Misattributing Attribution

Misattributing Attribution

August 2019 | Marketing Operations

Attribution is an important concept for proving the value of marketing activity, just don't expect it to be an accurate measurement of campaign success.

Performance measurement is the most important task for any marketing operations team. When corporate revenues fall short of targets, marketing is often the first department to notice the impact. Every dollar spent starts to be questioned, and the need to justify campaign spending and investment decisions becomes overwhelming. In many organisations, marketing is still seen at board level as discretionary spending for the good times rather than a revenue generating activity. The rapid expansion of digital marketing and marketing technology has helped redress that balance a bit by facilitating holistic user journey tracking and closing the loop between inbound marketing leads and closed sales opportunities. Yet more needs to be done because many marketers still cannot get the numbers they need to prove results in the only language that the business understands: dollars and cents.

It's been a decade since revenue marketing became a buzz word. While many CMOs are now measured in terms of revenue rather than leads, actually proving that marketing campaigns lead to closed deals is still a challenge in many organisations. Once a lead has gone over to Sales, marketing teams frequently stop worrying about the outcome of it. This is precisely the type of behaviour that financial KPIs are designed to eliminate, but it still happens due to a lack of alignment with sales. The traditional rivalry between marketing leaders and sales leaders is in decline, even when each side has unrealistic expectations of what the other can contribute to the success of the business.

Sales expect marketing to provide sales-ready leads all the time, whilst marketing expect their leads to be prioritised over deals that sales are already working on. Thus Sales ignore leads that get passed by marketing, and on the occasions they do follow up on MQLs they don't follow the expected conversion processes in CRM. Actually getting Sales to convert marketing generated leads into opportunities is a challenge across the board, because there is rarely any benefit to them in doing so. It is normally easier for reps to create a new opportunity for every deal, regardless of whether it was marketing generated or not. This of course, breaks the link between lead and revenue that is so crucial to ROI reporting.

Closing the Loop

Even when Sales do follow the correct processes, closing the loop is easier said than done because some businesses have very little idea of who their customers actually are. In many industries, a strong partner channel is a necessary requirement for doing business. It is simply impossible to shift large quantities of physical products at scale without a broad mix of high-volume distributors and specialist resellers. The downside of this is that there is no direct relationship between the end user and the manufacturer, with businesses relying on resellers following deal registration processes to get some idea of who is actually buying product through retail. This becomes a particular problem in organisations that only sell through the channel, either for high volume orders or for all orders. Such organisations often only have an incomplete picture of their customer base. Not all partners will supply end user information for all deals, with internal sales teams or channel relationship teams providing anecdotal evidence to fill in the blanks.

This ultimately harms marketing most of all, because they have no way of knowing whether the audience for their campaigns have failed to convert or if they purchased through a third-party. Indeed, this lack of information about who their customers actually are was one of the key justifications for Adobe's switch from a product based business model to a subscription based one. Given that every Adobe customer must have an online account to access their software, Sales and Marketing teams can now match every user back to the marketing interactions that led to the purchasing decision, thereby providing a 360 degree view of the typical customer journey as well as exactly what content and experiences contributed to the bottom line.

Typically, this is all mapped back to campaigns because that is where the budget is spent. After all, the goal of revenue reporting is to prove that every campaign ultimately contributes to the bottom line. That's an important concept to prove the business value of marketing activity for internal accountability, it's just that content engagement and campaign responses don't map nicely on to the campaign investment in a specific financial period. People respond to brands and content not campaigns, the recency or value of the content to the brand are not necessarily factors that influence customer engagement. Some interactions will be with old content that has already been paid for, whilst other early stage engagements won't bear fruit until next year due to the length of the sales cycle. Typically, businesses choose one or more interactions they regard as the most important ones and attribute that response as the one that led to the deal. This can be an even spread across all responses, the first response or the last response. All that matters is that corporate revenue is attributed using a consistent methodology, so that budgets can be justified at the highest level.

Comparative Value

Attribution is a complex business, which when carried out correctly is essential to the continued success of pretty much every marketing department. It works as a mechanism for assigning budgets at a high level. As a model for which campaigns influenced a purchasing decision it is woefully inadequate, because at the end of the day everything matters. Purchasing decisions are shaped based upon every interaction with the brand, and the importance of each interaction is a deeply personal one which cannot be measured through graphs and numbers alone. This extends beyond campaign collateral and individual ads to every pixel of every page on the corporate website. Marketers instinctively know this when designing content and producing campaigns, but this fundamental truth gets forgotten when the time comes to report on results.

Organic traffic and social content get deprioritised because they are consumed by large numbers of very early stage prospects. Anything that results in a guaranteed volume of leads being generated by a third party gets all the investment, even if none of the leads in question are remotely ready for a sales conversation. Any nurture content or BAU communication gets forgotten about because it's primary purpose is not to acquire new names or provide a final conversion point, but to instead provide one or more of the 5 touches needed to turn a new lead into a sales-ready MQL. For all the attention rightly lauded on ABM, marketing is a volume game. Large numbers of low value interactions to a high number of contacts in the most personalised way possible, all happening at scale over an extended period. By focusing one or a few interactions, traditional attribution models give a misleading picture of which tactics are most effective. This works in the boardroom when discussing financials with the CFO, but tactical decisions should instead be made with the full picture in mind.

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.