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Why Attribution Has Failed & How to Fix It

Posted September 29, 2021
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Why Has Attribution Failed Marketers?

Multi-touch marketing attribution has been around for a while in different forms. What started as a campaign-only lens with single touchpoints now may involve external databases and multiple multi-touch models.

But the additional data points and complex models haven’t made things any more intuitive for marketers and executives to wrap their heads around.

Andy Caron said it best. “All of the data connections have made attribution more robust, but it’s harder to explain. Success can depend on how you’re having a conversation, with whom, what their level of expertise is, and how it’s framed.”

Positioning and expectations have every bit as much to do with attribution’s success as data hygiene does.

Internal Positioning

Every executive knows that marketing generates a ton of data. Most of what we do these days is digital, which means we should be able to track it.

It’s tempting to think attribution is the key to visualizing all of those touches and translating them into the ideal buyer journey.

Only that’s never how it works out.

Most of the digital data marketing generates is anonymized and in a format that differs from our core systems. And there are some activities we will never be able to track (branding efforts, offline activities, word of mouth, etc.).

Marketing attribution tools are expensive, so it’s tempting to sell them as the fix for gaps in marketing’s data story. But it shouldn’t be positioned as a pipeline or revenue contribution tool unless your tool also considers sales activities. And even then, you’ll need to ensure your executive team understands that it doesn’t offer a complete picture, is one piece of your campaign optimization strategy, and should primarily be used by marketers.

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It should *never* be positioned as Marketing “Credit.”

“Marketing wanted a seat at the table as a revenue generator. We want to be held to the commitments that we’ve made. We want to be accountable for the dollars that are spent. But when you try to sell multi-touch models as marketing’s portion of pipeline and revenue, it’s a hard thing for sales to swallow. Marketing seems like they’re trying to come in and take credit, which can come off as trying to take money out of people’s pockets. Use the word “credit,” and you’re immediately going to get pushback. ‘Credit’ is a trigger word and immediately puts up walls and defenses,” said Brooke.

“When the sales team and the marketing team are constantly fighting over who’s getting credit, it just creates such a toxic environment. It should be used as a collaborative tool to see what both teams can do to work better together,” said Anna.

“The way that I tend to position multi-touch attribution is to think about it as investment optimization,” said Andy. “If I were managing a portfolio of stocks for you and you had several under-performers at the end of the quarter, I would report that to you, and you would reallocate funds. This is exactly the same thing. It’s just marketing dollars instead of personal investments.”

Unrealistic Expectations

As we’ve mentioned, multi-touch attribution doesn’t solve every data woe for a company. There will always be blind spots.

“We have more data and complex models, but It’s made things more complicated. Trying to explain to an executive why I have data around a million individuals who have visited the website, but can only see 20% of them because those are the people that have filled out a form is difficult,” said Andy.

“There’s a conceptual thing that I’ve noticed. People think they want marketing attribution, but what they think they’re getting and what it actually is a lot different. I think people think attribution is going to give this black and white answer. Attribution adds a level of art to it. As soon as you start expecting these reports or these models to provide executive-level insights, I see many marketing teams end up chasing perfect reports because that’s what their CMOs and CFOs are asking for. It takes a mental shift to understand attribution is an art. It’s applying some assumptions, and we need to have the assumptions to track ROI, but it’s certainly not black and white, and it never will be,” said Carey Picklesimer.

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“The level of accountability marketers are held to is perhaps aligned against what executives perceive we can report on rather than what can actually be reported on. KPIs need to be adjusted and level-set with leadership before embarking on an implementation, or you will fail. If you have KPIs that you can’t deliver on, it’s not going to be successful. It doesn’t matter what tool you use, and it doesn’t matter how much support you have for it. Understanding the underlying data and what is possible should be the first step.” Andy

Lack of Resources

“Lack of resourcing for attribution tools is a big point of failure. Marketing Ops doesn’t always get the correct amount of resourcing that they need to keep things running. I do more fixes to original implementations than I do actual implementations because a tool has just sat there for a year. It’s actually a lot of work to keep up with data hygiene and proper data structure so you can tie it to revenue. Resourcing is often a downfall because the tool almost requires a full-time resource in and of itself,” said Anna.

Poor Data Structure

Most attribution tools rely on standard campaign and campaign member configuration in Salesforce. Attribution customers should also think about every angle they’ll want to see the data from and whether or not they are collecting that data before embarking on a search for the perfect tool.

Establish UTM parameters for your department. Make sure your campaign hierarchy is set up correctly. Make sure your tools are fully integrated and properly syncing data.

“Many failures are due to a lack of data structure or not collecting the correct metadata. Make sure you’re capturing where your form fills are coming from, capture your budget and spend on the campaign level, and collect the pieces of data you’ll need to trace where your campaign activities are coming from,” said Anna.

