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B2B Attribution Will Never Be Right (& That’s OK)

Posted January 24, 2024
Thumbnail with headshot of Zee Jeremic introducing podcast and article entitled B2B Attribution Will Never Be Right (& That's OK)

Zee Jeremic, CEO of MASS Engines, joins our host, Camela Thompson, Go-To-Market Thought Leader and B2B Insights Expert, in this episode of the Revenue Marketing Report. Zee and Camela discuss their observations about why multi-touch attribution fails so often and why how it’s positioned and used is vital to its success.

I am excited to tackle today’s topic: Attribution will always be wrong and that is okay. What are your initial thoughts?

“I will make a confession. I’m a recovering perfectionist and one of the things that have helped me is the old adage that perfect is the enemy of good or enemy of great. I would say that’s exactly what I want to bring to this conversation. It’s hard because when you talk about reporting, when you talk about numbers, there’s always, if not external, internal pressure to ensure the numbers, you can stand behind the numbers and the numbers have validity. I don’t think it is necessarily wrong if you present numbers that aren’t valid or not good, you will lose credibility. I think that tension is what causes many people to try to make it perfect. However, perfection is the enemy of greatness.

“So what ends up occurring in that quest for perfection, it ends up taking too long. Sometimes, it never gets done and oftentimes, we lose our way and we’re not recognizing most things. If you go back, I feel like this is a sort of a Kevin Costner thing. If you build it, they will come. Usually, the reality of that kind of approach is that it is a field of dreams. It isn’t necessarily the most constructive way to go around when it comes to business. The reality of business is that almost no business has been built with a perfect idea. And then it gets built and then it works. Most businesses grow and come into existence through small incremental change. I think that is the best way to approach your reporting as well.

“Start with something that’s small and incrementally improve it and approach it from the beginning, even internally, with yourself. Even with your team, tell them we’re starting here. We know it isn’t perfect. We’re trying to make it better and we’re going to keep improving. I think giving yourself and your team the permission to be less than perfect will go a long way in starting to produce reporting and accessing all of the benefits. I loved what you talked about yesterday; once you start looking at something long enough, it shifts the way you approach things.

“Having something to look at early, even if it’s imperfect is much better than waiting for it to become perfect and then avoiding it for an exceedingly long period of time. I will tell you a story that I think perfectly illustrates this. We once worked with a very large client and almost from year one or two of working there, we were trying to push this idea: we need more insights and reporting on the funnel and we kept getting pushback from within the organization. No matter where we pushed, there was always this pushback around it. Well, there’s this project that is happening, it’s going to solve all of these issues. It’s going to give us everything.

“This was seven or eight years ago. There have been three or four teams that have changed and that project is still in existence. Yet, as far as I know, it hasn’t moved more than a few percentage points forward. Honestly, after two, three or four years, we ended up doing it ourselves and just selectively displayed it. We never publicized it. We started doing it so we can get the insights since it became clear it was basically what everyone was hiding behind. And again, it isn’t out of any nefarious intent. It was easier to say, well, no it’s being handled over there. I don’t have to worry, but when you look at the reality, eight years later, there’s still nothing there. If we didn’t do something three years in, nothing would exist. Sometimes you have to start small and build.”

I agree with you. This topic takes up way too much space in my brain. What I have noticed is that attribution projects fail all the time. Nevertheless, I’ve also noticed it isn’t really about the data. It’s not necessarily the lack of data or gaps that are causing the issue.

What I see is actually threefold. One, vendors have oversold it as a silver bullet that can see every step of the buyer’s journey and it just can’t. Two, somebody didn’t sit down and ask people what they want to use it for since what you build is going to be vastly different. If your CMO wants to take it to the boardroom to show marketing’s share in quotes of pipeline vs. sales vs. other departments. If you’re using it internally and within marketing to assess what is or isn’t working and being able to apply some contextual knowledge to what you’re seeing. Those two things are so different. Then three, I think it is on leadership to meet us halfway and work with us to understand what’s and what isn’t possible. Only if you understand where the gaps are can you truly communicate and sell this as something believable.

Are there any other factors you’ve seen other than it’s taking so long to perfect?

“There’s a lot of reasons why this is hard and why it doesn’t get done and why even when some organizations try to do, it fails. But since you asked a concrete question, I’ll give you one off the top of my head. Another challenge that oftentimes comes in. Out of the best of intentions, marketing starts building some form of reporting. I love your idea, start internally. That’s the best way to go. Most folks start externally because of that pressure, right? Like we have to justify, defend our budget, we have to justify the value, et cetera. All those are very valid, by the way. So I totally get why most people go there. So a challenge that you, oftentimes, run into is the pushback from sales.


“What ends up happening all of a sudden, the team probably worked really hard to put some kind of attribution, some kind of connection in place around what value marketing is generating. So when the CMO or VP of Marketing probably comes to a meeting and showcases some of the value marketing has been adding. And the first thing you hear is, because marketing doesn’t involve sales in those conversations and in that planning, sales starts pushing back. Hey, we sourced that deal or we made that deal close. Inherently those conversations haven’t been socialized and sales just gets their back up.


