Attribution — A difficult problem

Attribution — A difficult problem

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.

Attributed to John Wanamaker (But was it actually him?!)

Attribution is one of the most difficult problems we face in digital marketing. Although we have an abundance of data, much more so than in offline media channels, “who gets what credit” is still a major challenge.

There are a lot of models of attribution which are oversimplified and not entirely accurate, we tend to love those because we understand them! Like first click or last click attribution, they are “easy on the brain” so we are attracted to them.

But reality is not always that simple…

A more realistic story of the modern buying cycle

Recently I was on Facebook (for work of course!) and was served the following ad:


The reason I was served this is because Optus used demographics targeting to target “people who are interested in First-person shooter games” — Go figure! Why’s it not Real Time Strategy?

FB ad

I immediately forward this ad to my colleague who does Facebook advertising: “Cool ad huh?” — I was admiring the humour of it, and then I suddenly realised that I ACTUALLY could be in the market to get this product. So I clicked through to the landing page (if this link dies, it’s because they’ve taken it down, but experience tells me companies rarely clean up their landing pages)

Attribution 2

Wow — beautiful landing page! I like it. I scroll through the offer and I actually like it. Great!

Problem — I am already an Optus customer, and I already have cable on a contract which is just about to expire. I start clicking through the checkout process but soon realise that it’s simply not built to accommodate current Optus customers or any special circumstances, I am going to have to call their sales team.

So I go onto Google and search for “Optus sales” land on this page, find the “For individuals and Small Businesses” phone number, get on the phone and negotiate an arrangement specifically for my circumstances with the good sales person they have on the other end.

They arrange for installation of new equipment and payment for the new arrangement.

I have converted! They got me!… Awesome!

But what about attribution?

Anyone who knows digital and Analytics is going to see the problem right here — how on earth do you track this customer conversion path?

And even if you could somehow piece together the whole journey — which channel gets what credit?

The Facebook ad was certainly a part of the journey — it was the one that first grabbed me off my mindless browsing of Facebook.

The landing page was a significant part of the journey, because it presented the offer very clearly and attractively. It had UTM tags so it’s clear that I got there from Facebook, great.

But then in the checkout process it breaks down. I actually went through a step or two and finally didn’t convert. By all accounts analytical software would indicate that I was a dropoff, and perhaps right now there is someone in the Optus marketing team looking at heatmaps of the checkout process of which my mouse clicks contributed non-actionable data! (Or worse, they are changing things around based on my clicks)

— But wait! There was a Google organic search, and the entrance page was the “Call us” page. So there’s that visit …

But then what? I picked up the phone and called their call centre. At that point the hope of tracking an ultimate “conversion” breaks down. At best they know I called them. Their 1800 number is either static or has call tracking (which would be switched to a Google Organic number) — either way my ultimate conversion is just a phone call which cannot be traced back to the Facebook ad no matter how hard you try.

…”Hey, our sales people are getting more calls! Cut Facebook spending and get us more salespeople because they are converting more!” (An exaggerated version of what could happen)

So I told the salesperson:

ME:”Hey, I saw your Facebook ad”…

HIM: “Which one sir? We have many…”

ME: “The one with the $95 plan”

HIM: “Which $95 plan were you referring to sir? We have many…”

So much for attribution. I converted, but how do you credit your marketing spend in different areas? My journey itself is broken into three non-connected sections:

  1. The Facebook ad and landing page dropoff
  2. The Google search, organically driven visit and subsequent “bounce”!
  3. A phone call to the sales team and conversion

A problem that affects our decisions

Not all user journeys are as complex as mine was. It’s logical to assume some users simply clicked the ad and checked out normally. But certainly not all.

Imagine that even 20% of the conversions followed my path or a similar path. A marketing manager might look at the numbers at the end of the day and say “That Facebook campaign didn’t perform up to the level we wanted, let’s cull it”

And that would be a shame (assuming it didn’t dramatically under-perform in reality). Because it not only got me to sign on for a 2 year contract, it also got me to follow their Facebook page and engage more with their brand. Later on I even shared one of their posts because I thought it was witty.

Who knows, right now one of my Facebook friends may sub-consciously be thinking “Optus”…

Be smart, be qualified

“Holistic” digital marketing is understanding the complex and nuanced interactions between various channels of marketing. They are an ecosystem. They flow into one another and support and sustain one another. When you cut one the others may suffer. When you build one, the others may grow.

Now go! Be a winner!

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