Attribution And 'The Matrix' Trilogy

Understanding attribution is sort of like trying to sit down and watch all three “Matrix” movies at once.  At first it sounds great, and some of it even makes sense.  You get very excited simply talking about it.  Once you go deeper and deeper into the topic, it starts to unravel and lose sight of where you started.  As a matter of fact, attribution is a very important concept, and one that almost nobody fully understands.   Sound familiar?

As Morpheus would say, marketing is in a shift toward technology for delivering efficiency and performance at scale.  Attribution increases in importance because it becomes the fundamental component of understanding whether your marketing is working, but for it to take hold it has to become standardized and simplified.  You might need a Ph.D. to develop an attribution algorithm, but you shouldn’t have to have one to implement it in your marketing practice.  After all, how many marketers do you know whom you refer to as doctor?

Let’s dissect what we know about attribution.  As it was recently, and most simply stated to me, attribution has three models. 

First there is a model of “last click,” which means exactly what you would think: the last click prior to a conversion is given the credit.  Obviously this is a flawed model because it doesn’t provide any value to frequency, and frequency is important when examining a considered purchase.  Additionally, it doesn't take into account multiple channels and focuses solely on digital, which is myopic at best.  No true marketer with a degree of cross-channel responsibility should ever use last click as a model.

The second model is “media mix,” which takes into account multiple channels, past spending and past performance as well as current spend and performance.   This is referred to as a “top-down” approach because it looks at the past to determine the future.  It’s scalable and highly accurate, but doesn’t deliver information in real-time, thereby creating an accurate, yet inflexible and delayed understanding of your marketing.  It is good for projections, though, and for deciding how to spend your money.

The third model is “digital attribution,” a rules-based model in which value is assigned, based on a previously agreed-to system, for every actionable engagement or interaction of digital media.  This model is much stronger, but it doesn’t take into account other channels, like TV and print. Once again, this is a stronger model, but myopic for true cross-channel marketers.

Where the truth would lie, as it always does, is somewhere in the middle.   The model of merging media mix and digital attribution is where a strong attribution story resides.  As more media integrates technology, more media can be tracked using digital methods.  With more technology in place, we can gather a more comprehensive real-time evaluation of performance -- and if we marry that data with past spend and performance, we can start to identify trends and understand the interdependence of media.  It’s this interdependence that’s most valuable.  The issue with attribution is the silo’d approach.  If you eliminate silos and embrace the interdependencies, then attribution can be significantly more easy to understand than the second two “Matrix” movies. 

The landscape of attribution partners is getting more cluttered, so one of the things to examine when selecting a partner is what model they use, and who has used that model in the past.  Understanding your vertical and the ways consumers interact with brands in your vertical can go a long way toward determining if a certain model will work for you.  

Algorithms and experience: these are the red pill and the blue pill required for understanding attribution, and in this case you need to take them both.

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9 comments about "Attribution And 'The Matrix' Trilogy ".
  1. Sean Tracey from Sean Tracey Associates , May 7, 2014 at 12:36 p.m.
    Cory, I argued this topic last night with a friend who owns a digital agency and believes that digital is the only thing that matters these days (he's actually even more adamant that traditional doesn't have a place in the mix). I sent him your article. Hope he reads it. Sean
  2. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein , May 7, 2014 at 12:47 p.m.
    Cory, with all due respect, and given what we clearly know about consumer discontent with the growing commercial clutter, the entire premise of attribution is idiotic. What difference/benefit could it possibly make/be to any brand to dissect the life cycle of a .1% CTR that may or may not even be real? Or, worse yet, frame a branding strategy in which attribution is a key component! This is a classic case of the difference between what can be sold to advertisers as opposed to what's good for them. IMHO, both brands and their digital agencies would be better served by trying to figure out how and why they keep missing the other 99.9%.
  3. Christopher Sanders from The Ingredients Group , May 7, 2014 at 1:22 p.m.
    Sean Tracey - You should also tell your friend that practically all media is "digital" now: 60-70% Digital STB penetration, all of mobile, print moving to online, digital billboards. So, anything supported by zeros and ones is by definition digital and this makes attribution really interesting/relevant, especially as we see web/web video (IP-based) overlap with traditional TV. Mike Einstein - to quote Don Draper when asked "Does Advertising work?" he said, "on some people". Distilling marketing and advertising down to its core, this is the challenge: to affect/motivate the most people possible within a target audience, then measure how well it did (which of the "some people" did we win over). You suggest spending only time on creative and placement (which are highly, highly important). But, our industry should spend time and resources getting past David Ogilvy's famous quote, "I know half of our media spending is wasted, I just don't know which half."
  4. Cory Treffiletti from Oracle , May 7, 2014 at 1:29 p.m.
    If attribution is idiotic, Mike, then why is Google buying Adometry? Why is AOL buying Convertro? I think you may be missing the point.
  5. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein , May 7, 2014 at 1:41 p.m.
    @Christopher, you completely miss my point. I mention neither creative or placement in my comment, which simply suggests that in a commercial, on-demand world, it's a fool's errand to micro-manage a commodity for which there is absolutely no consumer demand. A quick look at the share prices today for Aol, Twitter et al would seem to support my belief that we're sitting atop a media bubble ready to burst under its own overinflated weight. And while we're on the subject of attribution, you might want to check with John Wanamaker before quoting David Ogilvy.
  6. Christopher Sanders from The Ingredients Group , May 7, 2014 at 1:53 p.m.
    MIke, I do understand your point, and I am sorry I did not "attribute" the quote right. Are you further making the point that there is no consumer demand for advertising? This has been true since its inception. So, I'd love to hear your suggestions about how to reach the "other 99.9%" that you mention. If marketing is not about message, placement and measurement, how do you suggest we reach audience and help advertisers sell more product?
  7. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein , May 7, 2014 at 1:58 p.m.
    As they say, Cory, the answer is in the question. BTW, I'd be careful touting Aol's business acumen. Aren't they co-owners of the worst deal in the history of American business? And didn't they spend $850MM for Bebo? Or was that Patch?
  8. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein , May 7, 2014 at 2:06 p.m.
    Christopher, contact me offline via Media Post Community and I'll be happy to set a time to show you how to reach 100% of the audience with pure attribution using no ads and no intermediary technologies whatsoever.
  9. Demos Ioannou from DCI Consulting LLC , May 8, 2014 at 9:47 a.m.
    @Mike Einstein - a microcosm of this conundrum lies in your correction of the Ogilvy/Wanamaker quote; there is no connection to anything that occurred before the emergence of the digital age by so many recent "experts." I take an even more cynical view, AND I agree that a bubble deflation looms. Basically - the digital space is wasteland of 'Snake Oil' salesmen - and I know that there are some (very few) who DO sell an elixir that works, but not many. As long as digital agencies peddle soft metrics like 'Impressions' - well - the conversation can't even get past semantic hurdles. The article's central theme, the Attribution part, not the Matrix tie-in, is vexing. I believe that marketing mix modeling can work to a degree, but sadly many CPGs use this as a Bible, where fundamentalist adherence to the output leaves no room for further scientific interpretations.