The most common misconceptions surrounding attribution are that it’s not really technically or practically possible and that you already need a fixed idea of how your individual digital channels contribute to make it worthwhile.

Both are exactly that, misconceptions.

The technically or practically possible myth has been dealt with before. We have real attribution case studies to show people exactly how real clients are really doing it. Really. Other suppliers have too.

But, the idea you need an already established view of your digital media campaigns’ role in sales is a greater misunderstanding.

For attribution isn’t just about taking action based on how they contribute, it’s about learning how they contribute in the first place. Once you have begun tracking where and when each channel appears in a customer’s path to conversion – the starting point of attribution – you soon see the typical role each plays.

The results of this phase are rarely a surprise. Affiliates, display retargeting, email and branded paid and natural search tend to deliver a large amount of last clicks.

Brand display and generic paid and natural search tend to feature higher up the chain. But, having the hard proof and real numbers is a step-change.

The instant application of the most basic form of attribution, deduplication, ensures that the last-click model is at last applied accurately.

It means that only the channel that really delivered the last click gets the credit and, therefore, the commission. Just having cookied a customer is no longer enough and that saves an average of 25% of CPA payments for advertisers.

But, there’s much more powerful stuff. When you start to examine the figures, you can gauge the success of a channel, not just as a deliverer of last clicks, but also as a contributor to the entire customer journey.

‘Assisted conversions’ shows you exactly how many sales (and what value of sales) a channel played any part in delivering.

So campaigns that rarely deliver last clicks but feature heavily in many customers’ journeys on their way to buying – generic SEO might be an example – start to be seen in a different light.

Meanwhile, ‘attributed conversions’ tells us the real impact of any particular channel by weighing how often a campaign appears in paths to conversion against how many other campaigns also play a role.

This starts to de-emphasise those channels that feature commonly in customer journeys but less so in those where only a few campaigns appear. Spending a lot of money on a particular channel is almost certain to mean it delivers results but that doesn’t mean it’s the most effective.

Indeed it might be that spending all that money on campaigns that feature even when hardly anything else does would deliver more.

But, again, this is only the initial stages of attribution. You haven’t paid anyone differently (apart from through effective deduplication). All you’re beginning to see is figures to make a case for the true contribution of all the digital marketing activity you engage in. This might enable you to shift spend to channels you see are delivering more, which is transformative in itself.

The final step, perhaps the one that causes the most anxiety, is ‘applied attribution’, awarding credit and commission differently to campaigns based on where in the path they appear. This is setting attribution rules and can only happen when you have assessed – with your providers – what you all think the numbers are telling you.

So, attribution is real and it helps you learn very important lessons before you even have to think about radically changing your approach.

In the end, it is only about giving credit where it’s due and, for that, it deserves some very large credit of its own.

Paul Cook

Published 15 February, 2012 by Paul Cook

Paul Cook, the founder of RedEye and TagMan, is a contributor to Econsultancy.  

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Comments (5)



This is a very good article. There is so much guff around attribution, often from individuals with an agenda (work at a network).

The real battle is educating advertisers, therefore agencies, against the stigma attached to those two little words 'direct response'. Too long has the 'last touch' model been wheeled out, forcing suppliers to work towards a less efficient strategy, to get that pat on the back and pound in the pocket.

Let's do away with high frequency retargeting, and concentrate on top/middle of the funnel audiences.

over 6 years ago

Paul Cook

Paul Cook, Director at NCC Web Performance

Great comment Mark thanks. We all get the attraction of the converting event. It's the chasing of it at the expense of common sense that attribution goes a long way to addressing.

over 6 years ago


Helen Southgate, Online Marketing Controller - Strategy & Planning at BSkyB

I don't think anyone would disagree that an understanding of attribution is extremely important and fundamental to any advertiser. However, I think it's extremely dangerous to generalise when it comes to attribution as every single advertiser will be different.

For example, you say that affiliates tend to deliver a large amount of last clicks. Yes, of course they do because they are paid on a cost per sale currently based on a last click model. However, affiliates also appear all the way along the path to sale, adding huge value beyond direct response. However, not one affiliate is the same, nor is one media partner or keyword so I don’t think you can generalise attribution by channel. Assigning a value by channel level would assume that one affiliate / media partner / keyword is driving the same value as all others in that category. Some of the work I have done has shown that even affiliates in the same category, vouchers for example, perform a completely different role within the path to sale.

The comment about networks having an agenda is also not correct in my opinion. Surely they would be in favour of attribution as it opens up a new revenue channel and drives the opportunity of increased investment in areas that have perhaps been overlooked in the last click model. My surprise has always been why networks don’t actually push the agenda for attribution.

I think the misconception around attribution is that it is simply a money saving tool. It may well be a diver of efficiency but more so I think it’s a tool for understanding where best to deploy your marketing spend and potentially where you should be increasing marketing spend to dive more sales from your online channels.

over 6 years ago

Kevin Edwards

Kevin Edwards, Strategy Director at Affiliate Window

A click is an arbitrary measurement no matter how many times you count (or account for) it.

Helen is spot on: how can 'affiliate marketing' be seen as a single channel when it encompasses all online in microcosm? Having studied dozens of advertisers' data and drilled down into their top affiliates' performance, the results are rarely uniform and crude attribution models ignore all this additional data and customer insight.

The irony of the 'network agenda' point is that affiliate marketers have been ahead of the curve in discussing attribution. I've been a long standing advocate of 'value attribution', looking at everything that sits around the click: multiple metrics that give a more complete picture of the value of that interaction than clicks in isolation.

over 6 years ago

Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh, Founder & CEO at Infinity Call Tracking

This is a great article, Paul. There's a lot behind what you say, and the increasing sophistication of the ways in which we can weight attribution are only going to make the case more convincing. However, it's not only digital media that need to be taken into account. Call tracking, and tracking across offline channels adds still more detail to the picture built up through conversion attribution.

over 6 years ago

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