We're Looking In The Wrong Place For Our Attribution Models

The online landscape is getting more complex. Speaking from a marketer's perspective, there are more points of influence that can alter a buyer's path. At the last Search Insider Summit, John Yi from Facebook introduced us to something he called Pinball Marketing. It's an apt analogy for the new online reality. 

Hoping for a Strike

In the past, marketing was like bowling. You would build a campaign with sufficient critical mass and aim it toward your target, hoping at the end of the campaign (or lane) your aim was good enough, and the ball/campaign had enough kinetic energy (measured in REACH X FREQUENCY X AD ENGAGEMENT) to knock down all the potential customers.  If you think about marketing in this perspective, it explains the massive amount of pain traditional marketers are feeling as they pull their bowling-shoe-clad feet from the old world and gingerly dip their toes in the new. The bowler was in control (theoretically) and the success or failure of the campaign lay in her hands alone. The paradigm was simple, clean and linear, just the way we marketers like it. 



The new game of marketing is much more like pinball. The intersections between a buyer's decision path and a product's marketing presence are many, and each can send the buyer off in a different direction. Some of those intersection points are within the marketer's control -- and some aren't. Marketers now have to try to understand engagement and buyer impact at each of these intersections and, in the process, try to piece together a map of the buyer's journey, assigning value in the appropriate places.

Repealing Newton's Law

But even though the frenetic path of a pinball gets us a little closer to today's marketing reality, it still doesn't get us all the way, because there's one fundamental difference: pinballs don't have brains. Nor do they have emotions, feelings, or needs. Pinballs are just little metal spheres that obey the laws of physics.

And therein lies the difference.  How much more challenging would pinball be if, rather than relying on Newtonian physics to set the path of a ball coming off a flipper, it could decide whether it wanted to go right, left or simply stop dead in its tracks, refusing to go one inch further until you showed it a little more respect.  As physicist Murray Gell-Mann once quipped, "Imagine how hard physics would be if particles could think." 

As we try to understand what influences our buyers, we tend to apply something like the laws of physics to unraveling attribution. We apply formulas to various touchpoints, mathematically weighting their respective values. We can weight it to the first click, the last click, or divvy up the value based on some arbitrary calculation. But, in the end, as we try to figure out the new rules of marketing, we tend to forget that these balls have brains.  

Go to the Source 

If we want to understand what makes buyers buy, we should ask them. We should base attribution models on decision paths, not arbitrary formulas. We should walk through the buying landscape with our prospects, seeing how they respond at each intersection point. And when we build our attribution models, we should base them on psychology, not physics.  

Is this approach harder than the holy grail of a universal attribution formula (or even multiple variations of said formula)? Absolutely. It's fuzzy and sometimes messy. It tends to squirm around a lot. And unlike Newtonian physics, it depends on context. What I'm proposing is riddled with "ifs" and "maybes." In short, it's human in its ambiguity, and that's really the whole point. I would much rather have ambiguity that's somewhat right than clarity that's completely wrong.

7 comments about "We're Looking In The Wrong Place For Our Attribution Models".
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  1. Frank Reed from Marketing Pilgrim, June 16, 2011 at 10:48 a.m.


    Until marketers have the ability to truly color outside the lines with how they assign success and failure in the online space. Unfortunately, C-level marketers often find themselves removed from the 'trenches' and are afraid of something as messy and squirmy as you suggest.

    Eventually people will come around to what you are talking about but there will be considerable pain in the process. Clarity is something comfortable and how many people stay with something that is completely destructive because it is comfortable. Marketers are people and will do the same until they have no other choice.

    Thanks for making me think!

  2. Frank Reed from Marketing Pilgrim, June 16, 2011 at 10:50 a.m.

    Finishing the first sentence in my comment:

    Until marketers have the ability to truly color outside the lines with how they assign success and failure in the online space this will likely not change very quickly.

    Brain fires faster than the fingers can translate. Oh well.

  3. Robert Kahns from MarineMax, June 16, 2011 at 10:56 a.m.

    Great article, love the pinball analogy. Definitely fits with fragmented attribution models of today.

    Also, your in the running for quote of the year with "But, in the end, as we try to figure out the new rules of marketing, we tend to forget that these balls have brains." :-)

  4. Steven Groves from Social Marketing Conversations, LLC, June 16, 2011 at 11:46 a.m.

    Good insight and while the effort at ProfitStreams is working on how our customers automated marketing can work throughout the purchase funnel, positioning attribution as a measurement tactic is not always easy. 'Last-Touch' has a big sway in a lot of merchants and managements mind.

  5. Kenneth Mays from Mays & Associates, June 16, 2011 at 11:54 a.m.

    You make some very valid points here. Every pinball wizard understands the unpredictability of the game. Unfortunately, too many people think that mathematical algorithms like search engines are intelligent. They're not. They're just adhering to a cold, unemotional formula. Unless we discover a way to insert the "human factor" into our formulas, results are going to come up short. So how do we find a way to place a "human in the loop."

  6. Mark Hughes from C3 Metrics, June 16, 2011 at 3:41 p.m.

    The more awareness we can bring to light on this, the better ROI for every online advertiser & agency.

    Mark Hughes
    CEO, C3 Metrics

  7. Guy Powell from ProRelevant Marketing Solutions, June 17, 2011 at 2:34 a.m.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Yes, in order to truly understand attributions, we need to understand how consumers make purchase decisions. This includes both B2C and B2B marketing.

    Unfortunately, just asking consumers, also doesn't always give the right answers. Consumers don't know why they choose things. We need to combine actual consumer behavior with stated responses in order to build a model that is truly consumer centric.

    If you want more information on how we achieve this, please feel free to reach out.



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