Tribute to Attribution: The Quest for the Holy Grail of Marketing

Marketing attribution has been deemed the holy grail of marketing by many top-level marketers. The ability, or more realistically, the lack of ability to attribute a sale to a specific marketing effort is, at best, an elusive concept.

Salespeople believe that their efforts contribute to the sale. Brand marketers believe that their branding efforts contribute to the sale. Direct marketers also believe that their efforts contribute directly to the sale. Media buyers also believe that the sale can be tracked back to the media. So who is correct and who isn’t? And if they are all correct, meaning that all of these marketing efforts contribute to the sale, who gets the credit for converting the lead?

There are several schools of thought on how to attribute marketing efforts against the sale, the most popular of which is a time-related process, awarding the greatest level of attribution to the touch-point that is closest in time to the actual sale and awarding each touch-point varying levels of attribution depending on their proximity to the sale.

The real issue regarding the theory of marketing attribution is that attribution is a mathematical problem. And as with any math problem, increasing the variables causes the solution to be more complex.

Let’s take a day in the life of a fictional target named Fred. Fred wakes up at 6:00 a.m. daily by having his alarm clock play the radio. Fred hears a radio commercial about XYZ Pest Control. Last week, Fred’s pantry was invaded by ants, so Fred is interested in the solution that XYZ Pest Control provides.
Fred walks outside and picks up his daily newspaper. While leafing through it, he notices a print ad by the XYZ Pest Control. Fred is now both aware of and interested in the pest control service. Fred heads off to work, and because Fred lives in an urban area, he takes public transportation to work. As he walks along the boulevard on his way to the bus station, he notices a billboard for XYZ Pest Control. “Wow,” Fred thinks to himself as he walks, “XYZ Pest Control is a large company. They are advertising everywhere.”

Once aboard the bus, Fred checks his emails on his smartphone. He’s curious about XYZ Pest Control, so he searches online using his mobile device and clicks on a mobile search ad that appeared when he entered the search term. He clicks on the pay-per-click link and is redirected to XYZ Pest Control’s website, where he researches their services and finds their location.

As soon as Fred gets to work, he is swept up into the day’s workload and quickly forgets about XYZ Pest Control. He rides home on the bus with a coworker that lives near him, and their conversation causes Fred to once again forget that he was interested in the pest control service.

Fred says goodbye to his pal from work and starts walking down the same boulevard, although this time he misses the billboard because it is facing in the opposite direction. Fred gets home and checks his mail. Surprisingly, there is a letter from XYZ Pest Control offering him a free home inspection. Fred calls the number on the direct mail piece and schedules an appointment with XYZ Pest Control to come to his home for an inspection.

In this case, Fred was receptive to several different types of marketing channels and even responded to two of those channels. Yet, Fred’s sale would most likely be attributed to the direct mail piece that he responded to because he read the mail code from the piece to the operator at XYZ Pest Control.

Now, the telemarketer who received the call might think that his or her sales ability caused Fred to buy and would therefore think that the sale should be attributed to the salesperson. The direct mail marketing director firmly believes that their mail piece was the attributable marketing piece because the code was verbally given to the telemarketer. The digital marketing director received a click-through on their search marketing term and might consider this sale to be attributable to the digital channel. The Out of Home (OOH) marketing director sees a swing upward in sales and is quick to attribute the billboards and the public transportation advertisements as meaningful in raising sales. The media team who placed the radio commercial will also see an upswing in sales and will want credit for their marketing efforts.

In this fictional account, all of the marketing channels contributed to Fred buying the service. If Fred didn’t become so busy at work, he may have ordered or called directly from the XYZ Pest Control mobile website. If he had heard the radio spot on a weekend, that may have caused him to call. However, the daily circumstances and the many channels that XYZ Pest Control used for marketing communications makes it nearly impossible to correctly point the sale toward the correct attributable marketing channel. Add in social media, peer validation and recommendations of friends and associates to complicate the subject even more, and you can easily see why marketing attribution remains the holy grail.

Conversely, if the variables are limited, marketing attribution is much easier to map. If there was no radio spot, no OOH advertising, no search marketing and no mobile website, and if the direct mail piece was the only marketing communication, then, obviously, the attribution goes completely to direct mail.

Marketers have gone to great lengths in the quest for marketing attribution, and some believe that the right concoction of collecting data, modeling the data, optimizing the data analytics and better engagement of the customer can lead to accurate marketing attribution. And while it may narrow down the possibilities of a specific channel or campaign driving the sale, there is still a great amount of conjecture and assumption in the current process, even with the great strides that have been made in data analytics.

Marketing attribution is important to the marketing executive stakeholders who are anxious to put a positive ROI figure on their efforts. Understanding vital information is even more important to the company that is paying for the marketing, such as: What channels are working best? Where is the best return on investment? Why is one channel working and another not working? What can be done to optimize the channels that aren’t working?

As technology evolves, marketers will inch closer in the quest for the holy grail of accurate strategic marketing attribution.

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