Online Marketing Attribution model hangs in the balance

The hot topic among online marketers in 2011 has arguably been that of tracking and attribution, and rightly so. For far too long, many advertisers have reported (and therefore measured), performance from their online channels on a last touch basis i.e. the last channel the user engaged with prior to arriving at the advertisers' site to complete a sale. For years, this approach has served the advertiser well. After all, marketers love online advertising due to its accountability  when compared to traditional channels such as press, TV and outdoor. However, times are changing and online marketing in particular is pushing the boundaries of genuinely understanding the value of each online channel a user may engage with.

Whilst a relatively new topic and still in its infancy, attribution has already evolved rapidly from what it was just a year ago. Today, "best click", "linear", "participation" and "weighted" - all are models of attribution now widely used by marketers and to great effect if implemented correctly and reassessed on a regular basis. However, what many models currently fail to take into account is the user's intent to buy.

In a "weighted" model, the advertiser weighs each of their marketing efforts and the system monitors the user journey until they purchase or complete an action on the site. The attribution modelling provider then assigns the sale, or proportion of it, based on the predefined weighting from the advertiser.

Whilst this approach is more advanced than the old "last click" model of yesteryear, and certainly light-years ahead of anything that the offline channels can boast of, it still has a number of shortcomings. Firstly, "user intent" or "engagement". Most attribution providers fail to recognise or assign a value to the user's level of interaction with the site. For example, in the traditional "weighted" model, pay per click (PPC) generic might be awarded the sale as it had a much higher priority weighting than the channel that completed the sale. What if the user bounced off the site as soon as they arrived from the PPC generic? Surely this click didn't really contribute to the sales process?  In the current attribution models however, it may actually be awarded the whole sale.

Step forward behavioural attribution, ( http://www.qubitproducts.com/products/customer-intelligence/behavioral-attribution/overview/), an approach pioneered by the founders of Qubit. They suggest, (and I happen to agree), that the attribution ought to go beyond just the click, taking into account onsite behaviour such as page views, time on site, and engagement. After all, surely a click that delivers a user who spends 10 minutes on the site looking at a number of pages ought to be assigned more value in the attribution model than the click that delivered a user that bounced within 2 seconds?

So, there we have it then, behavioural attribution is the way forward….

…well, not exactly. Firstly, all attribution providers use cookies to track and follow users around the web. Given the EU's Privacy and Electronic Communication Directiveneeds to be adhered to come May 2012, it will certainly be interesting to see how these providers plan to side step this enforcement. With the government looking unlikely to change its stance on the policy, I expect all of the tracking and attribution providers will be burning the midnight oil trying to find a new way of operating.

Finally and potentially more significantly, is the fact consumers now use more than one platform to find the information they need. Personally, I use a Mac at home, iPad on the train and PC in the office.  Sprinkle over the top of these three platforms some occasional browsing on the iPhone and you then have not too dissimilar a browsing experience to a number of other internet users.

Even if cookies are to be accepted, connecting the dots between multiple channels and multiple platforms is really the only way to truly monitor and attribute the value of online marketing. How and when this is going to be possible though is another thing.

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