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By mid-summer, a little voice inside almost every consumer—no matter his or her age—says, "Go buy a Trapper Keeper. Get a cool backpack. Find a new pencil sharpener. Go. Now."

Back-to-school shopping is such an ingrained tradition, one might think it should be an easy win for marketers. Today, however, consumers have far more products from which to choose, and marketers have many more channels through which to deliver their messages.

How can a brand be sure that its investment in television, Internet, radio, or other media is paying off at the checkout counter? Companies must follow the entire customer path and attribute the sale correctly. Otherwise, marketers can flunk one of the most profitable sale seasons of the year.

1. Do your math homework

According to Forrester Research, US shoppers will boost their online purchasing 45% in the five-year period ending 2016. Increasingly, online shoppers are turning to comparison shopping engines (CSEs), such as Google Shopping, PriceGrabber, and Shopzilla, among others, to find good deals on highlighters, glue sticks, calculators, and wish-list wants. For that reason, CSEs are an important tool for marketers.

However, not all CSEs are equal, and the ways in which brands are evaluating the value of CSEs is often flawed.

Cost per click (CPC) is the wrong metric for CSE investment decisions. Far beyond the surface-level data a marketer gets from CPC is revenue per click (RPC) information. RPC tells marketers how much revenue each click generates, so that brands can get the right answers to their questions about pay-for-performance marketing.

Paid channels are now part of the back-to-school-shopping story, but they require marketers to look closely at the right numbers. To build a CSE budget that delivers returns, companies need access to granular RPC data.

2. Diversify your studies

CSEs are only one part of the marketing mix, of course. Online, social media networks promise to help marketers reach more consumers at critical times of the year, such as back-to-school shopping season.

For example, Facebook wants to give brands more data about what consumers do after they click on one of the site's ads. Although that conversion data is useful, it doesn't tell companies whether Facebook advertising is the best use of their marketing budget. To do that, marketers need a multi-attribution tool that considers all of their assets and all of the touchpoints that influence a final sale.

The consumer who bought a lunchbox after clicking on a Facebook ad, for example, probably has also seen a similar marketing message via search, display ads, or television spots. So which asset should get the conversion credit?

That's a high-stakes-testing kind of question for brands that must use what they learn in one year's back-to-school season to make better decisions for the following year.

Marketers need to collect data from more than just one outlet. Those data points should come from multiple kinds of tracking, including click, impression, owned media, earned media, offline, and marketing cost data. With all of those numbers in hand, marketers can then figure out which sources they're missing, which are underperforming, and which are most efficient.

3. Read the right information

Shoppers are making their back-to-school purchases in-store and from their smartphones, laptops, and tablets. They're motivated by online and offline marketing messages.

To know which marketing investments work, brands need to understand the total customer path. That can be done without ever tapping into personally identifiable information (PII). If a shopper watches a commercial for tennis shoes on TV, then looks up those sneakers on her smartphone and reads reviews from her laptop, before finally driving to the store to make her purchase, each step in that process is critical to understanding the consumer's behavior.

Brands can use customer path attribution to take behaviors into account without crossing the line on PII. By linking anonymous individuals to their computers and mobile devices throughout the path to conversion, brands can get a complete view of which marketing efforts are paying off and which are a waste of resources.

Customer path attribution technology allows companies to discern relevant patterns in behavior, which they can then apply to future decisions about which marketing channels are the most valuable, which ad spots are most profitable, and which banner ad clicks lead to actual conversions.

4. Study your history

School buses will be rolling down the streets come fall, and the 2013 back-to-school-shopping season will be history. Marketers can learn a lot from history.

By tracking the customer's complete path to conversion and accurately attributing purchasing decisions to marketing assets, brands can ensure that shoppers will give them good grades—and more business—next year.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Jeff Zwelling

Jeff Zwelling is co-founder and CEO of Convertro, which provides marketers and agencies with cross-channel analytics, insights and recommendations to monitor and optimize marketing strategies.

Twitter: @Convertro