. Just look at the stats below!

Repeated exposure to your brand through social media ads, content, referrals, and traditional marketing can help your bottom line. By considering attribution, you can figure out which types of marketing are working together to bring in the big bucks.

How do I measure attribution?

This is the tough part. If you’re using a combination of traditional and digital marketing, you would need to follow your customers around every minute of every day to get a 100% accurate reading (please don’t do that). There will always be some guesswork involved in this kind of measurement. But if those big wig advertisers who are all over the airwaves and the internet can rock an attribution model, so can you. The key is to look at long-term trends, keep rigorous analytics, and communicate with customers on their lead sources whenever possible.

Step one: Work attribution into your web analytics.

An estimated 30-50 million web sites use Google analytics to learn about their traffic. If you’re one of those users, you’re already on the right track! Through Google Analytics, you can give custom values to different clicks from the same person using their ‘Attribution Modeling’ feature.

There are a few attribution models you can choose from with Google Analytics. Here are a few:

  • “First interaction” attribution gives all the credit to the the first way a customer connects with your brand online.
  • “Last interaction” attribution gives all the credit to the the last channel with which the customer interacted before buying or converting.
  • “Linear model” attribution gives equal credit to every online touchpoint along your customer’s journey.
  • “Position based” attribution allows you to customize your attribution formula. A popular formula for many advertisers is giving the first and last interaction a value of 40% each, and split the remaining 20% between the steps in the middle.

Psst…”position based” attribution is my favourite. Once you get the hang of it, you can really base the formula on your business and goals!

Step two: Look at trends, not just standalone stats.

Alright, sports fans, riddle me this: If you drafted a player because he was good at defending or passing, would you get rid of him because he didn’t score enough?

Probably not.

Yet so many marketers take this approach with their advertising ventures. They cut budget from key branding efforts without considering their role in the overall buyer’s journey. They forget to look at how things like social media, content, sponsorships, and community involvement support the system as a whole. In the sports analogy, that’s like having a coach that cares only about goals and ignores the assists.  If you’re trying to figure out what’s “working” in your marketing plan, you need to look at the WHOLE picture.

Don’t get me wrong – you should still figure out the “conversion rate” of individual platforms (it’s great to know who your top scorer is!). But when you get too obsessed with any one stat, you lose sight of the big picture. Don’t just find out if your clicks are up, but look at whether your sales are up. Ask if the people “converting” are true potential customers. Pay attention to the geography or goals of new inquiries, and see if it lines up with any groups you’ve been targeting recently.


Of course, you can only observe trends over a reasonable amount of time.  I’ve seen so many customers hold onto a flyer for 6-8 months before dialing the number. I’ve seen articles go viral months or even years after publication. Yes, sometimes marketers have immediate wins or clear-cut busts, but most of our efforts fall in the middle. A fair trial period with the right attribution model and well-established goals is key to understanding what truly works.

Step three: Talk to your customers.

It’s a great practice to ask customers how they found out about you. Unfortunately, most online systems use drop-down menus prompting customers to pick a single lead source. Yes, sometimes there is just one reason people click to buy…but most of the time there are quite a few more.

Here’s a truth that my inner data nerd is super annoyed with: some of this “buyer journey” stuff can be better understood through conversations and experience than through hard analytics. That means that salespeople need to talk to their customers about why they reached out. Marketing people need to open up the lines of communication with sales staff. And when you get a super-customer, the kind who brings tons of business and buckets of referrals, figuring out how they learned about you is vital to attracting more valuable customers.

Measuring attribution is getting easier by the day, pinky promise.

Awesome as it may be, attribution modeling can also get messy. Your calculation probably won’t be perfect, and that’s okay! Even simply shifting your thinking to consider attribution can help you make better marketing decisions. It will allow you to recognize the role played by your branding and community efforts, and to better understand the real meaning of your digital analytics.

Once you’ve picked your attribution model, keep an eye out for the upcoming “Google Attribution.” This new system promises more insights than Analytics currently offers.

You can stay tuned to our Facebook page for updates on its release (as well as other digital marketing news). We’re always on the hunt to find you the best tools and to get the best possible marketing ROI for your business!


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