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Marketing Attribution Modeling: Which Model to Choose And When

From the minute a prospect becomes aware of your brand, they enter a journey of learning, reading, watching, and engaging with your marketing efforts. While each interaction certainly has an impact on whether or not someone becomes a customer, not all touchpoints are equal. Marketing teams are tasked with the challenge of determining which of these interactions have the greatest impact on an audience’s decision to buy.

Understanding not only how to determine the influence of these touchpoints but also how to turn insights into actions will ultimately help you create more cost-effective and responsive campaigns. 

What Is Marketing Attribution?

Marketing attribution is the process of assigning each user action to a certain touchpoint and identifying the effectiveness of these touchpoints throughout the buying cycle. It works by following a prospect’s journey step-by-step and giving credit to each interaction with a brand (website, email, or ad) that led to user conversion. By doing so, marketers can then determine which channels are the most successful.

What is marketing attribution

Benefits of Marketing Attribution

Marketing attribution is a powerful tool that offers you insight into how cost-effective each point of your sales and marketing campaigns is. In fact, 41% of marketing organizations are already using this strategy to measure their ROI, although the benefits expand beyond just that. Marketing attribution provides:

1. Greater data integrity

A well-defined marketing attribution strategy won’t just tell you how much you’ve spent; it will show the effect of each step you’ve invested in along the way. Additionally, if you’re using multiple tools for each touchpoint, each platform will take credit for a conversion. You need to be able to identify and attribute credit correctly so that you can analyze conversion details coming from different sources.

2. Better understanding to build better campaigns

When you’re consistently assigning credit for a conversion to every touchpoint, it becomes very clear what is driving conversions, what is causing people to drop off, and what is having little to no effect. With this knowledge, you can adjust and optimize new and existing campaigns so that they are delivering high-impact touchpoints, in the right cadence, for the right audience. 

Additionally, you can analyze the customer journey of your high-value clients and identify the most frequently occurring touchpoints, as well as optimize your campaigns to attract more prospects who match this profile.

3. Higher ROI on spend and resources

With a greater understanding of what is working and what isn’t, you can eliminate low-performing channels and redirect spending toward high performers. When analyzing touchpoints in the context of the whole customer journey, you may also discover that a certain campaign does not show last-click success but plays a major role in triggering targeted prospects to advance through the awareness ladder. When evaluating the cost of that touchpoint, you will add it to the customer acquisition cost of a specific cohort of prospects.  

With refinement, you’ll be spending less money to generate more conversions, resulting in more capital to invest back into your campaigns. Additionally, you’ll protect yourself from removing seemingly “unsuccessful” campaigns prior to analyzing what impact they have on the customer journey. 

4. A more granular, cohort-level view of a journey

Marketing attribution will  not only tell you how you moved a prospect down the funnel but also when. You can tell which messaging, visuals, and platforms resonated with each cohort. The insight into their journey will also allow you to analyze the margin better, helping you calculate important metrics and potentially streamline the acquisition of ideal customers. 

5. Better product development

Marketing attribution can reveal  trends, offering  insight into how your product is being perceived in the marketplace. When you’re analyzing the effectiveness of each touchpoint, your data will begin to show which information persuades a prospect to continue learning about your company.

While interest in features will vary depending on the audience, greater trends will emerge to show which aspects of your product speak to your audience’s pain points. Those that don’t resonate will likely need an update to solve the ever-changing needs of the market.

What Are Marketing Attribution Models?

If marketing attribution is the process of assigning credit to touchpoints, then marketing attribution models are the different methods of distributing that credit across the touchpoints. Each model is a framework that determines precisely how you’ll weigh credit, as well as to which touchpoint the attribution is assigned. 

Why is there more than one method to measure attribution? First, different companies have different priorities. Some models show companies the best way to acquire leads up front, while others allow companies to narrow down how to best make a sale.

Additionally, the various models operate with different levels of complexity. While marketing attribution is important to all companies, you might not have the resources or technology to implement a complex, multi-touch attribution model. Until you do, a single-touch model will still allow you to analyze campaign performance and make informed decisions (more on these types of models later).

Different models assume importance from different parts of the buying cycle, so whichever one you choose will depend entirely on the priorities of your business. 

