The Magic & Wizardry Of Attribution
In my house, we spend random conversations speaking in British accents, talking about and acting like we’re characters in “Harry Potter.” I know -- this might sound strange to you, especially when you realize I’m not from London; I’m from upstate New York. My boys like it, though. They can’t wait to be old enough to read the books and watch the movies!
What doesn’t seem to work as of yet is the magic and wizardry behind attribution. Is there a chance that attribution will sometime soon become the realm of muggle science, or will it always be a fantastical goal? Will it be our industry’s Moby Dick?
Attribution is a key challenge for marketers -- probably one of the most important ones. Just as a solid measurement methodology was back in the late 90s and early 00s, attribution is a hurdle for the industry. If we can master it, budgets will continue to shift and advertising will become an even-more defensible category for brand marketers.
When I speak of attribution, I am speaking of two areas:
1. Online attribution (historically, last click vs. attributed clicks)
2. Online vs. offline attribution (the effect of online plus offline in unison)
The online attribution challenge is the first one we need to tackle, as it is the easier of the two, if you can believe it. How do we attribute value to each messaging opportunity in the continuum of online ads that a user is exposed to -- and how do we ensure that this value is fair and acceptable?
To date, there are many different ways agencies and brands have calculated attribution and there are just as many ways publishers and networks game the system. They are cookie bombing, jacking, plugging and pummeling (any combination of aggressive, relentless words) their way to being valued for their exposure, and in the end marketers and the consumers lose.
These unethical practices remind me of the days of pop-ups and pop-unders, when ads were served to count an impression, even though the chances they were seen were minimal at best. The good guys lose because they get lost in the clutter of ads, and consumers get untargeted, frequency-busting ads delivered right to their desktop.
In the end, some industry group is going to have to get involved and help deliver the parameters for attribution, if not the actual attribution model itself. I don’t think they can go so far as to authorize a single model, but the parameters for counting and ad delivery could indeed be set as a standard.
In the end, I foresee a handful of attribution models becoming industry-accepted norms, considered table stakes for any player in the business. Attribution will depend somewhat on the goal action and the desired balance between brand and direct-response objectives. A direct-response advertiser may have an attribution model more heavily weighted toward the latter part of the exposure stream, while a brand advertiser will be more weighted evenly through the exposure stream. The final decision will lie in the hands of marketers, who will also be tasked with conveying that model to each of their partners.
Assuming we can figure out the online attribution issue, the online vs. offline model becomes true wizardry. In the offline world, you lack the ability to tag and calculate actual exposure for your messaging, and this creates a deeper challenge. I don’t know the timetable for anyone to develop an accurate model for cross-channel attribution, and doing so is far more a mathematical model than a provable parameters-driven solution. If I were to guess, I would say online attribution will be finalized in the next two years but cross-channel attribution may take more like 10 years. I hope that’s not the case, but we will see.
With that, I go back to my “Harry Potter” movies, gazing into the mirror in the Chamber of Secrets and wondering what things will be like when attribution is a standard piece of the business. It’s a promising future if we can figure it out, don’t you agree?