7 common attribution mistakes

Year after year, marketing managers listen to their colleagues talk about their exploits surrounding attribution at tradeshows and during webinars, while many of those same managers are still struggling to grasp how proper attribution can be accomplished in their own organizations. Too often, marketers exercise poor execution of their attribution strategy -- as a result, marketers turn to vendors to either solve this problem or point them in the right direction. For many analysts, as they go down the rabbit hole of attribution, more questions tend to get raised than answered.

The good news is that many of the elementary mistakes that trip up marketers can be solved fairly easily even with a relatively low level of sophistication. This article won't solve every woe, but addressing the following seven items will make a large impact on marketer resources and long-term strategy.

Misinterpretation

It is amazing that the digital marketing industry still juggles different interpretations of the idea of "attribution." In its most basic sense, attribution is simply the act of deciding which ad gets credit for a conversion -- this is typically based on the last ad seen or last ad clicked. However, some advertisers interpret attribution as a consumer's path to conversion while others see attribution as the allocation of fractional credit to ads in a conversion path. It may seem obvious, but too often marketers make the assumption that everyone is "speaking the same language" when in many cases, they are not.

Little to no existing plan

According to an IAB study done last June, "44 percent of interactive marketers don't have processes in place to assign credit to their efforts, not even rudimentary attribution such as last event." As disturbing as this may be, many advertisers don't align the collection of their data with sound analytics, and they tend to display a general lack of attention surrounding the topic. Advertisers who don't have internal discussions about it risk irregularities when it comes to linking the data together. For marketers who do have a framework for their attribution efforts, the internal politics of the organization may be reinforcing failing strategies instead of seeking alternatives.

Determining conversions

When marketers work with an assortment of social, ad server, and analytic partners for a variety of advertising initiatives, they must keep in mind that many of those vendors have different default correlation windows. Conversion windows are the predetermined time to identify whether a view or click event (on an ad) should correlate to a conversion. That is to say, if the correlation window is 30 days, a conversion event will only be attributed to a view or click event done within 30 days.

It sounds like such a basic item, but many advertiser partners don't think about making their ad channel correlation windows the same. If overlooked, there can be discrepancies and cross-channel inconsistencies. For example, if an online retailer advertises across display and social channels, the display partner might set up a 122-day window for a click conversion with a 45-day window for view based conversions, while its social channel partner may keep both at 30 days. This situation may result in depreciated social conversions numbers in relation to other ad channels. Make sure you are comparing "apples to apples."

Knee-jerk reactions

If an advertiser realizes that it displays some of the inconsistencies described in the previous example, the knee-jerk reaction might be to immediately change it (even mid campaign). If the advertiser does, it should be mindful that changing its click or view conversion windows mid campaign will deliver messy data sets that can be difficult to decouple. Time lost cleaning up data sets could be better spent on more strategic activities. However, if a change does need to be made, note the date and time so analytics can be recorded from that time forward.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

The attribution space has a lot of "best practices" touted by different companies to focus on a number of variables like ad recency, size, cost, historical data, and ad type. For marketers edging toward employing fractional attribution models, it is important to have some sound statistical analysis behind it. Assigning predetermined values can present a conflict of interest if an advertiser has a proclivity toward a particular ad vertical.
 
For example, if an agency or marketing department really likes working with rich media or affiliates, it might allocate more weight to those touch points that influence the conversion path. That way, when reports are presented, it will make those channels appear more valuable than it otherwise would.

Not a "must have"

Not every marketer fully grasps the potential impact of attribution analysis. Furthermore, most advertisers aren't diving into the "weeds," and if they are, they are viewing the data as a "nice to have" not a "must have." As the industry standard (last ad seen or clicked) still doesn't allow most advertisers to use these numbers for billing, some marketers don't see the value of it. Leveraging attribution data might not seem helpful from a billing standpoint, but it will certainly make an impact on the optimization front. Marketers can understand when and how to shift budget to the channels that have the most impact on the bottom line.

Invest in the right people

As cliché as it is, companies are only as good as the people they hire. A truly integrated attribution strategy depends on those dictating the vision all the way down to those executing it. On top of hiring the right talent, marketers should set their employees up for success with an interconnected approach from day one that includes an open avenue for dialogue throughout the planning and execution of the strategy. It can seem redundant, but it is better to over communicate with periodic check-ins, as things have a way of falling through the cracks.

Thomas Moyer is product manager of Optimal Inc

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