Attribution Beyond The Last Click: An SMX East Session Recap

Contributor Andrew Goodman shares insights from a group of industry veterans who discuss the state of attribution and the importance of getting to the core of conversions.

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With the rise of mobile device activity, the always-elusive path to full attribution of online marketing spends seems to be slipping through our fingers, even as marketers’ sophistication grows.

As more than one panelist at the recently-concluded SMX East conference mentioned, your device is two things: a computer and a phone. We might consider a transaction on mobile and purchase later from another device; we might call; we might head to a retail store; or we might travel any number of circuitous paths before finally making a purchase.

In the many cases where a conversion isn’t immediate, online and seamless, how do marketers know if their mobile spend is working?

Whereas panelists at similar sessions three or four years ago seemed bravely hopeful that we were getting closer and closer to finding the “silver bullet” of attribution modeling, there was a humbler attitude this time around. Here, I’ll recap the presentations and discussion on the topic at the Attribution Beyond The Last Click session.

Interpreting The Numbers

Adam Proehl of NordicClick Interactive led off with a practical view of attribution, building from a foundation of pre-digital marketing.

Adam Proehl of NordicClick Interactive

Adam Proehl of NordicClick Interactive

Back in the day, direct marketers had to prove lift with controlled experiments in channels like direct mail. Geographic control tests would include an offer with a catalog mailing to one audience and no offer to a control audience.

If nothing else, this might tell us something about the response rates to offers, though it isn’t always clear in such cases what is learned.

But that may be the point: In digital marketing, we’ve bought into a fiction of near-perfect attribution, since those “last-click conversion” numbers are always right there in front of us. In more complex campaigns, though, the numbers aren’t all there in front of us, and marketers need to run clever tests to figure out whether a channel or offer does much of anything at all.

To take one example, there may be a lot more value to Facebook ads than companies can measure with last-click attribution — yet they wouldn’t necessarily be wise to put much stock in view-through conversion numbers.

Proehl outlined a method to test a Facebook ad using an experiment and control group broken down by randomly segmenting an email list in half. Subsequently, the company would send email offers to both groups and compare the revenue from the groups.

The hypothesis is that the “pre-warmed” audience will buy more.

On this point, I would have liked to have a sense that with this particular technique, he found the ads knocking it out of the park at least some of the time. Instead, it was presented more as something you could try.

But Proehl offered some important points and practical takeaways, which is what attendees come to the conferences for, of course. I will admit that it took me a whole day for the ideas to sink in and connect together in my mind, which could say something about the effect of the lunch burritos on my brain chemistry.

Proehl mentioned third-party attribution tools; he also commiserated with us about the fact that Google Analytics offers seven tantalizing attribution models, but at the end of the day, we walk away feeling like none of them can tell us where we should be spending our money.

Maybe part of Proehl’s point — well taken — is that we shouldn’t be leaning so heavily on models and reports to magically dictate to us how to allocate budgets. We need all the data we can use, but a heavy dose of interpretation will always be required.

Accounting For Inbound Call Revenue

Julia Stead of Invoca, a call tracking and analytics solution, focused on the importance of accounting for inbound call revenue, particularly in lead generation.

Julia Stead of Invoca

Julia Stead of Invoca

Several of her examples related to Invoca’s own lead generation efforts. Given that the company itself sells phone tracking and is tracking its own phone call funnel, the argument felt a bit like walking into a postmodern art piece.

Among many statistics brought to bear on the conversation, Stead noted that 61 percent of mobile searches result in a call.

The more important statistics Stead referred to would be situated right in your company’s own performance metrics. For example, many of us settle for call duration as a proxy metric for a meaningful revenue event and cost per call as a KPI. In most cases, though, we’re kidding ourselves.

To do attribution properly, many companies need to take this further — tracking the impact of ads on calls and on everything that happens through the sales process to an eventual revenue event. To accomplish this and more easily connect marketing spend with revenue generation, she pointed to technologies like Salesforce or Marketo integration with call platforms and AdWords.

Mastering The Mobile Channel

Tim Reis of Google began by colorfully pointing to some of his past experience in traditional media sales. At the higher levels of costly media buying, the question of effectiveness is bound to come up at some point.

Tim Reis Google

Tim Reis of Google

Although digital is a lot more accountable than traditional media, those conversations continue to be challenging.

Reis’ number one focus seemed to be on mastering and measuring the rapidly growing mobile channel. He pointed out that when it comes to consumer time spent with media, TV, print, radio and desktop internet have all lost share in the last four years — and all of that has landed in the camp of mobile internet.

This is making attribution much harder, but that share is so important that marketers would be unwise to carry on with outmoded spending allocations and attribution methods.

Reis offered the analogy of watering the lawn: “If you’re choking off the upstream, it doesn’t much matter what you do with that little lever on your hose at the end.”

Marketers need to be investing in higher-funnel and “first-click” experiences to introduce users to their brands, products and services.

Reis advocated running different kinds of tests to look into the impact of difficult-to-attribute media. Better attributing phone calls and better attributing ads driving traffic to retail stores are a couple of challenges on the near horizon for many advertisers — and they’d best get to it as soon as possible.

As for the attitude marketers need to take, it boils down to 1) thinking holistically — the channels work together; and 2) a spirit of ongoing experimentation. “Learning,” advises Reis, “is going to be the most important thing you do.”

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Andrew Goodman
Andrew Goodman is founder and President of Toronto-based Page Zero Media, a full-service agency obsessed with PPC performance since 2002. Current clients include, Princess Auto, and Andrew wrote 2 editions of Winning Results With Google AdWords (McGraw-Hill), a pioneering book on PPC strategy and tactics. He continues to speak regularly at SMX and other events. He was also an adviser to (and later, co-founder of) a consumer review startup, Toronto-based HomeStars, acquired by HomeAdvisor in 2017.

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