Are Search Marketers Afraid to Adopt Digital Media Attribution?

I was on a great panel at the OMMA Behavioral conference in New York on Tuesday titled "Is Display the New Search?" During the wide-ranging conversation, a recurring theme from the display folks in the room was that search marketers have long taken too much credit for an online sale just because paid search clicks are usually the last click of the purchase cycle.   

Why isn't attribution more widely adopted?

The biggest factor inhibiting multi-exposure attribution is that last-click attribution is just so much easier.  It's easier to manage, easier to measure, and easier to explain.  It is also much easier to implement.  Conversely, cross-channel multi-exposure attribution requires that all media be tied together at the user level for full path analysis and optimization.  This requires technical data integration, internal education, and internal negotiation on how exposure sequencing will be allocated.  But the effort is almost always worth it.  For digital performance-based marketers, cross-channel attribution is critical to success -- and it is becoming even more so as consumer online purchase behavior continues to mature.



Another factor inhibiting growth of advanced attribution is the elephant in the room.  Search marketers are usually the most hostile constituents in the marketing process to implementing advanced attribution because they feel they have the most to lose, since their budgets are the highest in the performance marketing pie.  Most search marketers fear that attribution won't help -- and could significantly injure -- the perception of their search ROI.

Embracing Attribution - NOW!

The truth is that when our clients fully utilize cross-channel attribution, we don't see a decline in their paid search spend, but an increase in spend on top-of-the-funnel search terms and all of display.   Search terms that fall at the bottom of the funnel will always be the most important pieces of the media mix, since they are the gatekeepers to a purchase.  Proper attribution helps get more people in the funnel to drive incremental volume at the same CPAs.  Why don't more clients utilize attribution if it usually helps all forms of digital media?

Attribution is good for paid search marketers.  And frankly, the digital world is evolving.  If we, as paid search marketers, stay in our silo, we will die in our silo.  If we embrace the fact that search marketing is intertwined with all forms of digital media, search marketers can lead the way in this new world.  If we keep our head in the sand, we will give our budgets to someone else.  

For many years, display suffered from "last-click syndrome," as last click credit went to search and affiliates.  In order for marketers to truly maximize efficiency of their digital activity and spend, consumer activity needs to be tracked at all stages of the purchase funnel.  This obviously helps display, but also paid search.  How you analyze, use and attribute data is key to managing and optimizing digital spend. What's more, how you use your data and understand the user is pivotal for display audience targeting and effective retargeting. 

Search marketers have an opportunity to lead.  By embracing attribution as the central pivot to everything that consumers do online, search marketers can help their companies make smarter marketing decisions.  By focusing less on the size of their piece of the pie, they can help create a larger pie.

4 comments about "Are Search Marketers Afraid to Adopt Digital Media Attribution? ".
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  1. Christopher Brinkworth from Ensighten inc (acquired TagMan), March 25, 2011 at 11:36 a.m.

    RIP Last Click!

    TagMan offer (& also white-label) tag management with real-time attribution solutions (video: )

    Our research in this area the past few years has unearthed some interesting points that align with this conversation that the rest of the market is catching up on. Notably, that SEO and Social are highly undervalued and re-targeting often over rewarded, as is PPC and Affiliate. Do take a look at some of the case-studies/research we have done at

    I also suggest in line with this article that you read George Michie's post on the RKG blog - about how Retargeting can hurt sales (if managed incorrectly)

    Chris Brinkworth
    TagMan Inc

  2. Michel Giasson from NuCaptcha, March 25, 2011 at 11:45 a.m.

    Great article Roger. Search is a key component of digital performance-based marketing but needs to be embraced as one part (albeit an important one) of a cross channel attribution model. A stumbling block has been the ease (and certainty) with which the last click credit can be measured versus the more convoluted (and thus less clear) measurement employed for cross channel marketing. The industry has made a lot of progress in attribution measurement in the last couple of years and this trend will keep getting stronger. It is the single most important component to move brands over to digital marketting and, as you say, 'create a larger pie.'

  3. Mark Hughes from C3 Metrics, March 25, 2011 at 1:42 p.m.

    In the longest attribution study of its dollars were simply reallocated to keywords that NO ONE KNEW drove revenue.

    Search budget remained in-tact, and search ROI went up 98%.

    Here's an article detailing what happened in every channel:

  4. Steve Latham from Encore Media Metrics, March 27, 2011 at 11:23 p.m.

    Most SEM and SEO firms realize that search's success benefits from by advertising (both online and offline). Understandably, no one is dying to share credit for their success. But if we mean what we say about "putting clients' interests first," we as an industry need to embrace it and overcome the hurdles discussed in the article above.

    One data point that will make SEM firms feel better is that display is not the only channel that benefits from attribution. Attribution also shows the true value of assist keywords (short tail product or category terms) that play an important role early in the process, but often struggle to show a positive ROI on their own. So unless the SEM firm is only buying branded keywords, they are likely to see a lift in attributable results from paid search, which may ultimately lead to an increase in SEM budgets.

    Since those who commented before me took the liberty to promote their content, I'd be remiss not to offer our blog as a resource as well.

    Steve Latham, CEO of Encore Media Metrics

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