17 Attribution

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to.

  • Explain what marketing attribution is and how to use it
  • Describe several marketing attribution approaches
  • List the required steps to develop a marketing attribution model
  • Name several online tools that provide marketing attribution

Marketing Attribution

Marketing attribution is the practice of evaluating the marketing touch points a customer encounters on their path to a desired marketing outcome. A desired outcome is often a purchase but could also include other outcomes and actions such as a signing up for an email newsletter sign-up, downloading a research paper, booking a demo, etc. The goal of attribution is to determine which marketing channels and messages have had the greatest impact on a customer’s decision to convert or take the desired next step. Once marketers understand which channels and messages are most successful, they can optimize their efforts and budgets.

To make this clear, let’s walk through a fictitious scenario.

Attribution Scenario

Let’s assume that a customer was exposed to several marketing campaigns and marketing messages across a variety of marketing channels, such as:

Marketing Attribution ExamplleIn the simplified customer journey above, we see that a customer made a $700 purchase after seeing:

  • a display ad,
  • an organic search result,
  • a paid ad, and
  • a social media post.

Now, the question comes up, to which channel or activity do we attribute this $700 purchase? Or, how much of that $700 do we credit to each marketing activity, campaign, or touchpoint?

Unfortunately, even with our current digital marketing analytics systems, it is difficult to precisely answer these questions. However, there are a few common industry models and practices that marketers can use to approximate the contributions these campaigns made to the ultimate purchases or conversions:

  • First or last touch attribution
  • Even (linear) attribution
  • Time decay attribution
  • Starter / Player / Closer / “U” attribution
  • Custom attribution

Let’s take a closer look at each of these different attribution approaches.

First or Last Touch (or Interaction) Attribution

First or Last Touch AttributionFirst touch attribution gives full credit to the first touchpoint in the customer journey. In the above scenario, this would mean that the marketer would credit their “Display Ad” campaign with the entire $700 purchase amount.

Similarly, last touch attribution gives full credit to the last touchpoint in the customer journey. In our scenario, that would give “Social Media” full credit for the $700 purchase.

The main benefit of this model is that it is simple to calculate and track. That said, it under represents the branding, influence, and sales effects the other campaigns may have had in convincing that customer to purchase.

Now, let’s practice …

Even (Linear) Attribution

Even or Linear AttributionEven (linear) attribution recognizes that each touchpoint plays a part in the customer’s purchase decision and therefore, distributes the $700 equally across all the touchpoints. So, in our scenario, each marketing activity / campaign would be credited with $175 (= $700 ÷ 4) – display ad, organic search, paid ad, and social media. Once again, the main benefit of this model is that it is simple to calculate. However, when we think about our own purchasing habits, we know that each marketing message does not carry the same weight. For example, more recent marketing messages and campaigns, i.e., closer to the purchase date, may have more influence in converting the customer, which brings us to the next attribution model.

Once again, let’s assign a linear attribution model to the following scenario:

Time Decay Attribution

Time Decay AttributionTime decay attribution gives the lowest percent of credit to the first touch, with increasing values as you move towards the last touch. For example, in the image above, the marketer has decided to credit display ads with 10% of the purchase amount ($70), organic search with 20% ($140), paid ads with 30% ($210) and social media with 40% ($280). Please note that these percentages are only examples. Another marketer in a different organization may choose to split up their purchase amounts differently, e.g., 5%, 15%, 30%, 50%. This simply means that the time decay model you use within your organization can be customized to best approximate what is happening with your customer journeys.

