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Solving the Attribution Fallacy

Solving the Attribution Fallacy

The Flawed Definition of Attribution

It’s nice to know what causes a particular outcome or event. Being able to identify causality informs our decisions; the pain of fire burning your skin is a lesson you only need to learn once before you decide to avoid touching it again. Unfortunately, most marketing programs aren’t as simple to understand – and knowing a particular outcome is more than just something nice to know in marketing; it could be the difference between success and failure in your campaigns.

Traditional marketing via “broadcast” messages (think television, radio, billboard, print advertisement) has always been difficult to measure, because while it’s clear that it can cause brand recognition, relating that recognition to actual sales – which may take place months, or even years later – is an abstract art at best. The lack of causal clarity from traditional media is a big reason why the world’s marketers have been so quick to embrace the data and direct, or single-source, attribution of digital channels like pay-per-click advertising. It seems so simple – a click has a cost, and a clearly traceable outcome (a web visit, through a conversion, to a sale). Hash out some simple math, and… Presto! You have a reliable price-per-lead (PPL) average from your paid-search campaigns.

However, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll quickly realize that the single-source attribution of paid search advertising is a lie. Your PPL calculations are almost certainly wrong! Does that mean we’re doomed to return to the days of guessing whether Mikey eating the cereal in the ad, or Mikey supposedly dying from pop-rocks and coke ingestion in The Enquirer, was the real cause for our uplift in Life cereal sales? No, but it does mean we need to take another look at the art of attribution in a data-rich world in order to understand the real value of our marketing efforts.

A Better Definition of the Attribution Model

The reality is that brand impressions constantly influence decisions, but maybe in a different way than you think. Sure, they call it “pay-per-click” advertising because you pay only when someone clicks. But what happens to all those hundreds or thousands of additional times where your ad is seen but not clicked? Your brand and your message still get directly within the sight of your target consumer – they just didn’t take action (yet). Ask anyone paying for signs, billboards, fliers, television ads, or product placement – there is incredible value in having a brand impression even if it doesn’t lead directly to a conversion or sale. In fact, most people search more than once for a product or service they’re in need of, and the resonant effect of your ever-present brand is the reason you got the click on the all-important last search, not the first one. So, next time you calculate your PPL, be sure to include the value of the thousands of free billboard-like brand impressions your campaign got that may end up fulfilled through other channels.

The Better Definition of Solve

But how could this attribution work in the real world? It’s one thing to track the source of a page view, site visit, or completed form online, but those don’t exist in a brick-and-mortar location. There are many common ways for creating brand impressions in and around your store, but creating in-store brand impressions doesn’t have to be limited to signage and displays either. The one thing recording a complete picture of customer purchase and preferences every day already is your point-of-sale. It’s full of information about likes, dislikes, and even preferred time of day and location your customers like to shop. Leveraging that information to print a relevant incentive for customers to return based on their current purchase data is key to affecting future decisions. So if you bought a sandwich but not a drink, your specific offer is valid for the next purchase of both. If you’re a consistent lunch customer and haven’t considered coming in after work hours, you’ll receive an offer designed to change your mind. Every receipt can help to provide a distinct interaction with the brand which can culminate in choosing what’s for dinner, and every transaction is an opportunity for your business to get a clearer picture on who exactly your customers are.

Insights Drive Actions

A closed-loop marketing solution allows the measurement of action by design as a result of influences. Connecting a specific offer directly to not only a purchase, but also every detail of that purchase is the holy grail of customer insights. The POS data from both transactions show that when that dinner offer is redeemed by the typically lunch-loving customer, they visited on a weekend day and spent 250% more than when the original promotion was delivered. And that knowledge ultimately means less focus on marketing and more attention on the bottom line.


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