The Key to Mastering Marketing Attribution? Aim for Consistent Imperfection

Performance on advertising channels isn’t linear, making perfection nearly impossible

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During a recent trip to the chiropractor, it occurred to me that technology vendors and marketers are way out of alignment when it comes to measuring the impact of marketing programs.

The tension began several years ago when a new software category emerged, clinically dubbed “marketing automation,” which promised to turn the craft of marketing from art to science. In hindsight, the term was a misnomer because the movement’s impact was felt less in the automation of routine tasks, like personalizing email messages, than in feeding previously elusive data on how prospective buyers were interacting with the company’s online marketing campaigns back to marketers.

When we realized that data was our primary value, many of us in the industry assured marketers that, once provided with this precious asset, executives would finally take marketing as seriously as it took more analytical lines of business like sales and finance. We often turned to a folksy boast, “Marketers have finally graduated from the ‘kids’ table.’” That always got a laugh.

But we gave marketers, particularly those who sell to other businesses, just enough rope to hang themselves. We painted a picture of an executive fantasyland in which budgets would be determined not by the marketing leader’s persuasiveness, but rather with cold, hard numbers. For every dollar the company would pump into a particular channel, it could bank on two in return. What’s more, in time, the data-fueled marketing engine would reveal the rate of performance decay for that channel, signaling precisely when marketing should shift their resources to the next one up in the queue.

This promise has gone largely, if not entirely, unfulfilled. Marketing automation vendors have never delivered on the promise of tying dollars-in to revenue-out, leaving their users in the unenviable position of having to explain to once-hopeful leadership why their reporting remains transactional. Think number of new leads identified, not the yield from dollars invested.

The term for this dollars-in-dollars-out aspiration is “marketing attribution” and, as you might imagine, it has become all the rage in tech marketing circles.

There are a number of reasons why technology vendors have yet to meet this need. The sprawl of marketing technology vendors—more than 5,000 at last count—presents an enormous integration challenge. The fluidity of advertising products offered by online channels (think, congressional attention might chill future Facebook advertising products) also complicates matters. And, of course, the complexity of the challenge itself—for example, how might one weigh investments in creating new opportunities for the sales team relative to those designed to accelerate the buying process?—is not only daunting, but it also varies so greatly from company to company that it’s difficult to imagine how one product could solve for most organizations.

For all of the vendor-side reasons why attribution has eluded marketers, there’s a practitioner-side challenge that’s just as limiting: the fruitless search for perfection.

Marketers have been looking to technology to solve this problem. According to Gartner, chief marketing officers are spending more than 9 percent of their budget on analytics solutions, the most of any technology category. My advice, however, is to abandon the pursuit of perfect attribution and instead focus on consistent, directional analysis.

This realization came to me during that previously mentioned trip to the chiropractor. Shortly after arriving, I found myself standing between two vertical poles set a few feet apart. Running up the poles were markers in one-inch increments, each subdivided into smaller units. The chiropractor ran a piece of string from one pole to the next, each crossing my body at, I presume, some essential point of skeletal alignment. As I became tangled in a cat’s cradle, I said, “Um, this doesn’t seem especially precise.”

The chiropractor laughed and replied, “It’s not. But since I’m the only one who adjusts the strings each time, I’m at least consistently imprecise.”