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The Holy Grail of B2B Marketing: ROI

Posted May 7, 2024

Doug Bell, Fractional CMO at Chief Outsiders, joins our host, Camela Thompson, in this episode of the Revenue Marketing Report. Doug shares what every marketer must do to remain a marketer in the next decade and why attribution still matters.

Doug, day two. We are going to be talking about what every marketer just loves to embrace and that is trying to figure out ROI. Want to get us kicked off?

“Okay, so you call it the holy grail? I feel like there have been a few holy grails thrown down over time when it comes to marketing. Oh, yeah. I would agree I loved the conversation we had yesterday. At the end of the day, we were talking about how credible your growth model is, with marketing at the center of that model. How can you explain a roll up and how can you adjust? I love that. I think this is a good way of describing the good stuff that comes when you do that because I don’t think you can get to a credible ROI without putting some of that work in. Having a good, but fungible, flexible and multichannel model where you have the data that can guide you and show you when you succeed and where you need to make changes.

“The other is understanding the role of each of your channels in that buyer’s journey. I would not go and lose my poo because our retargeting isn’t producing enough bookings. It is insane. All those things being equal, that we start getting down to is attribution. There’s no credible, useful, sustainable, scalable way to measure and use ROI as a guide towards a better model without good attribution in the background because that is what you are going to use to determine whether it’s top-down or bottom-up. That is what you are going to use to determine what your programs are returning, either from a booking standpoint or from an opportunity or pipeline creation standpoint, you’ve got to start with attribution after you have done all that other homework.”

So Doug, you know me and you know that I am a data person. What I’m going to say might raise some eyebrows. I would like to talk a little bit about what we mean by attribution because I find out when I am debating it hotly with somebody, if we’d just slowed down and said, well, what do you mean by attribution we could probably get on the same page.

I don’t feel that attribution will ever be a complete holistic picture of every single step someone takes. 90% of buyer journeys aren’t linear and there’s some stuff we just can’t track. I don’t think either of us, and I’ll speak for myself, I’ll never say that there isn’t a place for intuition and gut in marketing because there are plenty of times and places when that makes sense. However, I don’t think because this is so difficult to do, that it’s an excuse not to measure what we can.

“Okay. I don’t want to knock you off your soapbox because I agree with what you are saying. But I think it is important and I love that we are having this conversation. Let’s anchor on what attribution equals, what is that thing? We get into a conversation about purpose and how it can go sideways, but my simplest definition of attribution is a model that allows multiple ways to understand the role of different channels in the buyer’s journey based on waiting. Can I understand what’s happening across the buyer’s journey, and can I attribute which channel contributed to what stage in the journey? Then, can I play with that waiting,  we can think about things like even distribution models. We can think about W-shaped models where we bunch up contributions depending on where people are on the buyer’s journey, and are they closer to becoming an opportunity or a booking? For me, what we are talking about if we are doing this well is we’re saying we have the ability to understand which channels contributed across the buyer’s journey, full stop.”

We are going to have to continue debating a little bit. I wouldn’t put a fullstop, I would put an asterisk since I will tell you every single attribution model has gaps. They all answer different questions. They will never cover every single interaction that is out there. As long as we agree that this isn’t an exact representation of the digital or offline footprint of our buyers and use the data we have to make smarter decisions. I think we can agree on an attribution model.

“100%. Gosh, how do you measure human behavior with a statistical model? I am going to leave that to the pollsters and the people that drive people to the polls to get them to vote on it. There’s science there. That is not what we do. We have to have a different view, which is, I agree with your point completely. Each model has a different potential  to allow you to understand the buyer’s journey, and  your channel’s performance. No single model will work, but I will tell you you’re not going to get to ROI without attribution.

“There is a finance person saying, “I measured ROI last quarter.” Yeah, you sure did. You got  to the end of the quarter, and by the way, you got a clipped up version where we weren’t seeing what was happening in terms of production  in Q1 or Q4 going into Q1 because, guess what? The sales cycle is complex and doesn’t have to begin at the end of a quarter. Yes, you can do it periodically, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to have some sort of underlying attribution model to get it done.”


