Perfect attribution modeling and how to attain this marketing nirvana

Perfect attribution modeling and how to attain this marketing nirvana
Credit: Loves Data / Benjamin Mangold

Technology has forever changed the retail shopping experience. Consumers inhabit a digital omni-channel age where people are using their smartphones, tablets and laptops to research, compare and make purchase decisions. A lot of startups and companies are investing in paid media advertising, (Adwords, display, social ads, SEO, email, etc.) to increase downloads, signups, sales, leads and customer acquisitions.

But a large part of quantifying the return on marketing is knowing which campaigns are the most effective—not only does this inform you where you should focus your resources to acquire new customers, but also this allows you to reasonably plan and project future growth. This is where big data analytics tools and something called attribution modeling can be used as a method of assigning a value to user touch-points that contribute to the result of a conversion or purchase, and then assigns a value to each.

Once you start to have a better understanding of how your customers are interacting with your ads and different marketing channels, then you can learn to optimize and choose how much credit each click should get for your website’s conversions.

1. Customer journeys and attribution assigned at each step

A company’s customer journey can be complex, not only across channels but also devices. If you are investing in paid advertising as part of your marketing strategy, then should look for tools that analyze your conversion funnel.    

Attribution tools help to identify which ad campaigns and marketing channels actually influenced someone’s buying decision, although there can be a learning curve involved. It’s very important to grasp and have a good understanding of which marketing channels are working and which ones are not assisting with conversions.      

A New York City clothing store probably shouldn’t give all of the credit for their customers to the sign or store window displays, even if it was the last thing those customers saw before walking in to buy an item. According to a study by Google, it was noted that a shift in shopping behaviors has changed for retail stores, less people are coming in, but when they do they are spending more. Because we use our smartphones to research almost everything we want to know, do or buy online.     

So, if you try running paid ads with Google Adwords, they will automatically by default show you the Last-click attribution option, (which gives all the credit for a sale or conversion to the final ad click). And where this be confusing it does account for all the steps the customer may have taken before this final click — similar to the retail sign analogy bringing all the stores sales.   

Just think when you visit a website, that you may buy something from… you may perform a Google search, then you might leave the site, and the company sends you a display or social media ad when you are on another website, then decide a few days later to plugin the website directly in your browser and buy something. In this common scenario of a purchase path which part influenced the final sale the most?

Depending on your industry and type of business, your marketing campaigns might be pretty simple. As an example, think of a local  construction company whose entire marketing strategy consists of being known in their town as reliable service provider. If your Google Adwords paid search account, is straightforward enough to be the online equivalent of that (what if you are just bidding mostly on branded terms only), then evaluating and updating your attribution model may not be a big focus for you.

2. How to choose an attribution that’s right for you

There are several different types of attribution models available for business owners to use with paid advertising campaigns. A hotel chain with a large budget might have broader awareness goals of introducing people to their latest building and brand, while a coworking software app may care immensely about every ad interaction on the signup journey. The gist is you will want to pick a model that best fits your business’s marketing efforts and goals.  

If you have enough conversions you might consider using a data-driven attribution (DDA)     

This can be slightly confusing, if you are a beginner with using analytics tools, but using a data driven approach takes the guesswork out of choosing a model.   

It will depend how much your monthly ad spend is, and if you have enough data (web traffic) but, if so, Google Analytics Premium services DoubleClick, Analytics 360 and Attribution 360 offer the use of data driven attribution which can tell and show you the clearest possible picture of conversion success in your account.

Quick intro to the data driven attribution (DDA) methodology

Google Doubleclick and Analytics 360 use sophisticated algorithms to analyze all of the different paths in your account (both non-converting and converting) to figure out which touchpoints are help the most with conversions. Google’s algorithm will factor in the number of ad interactions, the order of exposure and the creative assets used in each conversion path. It uses a counterfactual approach: the algorithms contrast what actually happened with what could have happened to determine which ad clicks are most critical for a conversion.  

Data-driven attribution benefits include:      

  • Pretty quick and easy to implement
  • Values all steps in conversion path
  • Works with automated bidding ( as do the other attribution model options )
  • Even works on very short conversion paths      

If your account does not have enough traffic to use (DDA) then consider a rules based model.

You can use something called an Adwords manager account, and then use Google’s cross-account conversion tracking to combine all of your reported conversions. The more data you analyze can help lead to better marketing insights and improvements. In rules based attribution there are a few manual attribution choices you can try:

Last click: Gives all credit for the conversion to the last-clicked ad and corresponding keyword.

First click: Gives all credit for the conversion to the first-clicked ad and corresponding keyword.

Linear: Distributes the credit for the conversion equally across all clicks on the path.

Time decay: Gives more credit to clicks that happened closer in time to the conversion. Credit is distributed using a 7-day half-life. In other words, a click 8 days before a conversion gets half as much credit as a click 1 day before a conversion.

Position-based: Gives 40% of credit to both the first- and last-clicked ads and corresponding keyword, with the remaining 20% spread out across the other clicks on the path.

Data-driven: Distributes credit for the conversion based on past data for this conversion action. (This is only available to accounts with enough data.)

Similar to the DDA approach, the time decay, linear and the position based models all divide up one conversion across each visitor’s touch-point.

How this can help you, is when you split up a single conversion across the steps in the conversion path…it allows for a better sense of a particular keyword’s value. All of these models allow you to use Adwords automated bidding, and will give you more control over how much credit each ad and keyword gets for your conversions.   

