How Do We Deal with the Challenges of Attribution? Keep it Real and Keep it Actionable

As martech professionals, we share a strident pursuit of the perfect attribution formula, which has arguably become one of the most united quests in all of modern marketing. At the same time, we certainly can acknowledge its limitations. Discussions during the AttributionCouncil working group at I-COM Global surfaced the consensus that, even as the industry pursues or provides guidance on “mastery,” the perpetually increasing complexity of media platforms and KPIs can make the mission to achieve precise attribution feel overwhelming. Professionally, we can agree that the finality of perfection when it comes to attribution is unlikely.

So, what does the mission become?

How do we benefit from these inherently challenging pursuits on a shifting landscape as we continue to mature the discipline?

First, we commit to clear-minded actionability. Then, in taking determined actions, we can observe, learn and improve upon all efforts along the way. In recognizing limitations, we embrace the pursuit as a discovery process, and constantly find new gateways to innovation along the way.

We have just published our collective findings and guidance as a committee, in a white paper entitled,“Current Issues in Attribution & How to Overcome Them,” the content of which focuses largely on how to keep attribution actionable in each and every facet. As we help marketers address the current issues and imagine the future state, here are some recommendations on how to keep it real, manageable and actionable.

First Things First, Keep it Actionable

As a committee, we explored a number of areas where concrete action is not only advisable but achievable. Here are some takeaways:

  • Sound-checking your KPIs: Before jumping into any specific attribution model, check your business KPIs and make sure that your attribution outcome variable aligns with the KPIs that drive your business performance. Believe it or not, attribution, while useful, may not be what you need.
  • Understand that there are very real trade-offs: These will exist both in scale and methodologies. The broader the scale, the more complex the data collection, identity resolution, and the possible gaps in methodology will be. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution; certainly, no perfect solution. It’s vital that you understand the limitations of your data and the attribution method to ensure they are both feasible and meaningful to your business goals.
  • Don’t assume your expectations are common knowledge to your support teams: While there’s no perfect data, a well-planned data strategy is the first step towards a successful attribution study. Clearly define your expectations and insist your agencies or chosen service providers understand the importance of data hygiene as well as your tolerance for data imperfections and trade-offs. It’s equally important to know what data is available as well as what’s missing. If the conversion is tracked via third party, make sure the data is directly accessible, exportable, and privacy compliant.
  • Be unabashedly rigorous in choosing those agencies and providers: When choosing an attribution provider, ask pointed questions and be rigorous about the answers. Selection is not just an exercise. It’s a vital action. For example: Does the provider have the industry-specific expertise to guide you to enhanced in-market business performance fulfilling your needs? How about the proper coverage and scale to address your business issues for your needs? Can they accommodate your specific data needs from sources to process? And execute the study without any bias from either the data or the analytical technique? Finally, is the study measuring true incrementality and allowing you to triangulate the results across different methods for actionable responses?
  • Approach ROI with the right mindset: ROI simply provides a measure of the relative contribution in the context of historical opportunity, channel selection and execution. Any change or omission in one of these would fundamentally alter the results; different methodology would inevitably impact or even bias the results. It’s important to remember that in the path doesn’t always mean impacting the path. Always have the context of measurement in mind and measure true incrementality for meaningful ROI.
  • Be mindful of analysis practices: When analyzing results, keep in mind that no ROI, or lift, factor should be delivered without a simple and clear legend. Optimization tools can be dangerous as they strip out the marketplace context which could lead to misguided actions or missed opportunities. Understand how and where things could be done better. When comparing results, focus on your own business and ones of similar industries, sizes and goals.

Be Aware of Pitfalls 

  • Make sure your KPIs are consistent throughout the organization- it’s easier said than done. Run a diagnostic check and see if anything needs to be reset.
  • Remember that perfection is the enemy of better – so, it’s key to understand the limitations in attribution and not expect that a single study has all the answers.
  • Be honest with yourself: How well does your identity graph work in today’s environment? How about tomorrow? Instead of trusting someone else’s sales pitch, conduct a test yourself.
  • Be careful with walled gardens. Blind spots are never a marketer’s friend. Advocate for transparency and accountability.
  • Most importantly, don’t be intimidated by the complexity of attribution. Focus on what’s actionable and keep innovating.

Perhaps it is a testament to its expanding role in the day-to-day of the marketing organization or the very intricacy that makes it so vital and exciting, but attribution will remain a unified quest for some time to come. Amongst the white paper working group of the I-COM Global Attribution Council, with our collective 100+ years of experience, we acknowledge that it can be complicated. Yet, with new territory unfolding all the time in our desire to better understand marking performance, this is a vital, thriving work in progress. And that’s as it should be, as we all strive for mastery.

Co-authors of the white paper, “Current Issues in Attribution & How to Overcome Them,” include Alice Sylvester – Partner, Sequent Partners, USA; Jenn Leire – VP, Client Engagement, Analytic Partners, USA; Jim Spaeth – Partner, Sequent Partners, USA; Matt Andrew – Managing Director, Ekimetrics, UK; Melissa Grady – CMO, Cadillac, USA; Ryan King – Managing Director – Research, Samba TV, USA; Sable Mi – Chief Research Officer, NinthDecimal, USA, who authored the byline above.