Overview of Different Types of Attribution Models

While there are many types of models, they can be divided into two separate categories: single-touch attribution models and multi-touch attribution models. 

  • Single-touch attribution models assign 100% credit to a single marketing activity. These are typically used by newer companies with limited touchpoints. While they are a lot simpler to implement, they don’t show whether something between the first and last touchpoint was effective. 
  • Multi-touch attribution models, on the other hand, split up the credit across two or more touchpoints. While more complicated to implement, they offer a more nuanced look at your marketing campaigns and also show that each touchpoint has importance in a conversion. Different multi-touch models distribute credit differently depending on a company’s process or needs.

On top of that, marketing attribution models can take two forms: click-through attribution (CTA) and view-through attribution (VTA).

  • Click-through attribution models credit users’ conversion to the last ad or website they clicked on. 
  • In view-through attribution models, conversion is credited to the last touchpoint a user sees

For example, you run an ad campaign in June, and your ideal customer clicks on the banner and browses through the website but doesn’t convert. In the next 30 days, you run retargeting campaigns and chase this same prospect on different platforms. Finally, in August, the user makes a purchase by going on your website. In this situation, the CTA model will credit the customer’s conversion to the original ad they clicked on, the one they saw in June. While the VTA models will focus on the last ad the customer saw, even if they didn’t click on it, and attribute the conversion to this touchpoint.

First-touch attribution model

First-touch attribution, as you can imagine, is when all credit for a conversion is given to a customer’s first touch or entry point with a brand. This is a great option for smaller companies that are interested in what is attracting people to their business, or for teams looking to drive more traffic to their site. If your goal is filling the top of your funnel, this is a great option. Of course, the major shortcoming of this model is that it does not provide insight into what tipped a lead into a conversion, nor does it show the effectiveness of touchpoints along the way. 

First touch attribution model

Last-touch attribution model

As its name suggests, last-touch attribution assigns full credit to the last activity before a conversion. This is an option for companies that have a large top of funnel and want to narrow down which touchpoint influences their prospects into making a decision so they can allocate their marketing budget accordingly and drive more conversions. One of the benefits of last-touch attribution is that it’s the simplest. Unfortunately, it does not account for any of the customer journey before the conversion, meaning you’ll have little insight into how you acquire leads in the first place.

 Last-touch attribution

Last non-direct attribution

Last non-direct click attribution, like the other single-touch models, gives 100% credit to just one event. In this case, all credit is given to the last activity that is not direct traffic to your website. This model operates under the idea that the decision to go to your website has to come from somewhere

Last non-direct attribution

Consider a prospect who comes across a banner ad advertising a demo of your service. They don’t click the ad, but the next day at work, they remember and go directly to your website. With the last non-direct view-through model, the banner ad will get full credit for the conversion, as it was the last event before the conversion that is not direct traffic.

This model solves the issue of overinflating the importance of direct traffic when assigning credit. Otherwise, you may be ignoring the impact of the social posts, paid ads, and other initiatives that prompted your prospects to go directly to your website.

Linear attribution model

A linear attribution model is a type of multi-touch attribution model that distributes the credit for a conversion equally across all touchpoints, regardless of how many there are or when they occur. If there are four touchpoints, each receives 25% of the credit. If there are five, each gets 20%. 

Linear marketing attribution model

This model is the easiest multi-touch model to implement since you’re weighing everything equally. It’s a great way to show your team the value of having multiple touches in a journey, and demonstrates the influence of the entire marketing campaign as a whole instead of just one touchpoint. It is important to show your team that acquiring customers is not a “one and done” effort, and that time and effort must be allocated across multiple touchpoints.

Because of its simplicity, the linear attribution model falls short in showing which touchpoints have the greatest effect on a conversion. Without this insight, you may be directing budget into ineffective channels, forming a journey that doesn’t necessarily have the greatest ROI.

Position-based attribution model

Position-based attribution presumes that the first and last touchpoints are most significant in driving a conversion, as they are both what draw customers to your business and convince them to convert. This model also takes into account the touchpoints in the middle that play a supporting role.

Position-based marketing attribution model

The position-based attribution model, also known as the U-curve model, assigns 40% credit to the first touchpoint, 40% to the last, and splits the remaining 20% among the middle touchpoints (regardless of how many there are). Weighing the credit differently across these various points makes sense for companies with longer sales cycles. In this model, acquisition and conversion points are given greater credit, while efforts along the way to nurture and reengage are acknowledged (although to a lesser degree).

