Recently, I had a client I was working with say something to me along the lines of “in our line of business only last click attribution matters.” The context being in regards to funnel stages, brand awareness etc.
While that interaction was the inspiration for this post I actually don’t blame him at all for feeling that way nor hold any ill will towards the man.
The advertising ecosystem, especially the performance marketing / growth marketing ecosystem is deeply broken. In the quest to become data driven and prioritize results over art the “anti big agency” crowd has stripped all nuance and craft from marketing, and in it’s wake, has created it’s own beast.
So how did we get here?
A bit of a completely biased and half remembered history lesson. I got into “growth hacking” as it used to be called back in 2011. That was the start of my career in marketing as a founder of a tech company trying to figure it all out. Back in the day, the original criticism against big traditional agencies in startup and small business land was that they were big, expensive, slow, and they only cared about winning awards for their art. They didn’t care about results or moving quickly to squeeze every penny because they were bloated behemoths that just assumed the same strategies would work over and over again forever. Us super genius growth hackers though could dive into the data ourselves, make ads and landing pages on the fly, and since the brands were all new with no track record we could make lots of mistakes and it wouldn’t matter. To it’s credit when you had a winning product and a resourceful and relentless growth hacker on your team, you could actually get incredibly outsized results by following this lean methodology. Over time though the ethos went the way of every other things marketers sink their claws into. We ruined it.
What was a pragmatic approach to marketing became a dogmatic and relentless focus on numbers. Particularly when it comes to paid ads. Go into any marketing group that even touches paid advertising on Facebook, Linkedin, Medium, whatever. Near 100% of the posts will be something along the lines of “how we achieved 15x ROAS in our sleep while being drunk all day” or other such nonsense. For the non cult members ROAS means Return on ad spend and is one of these near meme metrics that is constantly thrown around. There’s no discussion of customer journey, no market research or insights, no great creative processes, no mention of any other part of the funnel, just the $X in and $Y out. Focus on a single metric from a single piece of the puzzle stripped of all context. How did this happen? Shameless marketers and uneducated clients.
Running a marketing consultancy is really really hard. You’re basically constantly on the hunt for new clients, and even if you have a steady stream of inbound from content or what have you, you still have to vet, scope, and kickoff projects. From an industry standpoint marketing has awful margins and is a bloodbath of competition. On the other side you have clients, most of whom are great, but ultimately aren’t marketers themselves most of the time. They’re very outcome focused. They need their business to grow X to hit their next milestone or what have you. So they ask for what anyone asks for when they can’t judge something of their own accord. They asked for social proof, they asked for referrals, and most importantly they ask for proof of results. After all, you want to make sure that the person you’re about to give 10s of thousands of dollars to has at least a decent idea of what they’re doing. So what do marketers do? They oblige.
The singular focus becomes I’ve done X incredible thing for Y incredible company with the implication that because they got rich you can too. So rather than focus on process, focusing on customer, focusing on the whole journey, you only are shown the pot at the end of the rainbow. Subsequently clients ask to see the pot of gold more and more and marketers oblige them more and more because they need the work. Eventually the conversation inside the marketing community itself begins to change and people entering have no other context than the outcome oriented and short sighted path everyone engages in to try and get work. It becomes the new normal.
At the same time every single ad platform defaults to last click attribution because it serves their interests well and if marketers already are accepting it, then they’re happy to oblige. It’s in Facebook’s best interest to claim 100% of that sale even if there were 10 other marketing mediums in front of it. Makes them look good and then folks begin to think of them more and more as a channel that’s high quality and just works.
I realize the last few paragraphs come off as an old man yells at the sky tier rant, but the truth is that it’s important context as to why there’s a relentless focus on last click attribution. I’m here to make an impassioned argument as to why you want nothing to do with last click attribution, and why there’s so many other great models that exist out there you can take advantage of with free tools like Google analytics today.
A focus on last click attribution is basically the relationship equivalent of claiming that someone agreed to marry you because you said your vows really really well. It’s laughably wrong and forgets the years of work and relationship building that came before taking a sacred vow to love one another and be together forever. So too with your customers, they didn’t just see your retargeting ad and think “well gee whiz I’ve never heard of these folks before but guess I better buy their product for no reason at all.” There was a lot of work, messaging, brand building in that consumers mind before they threw down their hard earned dollars to buy your product. They probably read an article you wrote, listened to a radio ad, saw a video, or a million other things, and probably several of them, at the top of funnel. As they moved closer to a purchase they probably looked at your features on your website, checked out your social presence, was educated by more content of some sort all while seeing your ads keeping your company top of mind. Finally, after comparing you to your competitors and looking at their own situation they decide they want to buy. They click that last ad and there they are as your newest customer. Now see how silly it is to focus solely on just that last interaction when so much went into it? Surely there’s a way to give credit to other stages and assets in the marketing funnel other than just that last single ad right?
You’re in luck.
So the three attribution models I want you to consider are the following.
We’ll break each of these down, discuss their benefits and their shortcomings, and muse on creating a funnel as close to perfect as we can get in an imperfect world.
Linear attribution basically operated by looking at the problems that last click attribution models present, and decide the only reasonable option is to give each stage of the funnel and interaction equal footing. After all, it’s impossible to see inside the mind of the consumer so why not give each step an equal amount of credit. That way you can look at a whole journey versus a specific step.
Pros: It doesn’t just focus on the last interaction. It actually takes other things into account.
Cons: Not all interactions are made equally. If you were to use a linear attribution model to inform marketing strategy your answer would basically be “do everything all the time” which isn’t useful or sustainable.
Time decay model basically is the same as linear attribution, but instead of giving equal wight to every interaction it gives the most recent interactions more weight. So maybe the last click would carry 50% of the eight and the first click would carry 5%.
Pros: More nuanced than linear attribution. The interaction right before someone makes the sale may be the psychological push they needed to pull the trigger and thus is in fact more valuable.
Cons: Recency bias isn’t everything. For instance, not too long ago, I bought a pair of Thursday boots. I knew I wanted these boots after I saw 3 or 5 ads and then checked out their website. However I kept getting ads over and over until I finally purchased (And then got some more after that). Thing is though none of those ads moved me along. They didn’t keep selling me. I just needed to pay my bills before I ordered my boots. Yet that last ad I saw got a lion’s share of the credit despite that not being reality.
Position Based Attribution
Position based attribution essentially is a giant “U” shaped model. It gives a lot of weight to the first ad, a lot to the last, and sort of splits up the rest in between them.
Pros: Giving the first position and last position ads the most weight makes sense since those are the beginning and the end of your customer journey. It’s based on user actions and not time or just making things equal for the sake of it.
Cons: The middle does matter. It’s a buyers journey not a fitness montage. The hard work comes from moving folks through every objection they have and telling a great story which takes time.
So, the million dollar question, what attribution model do I use?
Position based, when I can.
Here’s the thing. No model is perfect. I’m keenly aware of that. Most of the time, because of how silo’d the data is to each platform it’s basically impossible to run any alternative model with any confidence. So if no model is perfect, and even if there was one you couldn’t rely on the data, what’s the point of all this?
The point is to not be overly reliant on metrics. Have a nuanced view of your marketing funnel and understand that sometimes you need to do things that matter for the brand and the customer journey that you can’t measure. Hopefully this illustrated that and you’re able to take a step back and say let’s do some great work where we can maybe get “qualitative data” such as people saying they loved an ad or a blog post or whatever and stop worrying about clicks and CTR for 5 minutes. If you need permission to do marketing work you know is great (great for the brand not your portfolio) please use this post as your permission.