Is marketing attribution a mythical unicorn? Or is it possible to measure the performance of your marketing, including the parts you can’t see?
The fog of marketing
Marketing attribution is the “fog of marketing” that all marketers wrestle with in attempt to square the circle and make sense of the customer’s decision journey. It’s essential for understanding how your marketing is performing and how much each channel is contributing. Proper attribution enables you to maximize your results and your return on investment. But it’s complicated…to say the least.
Attributing success to any initiative or channel is often difficult due to the complexity of customer journeys and the ever-changing landscape of digital media and data privacy. As marketing attribution becomes increasingly difficult, how will marketers decide where — and how much — to invest?
There are many attribution models and high-tech attribution platforms that promise to make it crystal clear where customers came from and how each touchpoint contributed along the way. Unfortunately, none of them are a panacea for the challenges of modern marketing.
The futility of attribution
One of the allures of digital marketing was that much, if not all, activity could be tracked and measured. If that dream was ever realized, it was short lived. Digital certainly makes measurement easier, but there are still dozens of challenges that make accurate attribution near impossible.
Here are just a few to consider:
Data privacy and cookies
Users are fighting to protect their data privacy and the tech giants like Apple and Google are responding accordingly. Marketers are no longer able to rely on these providers for data and insights. Legislation like GDPR continue to create more obstacles towards the transparency and tracking required for attribution to succeed.
Seasonality and trends
Attribution is based on customer behavior, which means it fluctuates with the seasons in line with changes in buying behavior. Attribution can also be significantly skewed by trends. For example, a viral TikTok could make the channel seem like a valuable source to invest in when in reality the value is short lived.
Companies with multiple product categories or simultaneous campaigns will face the challenge of untangling their attribution data. The customer journey becomes muddy quickly when there is the potential for overlapping or conflicting paths, especially when they can become intertwined and impact one another.
Customers and culture keep changing. As technology and trends change, so does customer behavior. There will be new channels tomorrow that didn’t exist today. How your attribution looks today is only a snapshot in time and therefore must be continually revisited and updated.
One thing is for certain: marketing attribution is going to get more complicated, complex, and confusing.
Fortunately, there are three simple parts that, when combined, will help you measure and maximize even the invisible aspects of your marketing.
Part 1: The customer is always right
It’s hard to talk about measuring the customer journey without talking about the customer themselves. If you want to understand how a customer navigates and experiences your marketing, it’s best to start by understanding the customer and taking a walk in their shoes.
Customer proximity is paramount: Whoever is closest to the customer wins.
Success in marketing comes from an intimate understanding and alignment with your customer, not from meticulous measurement of the ensuing activities.
The better you can truly understand the customer, the more clarity you’ll have around what channels and activities they experience and care about; and you’ll know which channels matter (and how much). Attribution becomes less mysterious the more you know about the customer and what their experience is really like.
There are many ways you can — and should — be understanding your customers, including:
When is the last time you talked to your customers? Interviewing prospective, current, or past customers is essential, and an easy way to gain insights about what matters to customers and which touchpoints are critical. It’s remarkable the insights that can be generated with a well-prepared set of questions, a skilled interviewer, and a handful of willing customers.
Joining the community
Show up and hang out where your customers congregate. Facebook groups, Discord communities, online forums, YouTube channels, and other social watering holes. Although they might not be talking about your brand or products incessantly, you will discover unique insights and begin to understand your customer’s thinking and decision making process on a new level.
Adopt a “beginner’s mind” and act as if you were an average customer of your products or services. What would you do to learn more about the industry, discover your options, and compare alternatives? How would you go about making a purchase decision? You’ll experience firsthand which channels have a bigger impact on your decision making process and most certainly find opportunities for improvement along the way.
Part 2: Measure in broad strokes
Does data help with measuring attribution? Absolutely. Even partial data is better than nothing. Marketers who disregard the usefulness of imperfect data in attribution fail to realize that marketing is equal parts art and science.
On the other hand, marketers love to dwell and debate over attribution models. First touch? Last touch? Choose any and make the best of it because none of them are right or reliable.
And don’t fall for the trap that an attribution platform will answer all of your questions, either. All of these — limited data, attribution models, and attribution platforms — are helpful pieces of the puzzle. But it’s far too complicated and time consuming to build a puzzle without stepping back and looking at the big picture.
Attribution is a means to an end, not the end itself. Measure outcomes instead of activities.
Collecting data, analyzing it, and trying to make sense of it is admirable but often wasted effort. When marketers emphasize data too much, they can’t see the forest for the trees. The point of marketing is to generate results. Focus on business outcomes and on the net impact of your marketing efforts instead of scrutinizing the source of attribution.
Instead of trying to measure how the water got in the ocean, pay attention to whether or not the tide is rising or falling.
Part 3: Optimization before attribution
The inherent assumption of attribution is that every channel or activity is performing at an acceptable level (or near optimal) and therefore the only question remaining is how to reallocate resources to maximize return.
In practice, that’s hardly ever the case.
Across all of my clients, I’ve yet to find a channel, initiative, or activity that isn’t rife with opportunities for optimization. In these instances, shifting away resources cuts off the oxygen to profitable growth since optimization is often the fastest and most cost-effective way to increase results, revenue, and profitability.
Investing in optimization is essential, delivers an immediate ROI, and can often quell any need or appetite for full-scale attribution. Before investing the massive time, effort, and resources into attempting to solve attribution in a major way, focus first on identifying opportunities and optimizing your marketing activities. Optimization before attribution.
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Conclusion: Know and understand your customer
Marketing attribution is complicated and complex and it’s only going to become more so. Instead of exhausting yourself trying to hit a moving target, focus on knowing and understanding your customer, consider the data available to you, and optimize every initiative to its fullest.
The closer you can get to your customers, the more insight you’ll have into their journey and their decision making process, and the more confidence you’ll have about where and how to invest to deliver a remarkable experience and a positive return on your investment.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.