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Oct 31 / Nathan Levi

Getting hung up on attribution in digital media

I recently attended an industry round table event where one of the topics being discussed was attribution. This is a current buzz word in the digital media space. It describes the methodology of being able to attribute value to digital advertising at whatever step the customer sees it. For example, if a customer were to ‘view’ a display banner for a car insurance product and then search for the brand on Google and click on the paid search link and then make a purchase, in a last click attribution model the paid search link would take all the credit for the sale. In a first click attribution model the display banner would get all the credit, and in a blended model both the display and search advertising would share the credit. The challenge is much greater when you have 10 or even 20 touch points before the customer makes a purchase. And what happens when that customer makes the purchase in store, how does credit get attributed then?

The reason agencies have become so hung up on attribution is because they want to prove the value of their advertising to clients. For so long digital media has been held up as being completely measurable. As the space has become a lot more competitive, and more expensive, the standard way of looking at last click attribution doesn’t hold up as well any more. I think the industry needs a bit of a wake up here. Attributing value to advertising in this way is misleading. Let’s say I watch a TV ad for a Sony television, search online and see a John Lewis promotion for that TV and make an online purchase. Surely that would be Sony’s marketing budget driving revenue for John Lewis? However, John Lewis’s marketing team would consider that it was their marketing activity driving the revenue for that Sony TV. Let’s complicate matters further. If my friend tells me that the Sony television they just bought from John Lewis is amazing and that I should go and buy one online, no marketing activity should really take any credit for the sale, my friend has done the marketing for John Lewis all by themselves.

The reasons people make purchases are as varied as the British weather. Some people make snap┬ádecisions, some are influenced by how much money they have in the bank, and some are guided by the marketing they see or click on. Attribution seeks to fit these decisions into neat boxes. Marketing is not always causal. I like to see digital marketing as a very effective sign post rather than the reason someone has made a purchase. It has a very strong role to play in driving sales, guiding the customer to the right page at the right time. Do I think attribution is a waste of time? Absolutely not. It can be very effective at making budgets more efficient. I also don’t see it as a marketing panacea. Until we can read people’s minds we can never truly attribute value empirically to marketing activity. We should use this data with a little caution, accepting that attribution is a tactic to make budgets go further, not to justify causation.

 

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