How to Fix It

Now that we’ve heard what our experts see doom an attribution tool, what can we do to avoid the same fate?

Nail the Basics

“Make sure that you have a defined UTM structure before you get an attribution tool. I’ve had multiple clients tell me they don’t have UTM parameters set up after kick-off an implementation. We have to step back and start from square one to understand why UTM parameters are important and what kind of data we can get from using them. Before you even look for a tool, think through what you want to capture in your URL string,” said Anna.

“Check your program and campaign membership set up. Most attribution tools still have a reliance on campaign membership. If you’re not using the campaign object or not using it to its full potential, there’s no data there to be reported on. Think about how your configuration and data collection play into an attribution tool before you’re paying for one,” said Brooke.

Consider Long-Term Viability

“First of all, you may not be able to afford the tool that you want at the time that you’re implementing it. But if you know you’re going to need the tool you want in six months, in a year, or even two years, the pain of pulling out one tool and replacing it with another is not necessarily worth the effort. Secondly, you’ll want to assess companies on how likely they’ll be in the market and continue to be a leader in the market for as long as you want to use them. What you don’t want is a tool that will get stale or not be maintained going forward. Then you’re stuck with something that becomes a relic,” said Andy. “Also, ask how they’re planning on managing the transition away from cookies and utilizing anonymous data.”

Set Appropriate Expectations

“The word ‘credit’ drives me nuts. And the other phrase I hear is, ‘We want to prove marketing’s contribution to revenue.’ What a terrible way to position this tool. The idea here is not that we’re taking credit for bringing in the leads or bringing in the engagement. We have a responsibility to be spending the company’s money wisely and our time wisely. The whole point of attribution should be being equipped to make better decisions.

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“Attribution is not something you do to look back at a quarter,” Carey continued. “We should be using attribution to see what we did well and poorly in Q1 and to inform what we can do differently in Q2. Drop the word ‘credit’ from your vocabulary and drop the phrase ‘prove marketing contribution.’ Instead, start saying we want this tool so that we can understand which of our activities are driving the right people at the right time to salespeople.”

Incorporate Sales Data

“I think the organizations that do the best with attribution do take into account sales contributions in their data models. The investment becomes not marketing’s investment but a business investment that yields revenue. If you pivot the conversation in that direction, it’s not about how marketing performed or sales performed. It’s not a, ‘we pass you all these leads, and you don’t close them.’ The focus shifts to business performance. It’s about improving a crucial part of the business, which keeps us all employed and must function well. If we’re not tuning our models and making sure that it’s running smoothly as a machine, then we were doing the business a disservice,” said Andy Caron.

Use All the Models

“The reason there are so many models is that different models answer different questions. Depending on the question that you’re asking, you’ll need to use a different model to get an answer. If you’re trying to understand how top-of-funnel content is performing, you may want to look beyond first-touch and look at even-weighted to see where it’s hitting. You might be creating what you think is top of funnel content, and it’s not,” said Andy

“When I have a client that’s pretty new to attribution in general, I encourage them to look at the models from the point of view of which team within marketing would or wouldn’t benefit from this model. So, for example, a demand gen team will likely benefit from first-touch and lead creation views because that’s where their spend is likely focused. When you get into the other models, the marketing ops team may use them to see if everything is working as expected. Then the sales team will be interested in what is happening to generate opportunities, and you may need to look at even-weighted or W-shaped models. If you’re in marketing ops, you might not find the creation-focused models as exciting or as necessary, but there are teams within the marketing org that do need that information to manage their programs,” said Anna.

Apply a Human Lens

Word of mouth will always be an essential marketing outcome, and it will never be tracked. Podcasts, radio, television, and other offline advertising tactics are nearly impossible to track, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work and we shouldn’t do them.

Marketing is a combination of art and science, and its analytics are very much the same.

“The reality is, attribution is an art and a science. We can get as much into the weeds on the numbers or the science part, but art is art because it’s not fully quantifiable. And at the end of the day, if you have good artists, you need to let them do what they’re doing and get out of their way,” said Andy (to applause from the panel).

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“Marketing wants responsibility for revenue and we want to be held accountable. The counterpoint to that is you’re never going to be able to account for every single dollar that marketing spent. It would be like counting grains of sand on the beach with oven mitts. It’s not going to work,” said Brooke. “There will always be things that are going to fall through the cracks. There are branding activities that marketing is going to spend money on, and you’re never going to get the same level of attribution out of that. If you put a billboard on the side of the expressway or throw advertising spend at a tradeshow or maybe you’re doing podcasts and webinars recordings and then you’re putting them on YouTube. These are things that you’re not going to be able to track with UTM parameters and cookies and digital touchpoints, but they’re still important. So there is that lens of the human view and understanding what all else is happening with marketing to that needs to be considered.”

For more great advice, watch the video at the top of the page or check out this guide summarizing takeaways from the panel:

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