Navigating Multi-Touch Attribution in an Expanding Digital World


Much has been written on the subject of marketing attribution over the last few years and deservedly so.  The fundamental concept and value proposition challenges an industry that since the turn of the millennium adopted a flawed but universally accepted system of awarding full conversion credit to the last click.  Unknowingly, this facilitated gaming of the system by retargeting vendors and affiliates eager to claim credit as the last referring source.  As a counterbalance, marketers have been increasingly adopting the practice of a data driven approach to assigning conversion credit - commonly known as Multi-Touch Attribution (MTA).  

The purpose of this summary is to share more about how MTA has evolved in an expanding digital world, how new challenges continue to arise and ultimately how a marketer can set themselves up for success when engaging a solution. 

MTA in an expanding digital world

The first wave of MTA was generally adopted by advertisers that capture conversions first hand online such as ecommerce, lead generation and retail.  Soon after, Brand Advertisers caught on with increased adoption in FinServ, automotive and CPG.

eCommerce is reshaping the modern economy with disruption into verticals that traditionally never transacted that way (think Tesla in Automotive, Casper Mattress in the durables market and Dollar Shave Club for CPG).  As more verticals seek a direct relationship with the consumer, they are re-evaluating legacy distribution channels via brick and mortar, and also how media strategy is planned and executed.  As noted in Mary Meeker’s recent Internet Trends Report, today’s modern consumer (especially the younger mobile generation) will expect an easy transaction process with their brands of choice that might include a single-click buy option (think Amazon). Media, now primarily delivered via digital channels, is planned and executed against this strategy. But evolving this media strategy can also require an advertiser to evolve how that media is measured - specifically, how to account for the ease of transaction within their assessment of “Brand Equity”. To expand on this, the attribution weighting of the media mix that drove the original customer acquisition can look very different for subsequent or recurring conversions, now that ease of purchase and product loyalty has been established.

Furthermore, MTA solutions that are well-suited for tracking individual user responses have needed to adapt to the notion of the household - where longer consideration purchase cycles for products such as electronics, appliances, real-estate, financial services and automobiles become increasingly important.  These are decisions that are not always made at an individual level, but rather by the household and so should be measured that way. The household issue also comes into play for MTA solutions when needing to stitch together the behavior of users who leverage multiple devices as part of their path to conversion and hence the need to rely on deterministic data sets to uniquely identify not just the individual, but the household as well.  

New challenges

 With the ever-evolving adtech ecosystem, new developments have created both opportunity and obstacles around data availability, and how it informs brands about consumer choice and their journeys which influence conversion outcomes.

 Within the fluid adtech/martech ecosystem, the breadth and depth of adoption of these point solutions has increased the needs around integration.  While the past few years has seen the arms race for an all-inclusive tech stack, brands will still pursue best in breed solutions for their specific needs vs. the allure and promise of efficiency gained through a single tech stack provider.  Thus it becomes ever more critical for an interconnected system of 3rd party integrations such as a DMP to feed audience segmentation to an attribution platform which in turn feeds a programmatic bid tool for search and DSP for video/display for better informed buying criteria.

 Next is the proliferation of IOT.  Since lights, garage doors, security systems, entertainment systems and refrigerators have become smart and personalized, they create new enriched data sets that now create additional noise that can influence user behavior.  With increased adoption of such devices the need to account for them will become even more important, but currently there has yet to emerge a mechanism with a high degree of confidence or match rate to bridge the data sets between anonymized ID’s and PII (Personally Identifiable Information).

 Lastly and related to the IOT topic above is the rise of the walled gardens.  Again to point to the research of Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report (slide 15) Facebook and Google are already attaining the lion’s share of a digital advertising budget, it’s no surprise that there has been pushback from agencies, brands and regulatory councils around access to the data.  The demands of transparency into sharing these data sets with IAB/MRC accredited 3rd party platforms for independent analysis are geared to ensure there is no inherent bias.  

Setting up for success

So taking all the above into consideration, how does one move forward with respect to attribution given these challenges?   The answer lies within the impetus and motivation behind why one desires to be a change agent in the first place.  Meaning, deep down we all know and understand that leveraging a data-driven approach is a more realistic way to measure the impact of the customer journey when compared with using a rules based approach which discredits all but one channel and vendor.   One must also realize that while complicated, there is no such thing as an all-encompassing one-size-fits all solution where there is zero data loss and every touchpoint for every customer across every device and medium is accounted for.  

 In short, understand that pursuit of perfection is a lost cause and that plenty of value can be extracted from just taking the action of moving forward with what you have.  Secondly, make sure you align from within the organization to external vendors and agencies on what are the quantifiable “conversion” outcomes that help measure the performance and effectiveness of all media.  While easier for an e-commerce business and more abstract for CPG, it is easily attainable across industries and verticals and should be the benchmark for setting up a successful outcome. 

Taking action will align the organization especially marketing and finance to be on the same page about where and how marketing dollars are spent.  This first step will enable the transition and process of change management which is key for organizations to take ownership and control of having increased visibility and decisioning process on the performance of the channels, vendors and tactics that result in positive business outcomes.  By taking heed to the obstacles and best practices, you will be thankful you did and the organization will be better off as a result.  After all the cost of “doing nothing” is hurting the business more now and in the long run.