What You Don't Know About Attribution Is Costing You

person Ron Trenka

CIO and Founder — Ai Media Group

To spend smarter and increase revenue, today’s digital marketer needs true full-channel attribution—a comprehensive view of customer journeys across all devices and channels, analyzed and delivered in near-real time.

Everybody in digital marketing is talking about attribution this year, and no wonder. It’s critical for marketers to assign credit to specific touchpoints along a customer journey that led to a conversion of some kind—be it signing up for a newsletter, calling for an appointment, or making a purchase.

On one hand, attribution is an evergreen issue. As 19th-century retailer John Wanamaker famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” On the other, attribution is a cutting-edge concern because of the skyrocketing number of channels and devices customers are now using.

So while it’s understandable that people are talking about attribution, there’s one big problem: Most companies are not doing it right.

Ways they are doing it wrong:

  • Using “last-click” attribution, in which 100% of the credit is erroneously given to the final touchpoint preceding the conversion.
  • Tracking impressions, even though 10 billion impressions mean nothing if they only generate one lead. (What you want is 100 precisely targeted impressions that could turn into a lead.)
  • Counting on cookies, even though cookies can be wiped, and more and more people are searching using incognito mode.
  • Correlating keyword searches with conversions, even though that method ignores the vast majority of the customer journey.
  • Relying on view-through conversion, on the theory that an ad was seen online (though not clicked), influencing the ultimate sale.
  • Making inferences that can be a stretch—for example, taking a given result (phone calls jumped by 20%) and attributing that to an ad running in a specific market.

The data points listed above have some value, but provide a woefully incomplete map of the actual journeys of your actual customers. That means that people making decisions about ad spend don’t really know how customers are making buying decisions. Moreover, the information they do receive tends to be well after the fact. As a result, companies are not meeting customers where they are, when they are there.

And that means companies are leaving considerable revenue on the table.

Attribution Done Right

There are two parts to executing an attribution strategy the right way. First, follow every step of the customer’s journey, from first impression to conversion—a process that is known as omni-, or full-, or multi-channel attribution. And second, get this information in near real-time so you can optimize spending. Let’s say a user clicks on a display ad, leaves, comes back, clicks on a search ad, browses the site, then leaves stuff in the shopping cart. If you’re only tracking the fact that she hit the landing page and then the shopping cart, you’re not seeing the reason she abandoned the cart. You’re not seeing that 80 people fell off on that same page—maybe because a form isn’t working, or checkout takes too long—and you’re missing the chance to fix it.

Or, let’s say someone—let’s call him John—is thinking about taking a trip to the Caribbean. He’s heard good things about Jamaica, so he starts doing some research on content sites.

John is not really in the click-on-an-ad stage yet, but a smart resort—let’s call it XYZ Resort—is showing John some display ads at this point, which he sees out of the corner of his eye. John leaves the search, talks the trip over with his wife and sets the dates.So now he starts searching for “best resorts in Jamaica.” He sees XYZ’s ads again, and thinks, “Yeah, I’ve heard of that place.” But he’s not really ready to buy, so he repeats the process several times, doing more research. Ultimately, he decides on XYZ Resort, searches for that name and makes a reservation.

In a typical attribution process, that last touch is the only thing that will “count.” With full-channel attribution, however, XYZ Resort gets a much more complete knowledge of the buyer’s intent as it changes—and therefore a deeper insight into how to move prospects along the funnel. With the right technology, full-channel attribution can go even deeper into a digital campaign. It can follow users journeys across different devices, IP addresses and physical locations, from social media to YouTube to email and more.

Information is Power

What all of this means is that marketing decisions can become many times more accurate and efficient. For example, a marketer can compare how ads are working on Google vs. Bing vs. Yahoo, and what the cost per lead is for each of these platforms. You can see that it took these 12 ads to sell this product and generated $XX amount of revenue.

By knowing which 12 ads and which networks they ran on for that sale, you then start to build your trends and play with the mix of ads. Does Headline A perform better on Bing at the top of the funnel, but better on Google at the bottom? When you have this information, you can feed it back into your system and adjust your ad spend to optimize conversions.

And, just as important, you need to get all this information in near-real time. Right now, most marketers are waiting from three weeks to three months for data to be delivered by their agency. They’re working in a pre-digital timeframe; meanwhile, the digital marketplace is changing by the minute. Without real-time data, decision-making is like throwing darts in the dark.

To spend smarter and increase revenue, today’s digital marketer needs true full-channel attribution—a comprehensive view of customer journeys across all devices and channels, analyzed and delivered in near-real time.

Any other attribution method is mostly just talk.

Ron Trenka is CIO and cofounder of Ai Media Group, a New York City-based media company that specializes in defining, managing and executing online marketing strategies.

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