In short this can help you company to:

  1. Reach customers earlier in the purchase cycle: Find opportunities to influence customers earlier on their path to conversion.
  2. Match to your business: Use a model that works best for how people search for what you offer.
  3. Improve your bidding: Optimize your bids based on a better understanding of how your ads perform. .

As a marketer, you will want to define the objectives and goals in your Adwords campaign, and then pick a model that best aligns. Some paid acquisition strategies focus on maximizing efficiency why others may be more growth oriented   

So attribution is about trying out different models to understand how it changes the performance of different ads and keywords in regards to conversions.   

Performance that seemed typical under pre-existing last click models could be dramatically different when you evaluate those keyword campaigns with a new model.  

As general rule, Keywords phrases that are clicked earlier in the conversion path (often generic terms ) tend to behave differently that keyword queries later down the conversion path ( like branded terms ).     

As you evaluate and update the model you end up trying, it also makes sense to re-examine the performance goals you have for your Adwords account. Some business can see better performance with lower costs-per-acquisition for keywords earlier in the click path once they move to a more aggressive model, like first click, shifting performance stats to reward keywords earlier in the click path, while a more conservative model, like last click, will reward keywords that occur later in the click path.  

Credit: Loves Data / Benjamin Mangold
Conclusion: Your attribution model you choose should align with your business strategy.  

3. Try making changes to your ads and landing pages to better align with your customer’s place in the click path

Once you have figured out the search intent of a keyword in the user journey of your website,  then you can start modify your ads and landing pages to start a more mutually beneficial conversion.  A set of keywords that tend to be the early stage(awareness) of the marketing funnel or user’s click path could benefit from a “less salesy” or more educational landing page. You could view these landing pages as inspirational landing pages instead of the typical late stage “buy right now” transactional page.       

As an example, a person who conducts a search for “Coworking Space NYC” might not be ready just yet to purchase a membership on his first click. After verifying that a particular search phrase tends to be earlier in the click path of your buyer’s journey in your Adwords attribution reports, you can start change your content to speak to them a little differently, both on the results page and on your site itself.   Establish your brand as a helpful trustworthy resource as the first in a conversion.     

Conclusion: If certain keywords you are targeting tend to assist, rather than complete, conversions, your creatives and landing pages should take that insight into account.

4. You may want to re-review your top funnel keywords based on your new attribution model   

As business owner, you may start to play around and implement new attribution models, but it may not seem like much has changed right away.  So, this where you go and now take another look at the early funnel or influence keyword queries that you might have cut or deleted from your Adwords account.

You can try retesting those awareness stage keywords such as “best restaurant accounting software” of which you maybe didn’t realize that these are good at getting people to your site, but maybe does always make them purchase.  (So even if a video ad didn’t prompt people to buy boots but got tons of Facebook comments, it’s still valuable.)

So now if you’re changing the way you look at your customer journey across all the marketing channels, and how you are defining success, new keywords could now have a better chance at being successful. What will change with these keywords under attribution models is you are defining and measuring the success of your marketing efforts in a different perspective.

Conclusion: You may find keywords that provide value that the “last-click attribution” doesn’t properly identify, including early influence keywords you may have paused in the past.  

5. Advance your approach to attribution as measurement gets better

Marketing professionals are doing more and more across different channels, and they would like to know what’s working. For those working inside growing startups or large companies, it’s even more of an issue. Some people end up having trouble convincing upper management that offline sales are attributed digital marketing.  

Don’t be scared to have more than one model. Different functions do different things and there doesn’t have to be one attribution model to rule them all. Financial reporting requires one kind, demand generation requires another, mid-funnel marketing a third. If someone needs it, make it.

Hopefully if you have read this article, you are now starting understand the value in learning more about AdWords attribution tools. And hopefully you’ll also keep an open mind and be ready to adapt as omni-channel search marketing evolves and changes.

Google is not the only vendor that makes this analytics software, Convertro, MixPanel, Kissmetrics are also viable software choices.  Large retail companies such as Warby Parker have made a heavy technology investment to adapt to the younger tech savvy consumer who uses their Iphone to research and buy online or pick up in store.  

Take aways   

  • Get clarity across all marketing channels: Compare performance to correct both over- and under-spending.
  • Keep it simple, stupid: If you can’t communicate how the model works and if people don’t understand it, how can you actually expect them to trust it, let alone optimize the metrics the model spits out? Seriously, 80/20 rule here – all day.  
  • Connecting marketing metrics: back to valuable business outcomes is the key to driving business success with your attribution program.
  • Choose models that make sense for your business: Is your database really small and do you need to focus on making it bigger? Great, then maybe last touch attribution isn’t for you. Maybe first touch is better because it will give credit to programs that do what your business needs – add net new names to your database. Build a model that biases action towards what your company needs now.
  • Identify best and worst performing ads: to ensure that the best creative, messaging, sequencing, targeting and placements are in the media plan.    
  • Define what a conversion is: If you are doing any website optimization, you have probably already thought about how to guide consumers to specific actions on your site. Whether it’s a sale, a content download, or a lead form submission, define what digital conversions you will “attribute” towards.    


According to Google, top-performing enterprise marketers are 5x more likely to use data-driven attribution. However, over half of all marketers still credit last-click only. Which type of marketer do you want to be or have working at your company?

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