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All brands want to tell relevant, engaging stories that create a seamless customer experience. Through digital marketing channels like advertising, email, social media, and more, direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands are competing for the attention and business of their customers.

It's more important than ever that they develop a comprehensive understanding of what is working and what isn't. Their messaging needs to be effective, and its impact across channels needs to be measured in a holistic way.

Too often, the complicated nature of advertising and marketing online results in disconnected data among multiple channels, making it difficult to track the customer journey and understand which channels or marketing activities are influencing buyer behavior.

Such a fragmented view of the customer experience leads to inefficient use of advertising spend and faulty testing frameworks—for example, cutting off advertising spend on a channel and seeing its impact, as opposed to measuring the effectiveness of that channel against desired goals.

Marketing attribution solves that issue by looking into the activities and channels that factor into a person's decision to convert.

This article defines attribution, provides some tips on getting started with attribution, and offers some ideas for evolving your attribution strategy for continued growth.

Marketing Attribution 101

What is it?

Marketing attribution is the process of identifying and assigning a value to a combination of events and user actions that contributes to outcome you desire. It goes beyond just display advertising to look at every channel (with advanced attribution that includes organic) and the influence that every digital channel has on a shopper's decision to convert on your site.

Why does it matter?

As little as a decade ago, the way people shopped was incredibly simple. Our online and offline worlds weren't as interconnected as they are today: There were fewer ways to buy, it was harder to discover new things, and shopping (even online) was mostly linear.

Technology—and our relationship to it—has drastically altered the way we live, work, and play online. Despite our online and offline lives; being more connected, our lives have become more fragmented.

Things are radically different today than they were even just a few years ago. People are always on their phones, Amazon has changed online shopping, and you're seeing a once-linear shopping pattern replaced by a circuitous customer journey with many stops along the way. On average, it takes about 56 touchpoints to make an online sale. Such complexity makes it incredibly difficult to understand the impact digital marketing has on your bottom line.

In a multichannel world, you need to know the monetary value of each marketing channel and activity. Reliable reporting and measurement help with figuring out what is and isn't working, making it easier to put your budget toward the channels that are contributing revenue.

That's why more marketers are eager to funnel money and resources into cross-channel measurement and attribution.

Whether you're new to marketing attribution, or you have already started your journey, it's important to emphasize that attribution is exactly that—a journey. Many different models and strategies can be deployed; it's all about finding the right fit for your business, at the right time.

Below, we outline the various stages of attribution modeling and recommend next steps to ensure that you're moving in the right direction.

Marketing Attribution Stages

Not Using Attribution

If campaigns aren't measured, advertising channels won't be connected to a desired outcome—whether that's a purchase, demo request, download, or signup. Typically, success is measured on set costs for vanity metrics, such as cost per thousand impressions (CPM), clickthrough rate (CTR), and cost per click (CPC). Those metrics scratch the surface and don't delve into the nuances of your target audiences; as a result, you miss out on opportunities to understand your audience and improve your marketing.

Recommended next step: To get started with attribution, you'll need to define your goals, know what data points you're collecting, and identify which channels you'll be collecting them from. Once you've launched a campaign tied to a specific goal, you can begin tracking which channels are providing results, gain a basic understanding of how customers move along the purchase path, and determine which attribution model works best for your business.

Taking the First Step With Last-Click Attribution

Last-click attribution awards 100% of the credit to the last action taken by a customer before completing the desired action. If you're just getting started, this model will suffice, though it limits your view of your customer's journey. This model is ideal for limited-time promotions or when you need to compare and contrast two marketing channels. A more comprehensive attribution model that goes beyond clicks will help you gain a better understanding of what's really behind your ROI.

Recommended next step: Start looking into how multiple products and campaigns impact the customer journey, and avoid limiting your view to bottom-funnel metrics, such as the last interaction before purchase. Once you know more about your digital channels, you'll be able to define your goals, align your attribution objectives with your overall business goals, and identify the most relevant metrics to track.

Understanding the Entire Customer Journey With Blended Attribution

Blended attribution takes into account both view-through and clickthrough conversions when measuring the impact of your digital marketing campaigns. Based on your selected rule-based attribution model (e.g., first-click, last-click, linear, time-decay, and positional), weighted credit will be assigned to the various touchpoints and interactions that led to the desired outcome.

Recommended next step: Consider a custom attribution model. Take an existing weighted model, and then adjust it incrementally to align better with your business. It's critical to carefully monitor how those adjustments impact end conversions. For instance, if conversion quality declines, course-correct immediately. As you begin to experiment with more complex media mixes, the challenge of measuring incremental impact will become apparent.

Bridging the Gap Between Offline and Online With Multitouch Attribution

Multitouch attribution uses machine-learning AI to calculate and assign credit for a given success metric to the marketing touchpoints and dimensions (campaign, placement, publisher, creative, offer, etc.) that influenced it along the customer journey.

Recommended next step: Getting leadership to shift to a "testing" mindset is critical. Their blessing will loosen up the purse strings and allow for better alignment between marketing budgets and business revenue goals. Use those extra resources to invest in technologies that can scale your experiments by connecting marketing touchpoints and their impact on sales.

Also, hiring experienced data-minded talent who can analyze the results and use that data to optimize each advertising channel more effectively will extend this mindset to the rest of the company. It's imperative that you explore and select an agnostic measurement partner to aggregate your digital marketing deliveries data and consider the pros and cons of the available data-driven models.

Final Thoughts

As common practice, build your attribution model around your goals. Moreover, keep your lookback windows (a set period of time before your visitor bought something) in mind when applying attribution credit. You'll want to see the last 30 days of your campaigns so you can take into account all the touchpoints before deciding on a model.

Think of attribution modeling as an ongoing process to improve how you measure your marketing's impact on your business so you can spend your marketing dollars most effectively.

For more tips on growing your D2C business, check out The Ultimate Guide to Growth.

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Ambitious commerce brands use the AdRoll Growth Platform to make their display, social, and native advertising accelerate business growth. We help 37,000 customers generate over $246 billion in annual sales.