4 Reasons Why Attribution Is So Hard

One of the biggest challenges search marketers face today is their ability to fully understand the value of their keywords. We struggle with questions like:

  • What is the value of non-branded terms?
  • How does my online spend impact offline conversion?
  • Where does mobile fit into the equation?

All these questions are not unique to search, but apply to of all digital media and really all media. Enter digital attribution. This is often viewed as the silver bullet to cracking the digital media mix code. With a proper attribution model, marketers can understand the impact and influence of various keywords and media placements on one another. So why when you talk to many brands and search marketers is this still such a discussion? First, remember that even a “Last Click” model is a form of attribution. We took a look at our client base and the attribution models they employ and how those have changed year-over-year. There are two key takeaways:

  1. There is no overwhelming majority – due to the challenges I identify below the ideal model is more what’s right for you vs. what’s right for someone else.
  2. Traditional last-click models and even first-click models are declining.

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So why is attribution so hard to get “right”?

  1. Metrics are not an even playing field

    When thinking about the inputs into an attribution model, they are not all equal. For example, many advertisers take credit for view-through from display media. I think there is value in view-through credit; however, it is the only metric where impressions are included. Imagine if search took credit for view-through, or organic social media posts. What would the data tell us then?

  2. Organizational alignment

    This one is big. When budgets are allocated by brands, they are generally tied to a channel-level goal. For example, paid search has $50,000 to spend and the expectation is that will drive $250,000 in revenue. As long as budgets and teams are structured in a way that doesn’t incent mutual success, an attribution model is really only for show. For an attribution model to really take hold, the organization needs to align around the data and insights that come from it vs. rely on traditional measurement tied to the channel level.

  3. Mobile

    As mobile grows, this becomes an increasingly bigger issue. Not just for attribution, but for measurement period. The cookie system just does not work here and the whole industry is looking for an answer.

  4. Legacy

    The way we taught people how search and digital media worked was by telling them you could measure every single dollar and action people took. This was the compelling reason for CMOs to shift from traditional media, where understanding at a detailed level what actions people took was an issue. However, now we are a bit trapped under this rock. Organizations have been on the direct-response drug of search and to wean them off it has been hard. Attribution was a way to do this, but it requires a new understanding of consumer buying habits and digital media consumption.

Overall, attribution is the right step. For your brand you need to understand how the four factors impact your business and what the right models strategically is for you. This will be a journey that will come with its challenges, but with the right analytics and organizational buy-in, you will see some dramatic improvements in your business.

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