Let’s give time decay attribution a try …

Starter / Player / Closer / Position-based / “U” Attribution

Starter - Player - Closer - U - Attribution

The final model assigns different percentages depending on where the touchpoint is in the customer journey. The starter (initiating) touch receives a set percent of credit for the conversion. Usually, this is relatively high since the initiating touch makes the customer aware of your brand and offering. In other words, without this starter touch, there would not even be a purchase. The closer (last) touch also receives a set percentage of credit for the conversion. And, again, this percentage is somewhat higher because it is the final “trigger” that got the customer to purchase. Player touches are those touches in the middle of the customer journey, and each receive a percentage of the remaining credit for the conversion.  While player touches have not initiated the action, they do contribute to keeping your brand alive in the mind of the customer and should therefore receive some credit for that role.

In our scenario above, display ad and social media get credit for a total of 80% of the purchase amount and the remaining two campaigns get 10% each. Sometimes this model is referred to as a “U” attribution because the starter and closer touchpoints receive higher percentages than the player touchpoints in the middle. So, the percentage amounts look a bit like a “U”. Once again, these percentages are just examples. As a marketer, you can decide how best to distribute the purchase amounts across your marketing activities and touchpoints.

As you can see, there is not one specific way to attribute credit for a conversion. That said, what is critical is to be consistent and use the same model for all conversions within your customer journey. This means using the same model for all your marketing attribution calculations. While the specific model may not be 100% accurate, all marketing activities will be evaluated similarly. And, when a model is applied consistently, you can ultimately compare and analyze the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns and activities against each other.

Let’s practice this once again:

Custom Attribution

Depending on your organization, you may want to consider creating a “custom attribution” model. This model may be a hybrid of the previously mentioned models or it may be a model that you develop from scratch. Please note that building a marketing attribution model from scratch requires a significant amount of resources and time. So, you want to make sure that it will be worth your investment.

You should build a custom attribution model if you:

  • Have a large marketing team and access to more resources
  • Use multiple online and offline marketing channels
  • Previously tried one or more standard marketing attribution models without success
  • Need to provide stakeholders with a more comprehensive or detailed report

If you are interested in delving deeper into attribution models, here is a 39-minute video, Attribution Modeling – An In-Depth Guide, that covers many more details about attribution modelling so you can become an attribution master. The video covers:

  • Facebook ads attribution modeling
  • Google ads attribution modeling
  • Marketing attribution modeling
  • Data-driven attribution model
  • Attribution modeling google analytics
  • Attribution model for Google Ads
  • Multi-touch attribution modelling and more.


How to Build an Attribution Model

Now, that you know what attribution model options are available to you. How do you build one for your organization? Here are 5 steps that will help you identify and develop an appropriate attribution model:


Creating an Attribution Model

  1. Conduct a Marketing Channel / Touchpoint Audit
    As discussed in the customer journey chapter, customer journeys should document all the marketing channels and touchpoints your potential and existing customers encounter. Performing a formal audit, where you list and identify all the potential touchpoints that apply to your specific product or service, is an important starting point. You may want to do this with an expanded team via a brainstorming session to ensure you get a variety of perspectives and ideas. And, you should also note that there may be different customer journeys for different products or services within the same organization. Do make sure the customer journey you are reviewing applies to the products or services you want to analyze.
  1. Set Clear Goals
    One of the reasons to create attribution models is to ensure your marketing efforts are delivering the results needed by your organization. Without clear goals and targets, it is difficult to assess how well your marketing efforts are doing. So, it is critical to set specific goals and expectations for the marketing team.
  1. Map Your Customer Journey
    In mapping your customer journey, you can see which channels and campaigns you will be monitoring. And, when you analyze the customer journey, you will be able to assess which touchpoints have more impact and should be weighted accordingly.
  1. Score Your Leads and Prospects
    Lead scoring will help you identify which leads are more likely to convert, as well as which ones may need additional convincing and messaging to convert.
  1. Invest in the Right Attribution Tools
    Tracking and monitoring the information for every touchpoint manually can be extremely tedious and taxing. And, unfortunately, it is likely to introduce mistakes. Using a industry-standard, customer relationship management (CRM) systems makes it easier to track and automate your attribution model analyses. It also allows you to collect data across multiple advertising and marketing campaign networks throughout your customer journey and to create dashboards and reports of all essential performance metrics.