“So holy grail ROI, I will say this: I agree it is a holy grail. But I will tell you, and I think I’m quoting Camela here, marketing leaders who aren’t  deploying data to make decisions will not be marketing leaders in two years. I am not trying to be scary, but I have to say, for me, that also includes ROI. This landscape is going to change so fast. Right now, your ROI is important and you’re wondering, how do I do it? Of course, CaliberMind is launching an application that’s going to help, but I think that is the first opening shot with many organizations saying, guess what? We’re going to figure out this ROI thing. By the way, marketers, if you haven’t figured this out, even with back in the envelope, you’re going to need to. I would highly recommend even a rudimentary attribution model in the background so you can start that journey.

For the most part, I’m a content person. I am a marketer. However, I still take on the occasional revenue operations contract since I want to stay on top of everything. And where I seem to be in the most demand, and it may be just a niche thing, but it is also something we fundamentally struggle with as marketers is setting data, like the system setup, getting it all ready so in the future you can make the most out of it. I see this time and again.

I see overcomplicated multi parents campaign hierarchy and lack of budget information. There are tedious things we have to do or hire somebody to do in order to get that information we need back out of it. So when I hear an oversimplification of attribution and saying, we should do this one thing and everything will be fine. I have to wonder, are we avoiding the hard thing?

“A Gordian Knot? If you don’t know what the Gordian Knot is, Google Alexander the Great. The Gordian Knot ultimately was this mythical knot that was created whoever could unravel it was going to rule the world. Then Alexander the Great shows up with a sword and cuts it in half. That is the Gordian Knot. Camela, what you’re speaking about, and I have the same experiences that most MarTech stacks, most RevTech stacks, by the way, a hundred applications is now the average. Most of those stacks weren’t built with a singular architecture in mind. They have been built incrementally to address a series of use cases over time.

“That is the norm. Salesforce and HubSpot and many other organizations are now making a meal of and creating more revenue for themselves saying, ha! Ha! How do we standardize the RevTech stack around our architecture? We understand that. And you’re absolutely right. What I’m speaking to on some degree, back on the Gordian Knot is hey, go figure out how to tie the knot. What I am suggesting fully and completely is, the way that you should drive change in your underlying structure. This is a presupposing and mature model, by the way. This isn’t the immature model that you’re called to work on. It’s that mature model. For me, that is a forcing function, putting attribution in place for two things. One, don’t be scared of the numbers folks. They may not favor you, but they’re going to help you make decisions.

“And guess what, if you don’t make the decisions, the next up, the next CMO or VP will, I’m sorry. I have been the person who has been replaced. It sucks. We don’t want that. But, when you apply a good attribution model, it starts forcing this conversation around the efficacy of a MarTech stack and it begins to allow you to come back and say, gee! What is working and what isn’t? I am a fractional and I have multiple clients. These are brilliant people. I am so privileged to work with such brilliant people and their data and their RevTech stacks are a mess. But we can’t pause and say, hey, let’s fix all this stuff before we put attribution in place and we start driving for ROI. It is just not possible. It’s back to the Gordian Knot.”

No, I’ve always told people if you are waiting until your data becomes perfect, you will never get this done. It is never perfect. You have to start with what you have and sometimes, in a tiny company, that means starting with leading indicators, but you have to be driving towards a goal. Hire a consultant. You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s possible though. I’ve seen it happen. 

“I agree, but I do think you are doing a great job of calling me out on the complexity of the problem that marketers are trying to solve between creating a strategy, having a goal set and delivering on that with the supporting infrastructure and then being able to be honest, open and critical about what is working and what isn’t. Then, I am  going to create an attribution model and flop our OI on top of it. It is that simple. But I would say I think about this as a forcing function.”

It’s reflective of our background. You are extremely good at the simplification piece that needs to occur for any marketer and I am operational and think there are so many steps we have to take in order to get this online. It is just a good balance. Thank you.

“Yeah way to simplify the thing. It is going to create a six-month cascading window of activity, Doug, but yeah, let’s do that.”

That is what operations is for. Yes, we love you, we love you operations!

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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