“Historically, they’re used to getting all the credit. So all of a sudden, somebody’s trying to come in and claim that credit. Rightfully or not, they’re going to get their back up a little bit and sometimes, give you good examples. Again, this ties back to perfection and there’s no such thing as perfection. The first thing people will say, oh, wait, what? You generated $50 million in pipeline? Give us some examples. Then they begin to pull up top ten accounts out of that $50 million and then suddenly they say that has been our account for the last five years. We know everyone there. Therefore, they will start taking potshots. It’s not necessarily that marketing’s wrong. It is more about sales hasn’t been involved in the conversation. They are not used to this new type of conversation and the idea that all of a sudden, marketing is trying to take credit for some of the things that sales is doing or some things that are occurring in the organization.”


I want to clarify that I am not advocating for using this as a cross-functional tool. I am not against it either, but it involves a ton of more work. The thing I want to emphasize here is that if your marketing leader or CMO has the intention of doing so, you need to get in front of that landmine right away. Because like what you said, if they begin socializing it with other teams and it wasn’t built to reflect other teams’ data, you’re going to fail before you even start. I’m not saying you should do it that way but so many marketing leaders I run into want to use it that way and don’t necessarily communicate that and that’s where everything goes off the rails.


“That is right. It is not the end of the world, but what ends up happening is a big setback in almost every situation since marketing leaders then go back to their teams somewhat defeated because they’re not going to know everything about the deals and give nuances that marketing is taking all the credit. And usually, there’s some sort of basic formula that the team builds to be able to establish some of these models. Then you have to backtrack and try to rebuild the credibility and it’s okay, but it takes a little more time.


“So it is exactly like you said that it’s the right instinct to try to socialize it because there are these pressures. However, whenever possible, get the other team involved or give the heads-up ahead of time around what you’re thinking or what you’re trying to do since the pressure is on you as a marketing leader around what you’re thinking about doing or why you need to do it.


“Therefore, at least have a heads-up and if you can share it with them ahead of time and get  them to take those potshots in a closed room outside of the purvey of other executives, you’re going to be in a much better and much stronger position to have that conversation or at least to take that step back privately with sales rather than in front of everyone else. However, when this isn’t possible, when it isn’t practical, there are all sorts of reasons why that doesn’t occur. 


“You are in that meeting again and it’s just how you coach your words and what you’re presenting: we’re starting something new and here are some initial insights, here are some of our findings as we see them today and we’re going to keep evolving this work. So language can be crucial rather than simply saying, here’s what we are doing, which is very definitive. And everybody in that room, sales who might have a disagreement will notice immediately and voice it since it comes down to how it’s being presented. Therefore, if you present it in a softer way: it’s something new we’re trying to be able to quantify, to illustrate and even better, to go back to what you said; use it internally so that you can better invest in your marketing funds. That can really change the conversation or at least the reception of what you’re presenting.”


I think one of my greatest frustrations is when people try to represent the division of dollars as truth because they’re setting themselves up for failure. This is very much an estimate and if you are showing this to the sales team as the truth and how the dollars were sourced, you’re going to get in fisticuffs with them over whether an email click or a website visit is the same thing as a meeting. It is just going to devolve so quickly. So if you can get your team to view this as wonderful information and they can use different types of models, maybe some focus on content consumption or other things. But this is a representation directionally of what we’re influencing so we can make better decisions. That is a completely different conversation than saying marketing sourced $500,000 in January.


“I would say that the time of attribution is here and you can ignore it at your own peril. You can stall it or fight it, but ultimately, there’s more because the big change is digital. I think historically, there was always a bit of an understanding that traditional advertising has limitations around what we can report on. Digital increasingly, you can track that down to a click. Even with privacy restrictions, there is still so much that can be done to track. So I think that groundswell is building the longer digital around, with the awareness even at the top layers around what’s possible and what should be done, therefore, around reporting.


“So I agree that these conversations will continue, need to continue since the pressure is going to increase as time goes on, on marketing leaders and executives to better direct how their budgets are spent based on what’s generating results. Again, results don’t have to be revenue. If you’re going to talk about ROI, it’s the easiest way to go. Nevertheless, I think any marketer worth their salt will tell you that it takes seven to ten-plus touches for anyone to even pay attention to your brand. Therefore, there’s always going to be marketing investments that will be made in some of those touches that are difficult to quantify and that’s okay. That’s absolutely fine and again it goes back to the beginning of this conversation. This isn’t about perfection. It’s  bout approximation. It’s about building a practice and comfort with this practice of starting to look at the value of what we’re doing in any specific channel or campaign and that value can be quantified in different ways.”

For more content on B2B marketing trends, listen to the full Revenue Marketing Report episode at the top of the article or anywhere you podcast.

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