Time-decay attribution model

Time-decay attribution assigns more weight to touchpoints the closer they are to a conversion. This model is driven by the assumption that the closer to a conversion an event occurs, the more impact it has on the buying decision. The benefit of this attribution model is that it allows you to assess many of the activities leading up to a purchase, and unlike other models, it takes time into consideration. It’s great for longer sales cycles that rely on relationship building, which typically happens with your sales team toward the end of a longer buying cycle. The downside to this model is that it greatly minimizes the impact of events earlier in the cycle, such as how a prospect became aware of your brand.

Time-decay marketing attribution model

Choosing an Attribution Model

The attribution model that will best serve your company will depend on your team’s priorities, your company’s stage, your technological capabilities, and other factors. It may take some experimentation to determine what works best, so be prepared to spend some time in the data!

While each company’s needs are different, Y42’s handbook Why Marketing Matters sums up the process nicely: Typically, organizations rely on Google Analytics at first, which uses last-click attribution as default. This requires little technical setup and works well for companies with minimal channels. As you add more marketing touchpoints and channels, you’ll need more insight into how they’re performing and will likely graduate to a multi-touch attribution model. 

When you’re new to attribution, it may make sense to start out with a single-touch attribution model. Whether you’re strapped for resources or have limited touchpoints in your buying cycle, focusing on a single touch will help you start collecting data and making decisions. First, decide what you’d like to measure. If you want to find the most efficient channels to build the top of your funnel, or if brand awareness is your goal, a first-touch model might be right for you. If you’re focused on driving conversions, you’ll want to go with the last touch or last non-direct click model.

Once your company requires a more thorough multi-touch attribution model, you’ll need to again assess which data is important to analyze. For example, if you place more importance on acquisition and conversion than the touchpoints in between, you’ll likely want to adopt a position-based model. Take another look at the attribution model list above; the descriptions and benefits listed there should give you a good idea of the types of models that will best serve you. Do further research on your preferred model to find best practices for how to implement, adapt, and analyze it.

Again, finding the attribution model that is best for you is not an exact science or a final decision. If you’re still unsure, compare your performance on a few different attribution models and determine which tells the best story. You can do this easily with the Google Analytics Multi-Channel Funnel Model Comparison tool

As with most sales and marketing processes, marketing attribution will require ongoing analysis and regular check-ins with your team to make sure that your current attribution model and means of collecting data still make sense to use. With any change you make, allow enough time for data to accumulate so you can make well-informed decisions. Changes can take weeks, even months, to take effect before you start to see meaningful results.

Attribution Tracking 

Attribution tracking refers to the process in which your team and/or technology collects the data on your touchpoints in order to track their impact on the customer journey. At the core of any attribution model is your own marketing data. It’s crucial that you set up your data tracking and platforms correctly from the beginning. (Remember: taking the time up front to make sure your data is clean and organized will save you time and headaches down the road!) 

One way to do this is by setting up UTM tags. These allow you to create distinct URLs for the same page, allowing your analytics systems to determine the source of traffic to a web page. This way, you and your technology can attribute the visit, click, etc. to a specific campaign. As your data becomes more complex, you’ll likely need a dedicated data professional to implement the code required to track the attribution, as well as build the model into which it will feed the information. 

Using a multi-touch attribution model will require gathering and storing a large amount of raw data. You’ll need a technology that allows you to easily track your data, identify a real user within data of different origins with high accuracy, and view the data from all sources in one place. It’s important that your technology is accessible to sales and marketing teams and provides visibility into the entire buying process, from lead to customer. 

If the technical aspect of attribution tracking feels overwhelming, you’re not alone. Luckily, tools such as Improvado pull data from all of your marketing and sales systems to provide a holistic view of your efforts, the customer journey, and the costs and revenue associated with it. This gives you full visibility into your customer journey, even with multiple touchpoints. 

Once your company begins to build and interpret your marketing attribution model, you’ll be well on your way to understanding exactly what has the greatest impact on your customers’ decision to buy. With this knowledge, your company can reap the benefits of better campaigns, more efficient use of cash and time, and increased ROI.

Start marketing attribution modeling with Improvado

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