Marketing attribution identifies specific actions potential customers take from first encountering a brand to completing a purchase. This process is fundamental for marketers to evaluate the effectiveness of different marketing channels and touchpoints that contribute to a sale. Effective attribution provides data-driven insights that inform strategic decisions, guiding where companies should allocate their marketing budget to maximize return on investment (ROI).

Changes to marketing attribution

For decades, marketing attribution models have adapted to meet the changing demands of consumers and the technological advances of the market. While traditional marketing mix models (MMMs) ruled from the 1950s through the 1980s, they have lost favor in today’s digital-centric market environment. These traditional models are often too cumbersome and slow for the instant nature of digital interactions, which require real-time data processing and a more agile response to consumer behaviors across multiple channels.

Offline marketing attribution 

Initially, MMMs offered a comprehensive view by covering all media channels used in marketing. Despite their early success, these models now struggle to provide timely insights and fail to measure the deeper metrics of brand equity effectively. One major drawback is the slow rate at which MMMs deliver feedback, often weeks after campaigns have ended, missing the opportunity for real-time adjustments. They commonly tend to focus too heavily on direct response activities, neglecting the crucial area of brand development which requires nurturing potential customers who are not yet ready to make immediate purchases.

From the exponential growth in digital technology, new tools have surfaced that track every stage of the customer journey, offering a more dynamic and detailed view of customer interactions. Modern marketing attribution captures a wide array of data across various touchpoints and processes this information quickly, helping marketers to make informed decisions swiftly. These tools analyze the customer’s path to purchase in minute detail—from initial awareness through consideration to the final purchase—providing a comprehensive understanding of which interactions drive conversions.

Different digital attribution models

Single source attribution

Single source attribution models assign the entire credit for a conversion to a single touchpoint—either the first interaction or the last. While easy to implement, these models often provide a skewed perception of marketing effectiveness. They ignore subsequent or previous interactions the customer may have with the brand, which could have been influential in driving the conversion.

Multi-source attribution

In contrast, multi-source or multi-touch attribution models acknowledge every touchpoint a customer encounters on their path to purchase. When distributing credit among all interactions, businesses obtain a holistic view of their marketing strategy’s effectiveness. However, determining the exact influence of each channel remains a complex challenge, as these models do not always define the precise contribution of individual touchpoints accurately.

Specific models

  • Linear model:

The linear attribution model treats each touchpoint in the customer journey equally. For businesses with marketing strategies where every interaction is designed to incrementally build towards conversion, this model provides a straightforward approach. It distributes credit uniformly across all engagements, from initial awareness through to the final action, giving a balanced view of the efficacy of all channels engaged during the campaign.

  • Time decay model:

The time decay model assigns more value to touchpoints that occur closer to the time of conversion. It suits scenarios with longer sales cycles where the influence of initial interactions may wane over time. Under this model, the interactions that happen near the conversion get exponentially more credit, reflecting their greater perceived impact in driving the customer’s decision-making process.

  • U-shaped model:

In the U-shaped, or position-based, model, significant emphasis is placed on the first and the lead-creation touchpoints, each receiving 40% of the credit. The remaining 20% is distributed among other touchpoints in the journey. This model recognizes the crucial importance of initial engagement and the specific interaction that generates a lead, providing a focused assessment of key strategic activities.

  • W-shaped model:

Expanding on the U-shaped concept, the W-shaped model introduces a third key touchpoint—the opportunity creation stage. Each of the three major touchpoints—initial engagement, lead creation, and opportunity creation—receives 30% of the credit. The rest is spread out among the remaining interactions. This model is beneficial for complex B2B sales processes where distinct phases each play a substantial role in progressing toward a sale.

  • Full path model:

The full path model builds further on the W-shaped model by also incorporating the final closing action. It thus captures the complete spectrum of the customer journey, from awareness to closing. Companies use this model to understand and optimize each phase of the marketing and sales process, recognizing that post-lead interactions can be just as decisive as earlier ones.

  • Custom model:

Custom models allow organizations to tailor the attribution to the unique dynamics of their market, customer behaviors, and specific campaign goals. Companies can assign weight to touchpoints based on empirical data and strategic importance, crafting a model that truly reflects the contribution of each interaction to the revenue cycle.

  • Weighted multi-source attribution:

The weighted multi-source attribution model provides a nuanced view by assigning different weights to each touchpoint based on its assessed impact on the final conversion. It integrates the complexity of multiple interactions, acknowledging that not all engagements hold equal value. Sophisticated analytics are used to determine the weight of each touchpoint, making this model one of the most precise but also complex to implement effectively.

Choosing a marketing attribution model

Selecting the appropriate marketing attribution model requires careful consideration of various business factors such as the size of the company, the industry it operates in, its overarching marketing objectives, and the degree of digital maturity. Key considerations also include the typical length of the sales cycle and the pricing strategy of the products or services offered. The selection process is dynamic and involves experimentation and iterative refinement, often requiring input and collaboration from multiple departments including marketing, sales, IT, and finance to align on the most informative and actionable approach.

Developing a customer journey roadmap is essential for understanding all the potential touchpoints through which a customer interacts with a brand. A detailed roadmap aids in planning and optimizing marketing strategies to improve customer engagement and conversion rates. Focusing on lead quality and considering the lifetime value of customers are critical as these factors help in selecting the most appropriate attribution model that aligns with long-term business goals. Organizations must remain agile, willing to adapt their attribution strategies based on ongoing data analysis and shifting market conditions to maintain competitive advantage.

Looking ahead, marketing attribution is moving towards more personalized strategies that leverage individual buying history and preferences to tailor marketing efforts. The growing emphasis on first-party data, driven by privacy regulations such as GDPR, is shifting focus towards more secure and reliable sources of customer information. There is also a growing interest in automated systems that can dynamically adjust advertising spending, optimizing marketing budgets in real-time based on performance data, thus maximizing ROI and operational efficiency.

Key takeaway

As companies work with the complexities of modern marketing, the selection and implementation of the right attribution model become essential for measuring the effectiveness of marketing strategies accurately. From traditional single-source models to advanced multi-touch and custom attribution frameworks, businesses have a variety of methods at their disposal to trace customer journeys and allocate marketing resources wisely. The ongoing evolution of attribution models reflects broader digital trends and the necessity for agility and precision in marketing analytics. As the field progresses, embracing innovative approaches and technologies will be key for businesses aiming to optimize their marketing investments and truly understand the impact of their marketing efforts on consumer behavior and sales outcomes.

Alexander Procter

May 28, 2024

6 Min