Better together — Using attribution approaches for understanding, not for credit

Marketing attribution is always a hot topic because everyone’s looking to crack the code of what particular campaign element — or combination thereof — can be credited for the conversion. But attribution, in my opinion, shouldn’t be about assigning credit, but rather about fine-tuning your buyer’s journey.

The other day, I listened to a very useful webinar on marketing attribution featuring Ross Graber, senior director of research at SiriusDecisions and Bonnie Crater, co-founder and CEO at Full Circle Insights. I came away with one big lesson and a lot of very useful tips.

Lost in translation

It’s super common for organizations to measure and incentivize people on transactional milestones such as: I scheduled a meeting; they asked for a proposal; I closed the deal.

We credit the person and pay them for that. Thus we “attribute” the outcome. We’re not really saying much about what truly caused the result. We’re simply implementing a model that’s useful for process management.

Problems arise, however, when we try to lift that model from the people-based world of sales interactions and apply it to the diverse multichannel marketing environment. Crediting people is very different from crediting marketing touches.

As both Ross and Bonnie stated in the webinar, using attribution models to determine the contribution of a touch or channel to revenue is at best a fool’s errand. At worst, it can create incentives for marketers to do the wrong thing.

The big takeaway

Simply put, there are too many independent variables involved with influencing an audience, impacting pipeline and growing revenue to attribute causality to some dramatically reduced subset. Thus, a model that credits first touches or last touches or a mix is misguided from the start.

Allocating resources based on an attribution model is dangerous without much closer examination. And using attribution to “prove” marketing’s contribution is fraught with organizational issues you’re better off avoiding.

The purpose of attribution should be to enable you to better understand problems you’re encountering with marketing performance. Each approach can deliver unique analytical insights. If you’re just getting started, it makes sense to begin with a mix of the three simpler single-touch approaches, which I’ll go into detail about later.

Rather than focusing on attribution for attribution’s sake, make it one part of a robust strategy for buyer’s journey optimization.

First-touch attribution

By learning more about which deals share the same first touches, you’re on your way to understanding successful engagement with active demand in your market. (If you’re not yet using a reliable source of third-party purchase intent data, it will also be your first recorded discovery of this particular account’s demand status.)

Be careful to differentiate between all “successful” first touches and those first touches that are associated with deals. It can look like you have good volumes at the top of the funnel, but numbers alone are not enough — you’re looking for inquiries that carry through, end-to-end. And if you over-rely on reinforcing results from a first-touch model, you may unintentionally undermine your ability to work on important interactions that occur later on.

Here are the important factors to look at when looking at first touches:

  • Channel. If first-discovery tends to come from outbound rather than inbound tactics, you will want to examine ways to strengthen your online presence. Do you have enough visitors? Are they the right personas? Are they getting what they want from you?
  • Personas. If the key personas recorded in your deals match the personas you target with outbound and inbound marketing, you’re in good shape there. If they don’t, you need to figure out why not. There may be important reasons to influence others around a buying unit; however, your core focus should be on much the same personas that matter to sales.
  • Accounts. The accounts you’re closing should be substantially the same as those you’re engaging with via your first touches. If this is not the case, your targeting could be way off the mark.
  • Content. By understanding what content and asset types are resonating most at first interaction, you can learn both what messaging works and whether or not you’re intercepting demand as early as possible. When first touches lean towards a solution or product orientation, often times it shows you’re getting in quite late. The problem with this is it puts you in a reactive mode; when you engage late in the process, it’s much harder to shape the process to your advantage.

Last-touch attribution

Attributing a milestone — such as reaching an MQL threshold or the creation of an opportunity — is great for identifying when that point was reached chronologically. But watch out: It could be more a reflection of your lead-scoring model or campaign touch sequences than something definitive about the touch itself.

Be very careful not to think of last touch as the “cause” of conversion because this negates the impact of the previous interactions. Overweighting on last touch can easily result in underfeeding your middle and top-of-funnel activities.

Last-touch analysis is one good way of identifying must-have tactics but it shouldn’t only be applied to a process area where you’re treating everyone the same way — you’re trying to evaluate alternatives not reinforce existing standards!

Consider the following when you are looking at last touches:

  • Channel. Companies typically exert more energy on more engaged accounts and contacts. This influences the types of tactics and channels they use as well as the weighting of scores applied to those touches. Obviously, if you require tele-qualification before sales interaction, last touch becomes a self-fulfilling activity. By the same token, if you don’t closely examine other touches in successful journeys, you’ll miss the other interactions successful cycles have in common.
  • Personas. A last-touch persona analysis is a useful way to health-check your funnel further upstream. Most companies rely on engaging a particular role and function before they will create an opportunity; so if you can validate this with last-touch analysis, you can apply it further up the funnel.
  • Accounts. If you’re operating in an account-based mode, last-touch analysis can be a helpful tool when tuning your target account coverage strategy and even your customer experience. Accounts may prefer different ways of interacting with you, so you should look to innovate around this as your program evolves.
  • Content. Great content well-delivered could easily make the difference between a successful last-touch strategy and your typical last touch as a key point of failure. With last-touch analysis, it takes some finesse to separate the message from the medium. But you’ll want to do that because it can tell you if there is one predominant topic that makes you successful or if there are several different core variables that each work well. Certainly, different themes could matter to different account types or buying units within the same account — you may discover you need multiple different last touches.

Tipping-point attribution

You can begin looking into tipping point attribution at any time; typically you’re ready when you’ve completed some first- and last-touch groundwork. Here, you’re looking for a tactic or tactic-set that’s either especially useful in converting leads to MQLs, is associated with MQLs that become opportunities, or another similar lead-qualification inflection point.

In essence, you’re asking: “Where in the process do we successfully meet a buying team’s buyer’s journey needs?” As a major publisher of buying-decision support content, editors at my company, TechTarget, actually plan their tech category coverage with exactly this idea in mind. Tipping point analysis can be tricky. Always remember, you want to be careful to use what you learn without jumping to conclusions that could backfire.

  • Channel: Today’s buyers are active in many channels. Their preferences can vary in ways that are hard to nail down. But if your tipping point examinations typically exclude a particular channel, be careful that you understand whether this is telling you something about your prospects or if it could be highlighting a gap on your side. When you identify tactics that are really working for you, make sure you evaluate a similar approach executed in a different channel. You could discover important improvement opportunities.
  • Personas. Tipping-point can be very good for identifying critical persona-based first-engagement insights. In many cases, you could and should be looking to engage a particular role earlier in their process. Understanding what’s bringing them in is the first step to bringing them in earlier.
  • Accounts. An account-based strategy provides a rationale for investing more energy on certain accounts. The big question is exactly when to deploy more resource. Really successful ABMers are finding important new tipping points using high-quality third-party purchase intent data because it unveils behavior in accounts that they couldn’t previously see.
  • Content. From a content perspective, tackling tipping point analysis puts you on the cusp of more robust buyer’s journey work. If you’re not discovering clear patterns in your tipping points, there’s a good chance you have gaps in your content stream that your prospects consider essential to their decision making. Talking to your sales team about what assets they commonly find themselves scrambling for can be a quick way of identifying something that could solve the problem for them earlier in the process.

Regarding attribution in general, of course, all marketers want to be able to clearly link marketing actions to their effects. But, since the real world is not a carefully controlled testing environment, doing this definitively is super hard – a fact too commonly overlooked by some management teams.

For expediency, companies can get locked into attribution concepts that might actually hurt more than help. In my view, attribution and buyer’s journey analyses belong to a continuum of methods you should use for ROI optimization. 2019 would be a great year to make progress on this.