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Two important online retail trends have seemingly emerged thus far this holiday shopping season. One: mobile is here. The other: social as a channel isn't a player.

While few would dare dispute the former, some are not quite ready to buy into the notion that social's impact is barely visible.

Responding to IBM's Black Friday Benchmark Report, which showed the two most popular social sites, Facebook and Twitter, driving virtually no referral traffic to online retailers, TechCrunch's Josh Constine posits that social's poor showing may be, in a not insignificant part, an attribution problem. He writes:

Facebook tells me the top 25 most talked about Pages this week were all retailers. Walmart, Toys’R'Us, and Macy’s had the most PTAT (Likes/comments/shares). User mentions of the word “shopping” spiked 586 percent last week, and many of those probably cited where people were shopping.

As Constine sees it, "That’s a ton of viral marketing that could be driving downstream conversions but isn’t being counted."

Under-reporting referrals, but overestimating potential

"Could," of course, is the operative word. The reality is that nobody really knows because of the marketers looking at attribution, many are still using last click models.

The good news: according to Econsultancy's recently published Making Sense of Marketing Attribution report, over half of agencies and more than 40% of clients say that social media has increased focus on attribution. For its part, Facebook is already making an effort to give marketers tools that they can use to measure the contribution the world's largest social network is making at the top of the funnel.

As most marketers have yet to put in the plumbing required to address the attribution conundrum, it seems likely that social is likely getting less credit than it deserves this holiday shopping season. But, given the paltry numbers, it also seems likely that social commerce's biggest boosters have overestimated the channel's potential.

Attribution: a red herring?

Until better attribution technologies and models are deployed, the debate will continue. But it's worth asking: is it possible that attribution could become a red herring?

As TechCrunch's Constine notes, "if Facebook and Twitter really push their attribution systems, they could claim credit for driving purchases they only lightly influenced, or for delivering buyers that didn’t even notice they saw an ad for what they bought."

And therein lies the rub: in our multichannel world, the customer journey is increasingly complex. Attribution can help paint a more complete picture of that journey, and give marketers information that supports more informed decisions about spend. But, in many cases, it won't provide conclusive answers, and in others, it could create even more questions. At the end of the day, many marketers will be left with correlations that hint at causation, but they still won't precisely know for certain what their spend in channels like social is doing for them.

Which raises perhaps the most important question for marketers: at what point does the investment, both in time and money, of attribution, start to distract from investment in the channels that we can easily tie to sales? If the performance of paid search ads on Black Friday is any indication, it's a question worth pondering.

Patricio Robles

Published 28 November, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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