Marketing Attribution Tools

Benefits of Marketing Attribution Tools

If you are tracking your conversions using Google Analytics, the following tools can help. There are some key advantages to automated marketing attribution solutions. Below are 3 common benefits:

  • Better understand what is working and what is not
    Marketing attribution tools can help you quickly recognize your most reliable advertising and marketing channels. When evaluating your spending budgets, you will be able to invest even more resources into those networks that have the most influence and decrease spending on those that are not delivering results.
  • Discover the number of touches your leads need before converting
    If you just released a new ad campaign or released a brand new piece of content, it can be discouraging if you do not see conversions happen immediately. Marketing attribution tools can help you prove the ROI of your activities at the beginning or middle of a customer journey.
  • Get data-driven insights to enhance marketing activities
    With marketing attribution tools, you can expose which lead generation methods are having the best impact on your ROI and also allocate your spending plan accordingly.

Some marketing attribution applications can also assist with inquiries often asked by executives and clients, such as:

  • How does marketing help bring in clients?
  • How can we drive more sales with our marketing?
  • Which campaigns are most or least effective in converting customers?
  • What is my return on investment on the XYZ project?
  • Which marketing activities drive the highest customer lifetime value?
  • Where should we be investing our money?

 List of Marketing Attribution Tools

The following list of marketing attribution tools offer either a free version or are inexpensive:

  • Google Attribution Model
    Use Google’s advanced machine learning to more accurately distribute credit to all ad clicks that led to a conversion. This service is available to all eligible Google advertisers for free.
  • Google Analytics
    Google Analytics works with its own advertising and publishing products to tell marketers how its products are performing.
  • Ruler Analytics
    Ruler Analytics is a closed-loop multi-channel attribution tool that helps marketers gain insight into their marketing ROI.
  • HubSpot
    Marketing attribution is a part of the HubSpot CRM platform, which is full of many tools and integrations – from customer service assistance to website building.
  • AppsFlyer (Mobile Apps)
    AppsFlyer focuses on attribution for mobile app installs and the media sources that drove them, e.g., TV, as well as uninstall attribution (customers lost).
  • Chartable (Podcasts)
    Chartable provides podcast analytics and attribution tools to help publishers grow and brands and agencies understand their spend.

For an even more comprehensive list, please check out this List of 36 Marketing Attribution Services.

Key Takeaways

  • Marketing attribution is the practice of evaluating the marketing touch points a customer encounters on their path to a desired marketing outcome.
  • While purchases are the most common type of a desired outcome (also called conversions), there are many other conversions that marketers may monitor, e.g., signing up for a newsletter, downloading content, or booking a demo.
  • Marketing attribution is key to understanding which marketing channels and activities are performing best. There are many different attribution models and each one has advantages and disadvantages. The most common attribution models are the following
    • First or last touch attribution
    • Even (linear) attribution
    • Time decay attribution
    • Starter / Player / Closer / “U” attribution
    • Custom attribution
  • Marketers can build their own attribution model using the following 5-step process:
    1. Conduct a Marketing Channel / Touchpoint Audit
    2. Set Clear Goals
    3. Map Your Customer Journey
    4. Score Your Leads and Prospects
    5. Invest in the Right Attribution Tools
  • While the various attribution models may not be 100% accurate in representing the actual weighting of the marketing channels / activities, it is critical that marketers be consistent and use the same model to better compare and analyze the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns and activities against each other.

Attribution – Discussion Questions & Additional Resources

Discussion Questions

  • Given the nature of current attribution models, how might we improve our accuracy? Are there any technologies that could improve our visibility into our customers’ activities?
  • If we could track customers more accurately, how might this impact our privacy? And, personally, is this something you would be okay with?

Additional Resources




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Foundations in Digital Marketing Copyright © by Rochelle Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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