The Attribution Fallacy

Attribution
noun (often attribution to)
Definition: The action of regarding something as being caused by a person or thing.

It’s nice to know what causes a particular outcome or event. Being able to identify causality informs our decisions; the pain of fire burning your skin is a lesson you only need to learn once before you decide to try to avoid touching it again. Unfortunately, most marketing programs aren’t as simple to understand.

Traditional marketing via ‘broadcast’ messages (television, radio, billboard, print advertisement) has always been difficult to measure, because while it’s clear that it can cause brand recognition, relating that recognition to actual sales that may take place months or even years later is at best an abstract art. The lack of causal clarity from old media is a big reason why the world’s marketers have been so quick to embrace the data and direct (single-source) attribution of digital channels like pay-per-click advertising. It seems so simple, a click has a cost, and a clearly traceable outcome (web visit -> conversion -> sale); some simple math, and…Presto! You have a reliable price-per-lead (PPL) average from your paid-search campaigns.

However, if you dig a little deeper you quickly realize that the single-source attribution of paid search advertising is a lie! Your PPL calculations are false! Does that mean we’re doomed to return to the days of guessing whether Mikey eating the cereal in the ad or Mikey supposedly dying from pop-rocks and coke ingestion in The Enquirer was the real cause for our uplift in Life cereal sales? No, but it does mean we need to take another look at the art of attribution in a data-rich world in order to understand the real value of our marketing efforts.

For example, they call it “Pay-Per-Click” advertising because you PAY only when someone CLICKS. But what happens to all those hundreds or thousands of additional times where your ad is shown but doesn’t get a click? Your brand and your message still gets directly within the sight of your target consumer. Ask anyone paying for signs, billboards, fliers, television ads or product placement; there IS value to having a brand impression even if it doesn’t lead directly to a conversion or sale. In fact, most people search more than once for a product or service they’re in need of, and the resonant effect of your ever-present brand is the reason you got the click on the all-important LAST search, not the first one. So, next time you calculate your PPL, be sure to include the value of the thousands of FREE billboard-like brand impressions your campaign got that may end up fulfilled through other channels.

But, it works the other way as well. Not only is paid-search delivering free brand impressions that lead to better long-term customer conversion across ALL of your marketing channels, but it is also stealing the credit for clicks that actually were ’caused’ by another activity. Paid search is an inbound marketing channel reliant on the customer taking action (entering a search term into their browser, map, or virtual assistant) and serves to fulfill the preference or need for your brand, product or service you created in other marketing channels. Most people don’t immediately pick up the phone when they hear a radio ad, but they do hear the brand; and, months later when they search for that service on their smartphone, they unconsciously choose the brand implanted by that radio ad.

Single-Attribution digital marketing channels are, in fact, NOT single-attribution channels. Understanding their role in the multidimensional symphony of influence that creates a customer is the best way to get the most out of all of your marketing efforts.

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