The Challenges of Marketing Attribution

December 28, 2015 Mark Emmons


Demonstrating the impact of marketing on business has always been an inexact science. It’s more or less an educated guess.

Or you might even say that it requires a leap of faith.

Consider that a recent LeanData survey found that a remarkable 39 percent of marketers do not trust the pipeline and revenue attribution numbers that they report to their executive teams. And remember, these are their own figures.

The reality is there are very good reasons for that lack of confidence. Determining the effect of marketing is incredibly challenging – particularly in long, complicated B2B sales cycles. It requires tracking a wide range of campaigns involving a large number of people, and then trying to figure out which of those many touches were significant.

“The challenge is figuring out what things marketing did that had an actual effect on closing a deal.”

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“Everyone is trying to prove their marketing department’s influence,” said Adam New-Waterson, the chief marketing officer at LeanData. “It’s a huge drumbeat within our industry. But it’s just not easy. You don’t know everything that goes into a closed deal. And when you have different silos of data, it’s hard to know how they are interconnected. Data doesn’t make much sense unless it’s structured in a meaningful way.”

In other words, there’s just so much information to consider – maybe too much. So, what are the specific challenges to attribution metrics that marketers wrestle with every day?

Under Reporting Influence: If you’re not capturing all of the campaign touches of the employees of a particular company, you won’t get an accurate gauge of marketing’s impact on the deal. Without that complete view of the people you are engaging, you might be completely missing the truly important interactions.

Over Reporting Influence: This happens when individuals unrelated to a deal are mistakenly counted towards having played a part. An example would be an intern downloading content from your website. Maybe the intern learned something valuable… but that most likely didn’t help you close your deal.

Impossible to Track: Some activities just can’t be measured digitally. Marketing can build strong relationships with analysts and industry groups. Marketers also are capable of generating beneficial public relations through media mentions. All of that can result in powerful word-of-mouth exposure for your business – creating a “halo effect” of brand awareness. All of those are good things. But it also becomes very hard to demonstrate that influence in any concrete fashion.

All Touches Are Not Created Equal: When every marketing touch is awarded the same degree of importance, it creates a false equivalency. Consider these different marketing interactions: opening an email, having a 30-minute conversation at a trade show, attending an executive dinner. Opening a single email, in the grand scheme of a complex deal, is virtually irrelevant. If that’s the case, then how accurate is a model where these are all given the same degree of significance?

The Paradox of Multiple Attribution Models: In theory, using multiple attribution models should capture the full scope of marketing efforts. It fills in the white space and gives you a complete picture. In truth, it can simply muddy the waters. As a data-oriented marketer, you understand that when you switch the lens of attribution models, the numbers you are reporting also will be different. But that nuance can be lost on your executive team, which isn’t operating on such a granular level. And “inconsistency” in data can lead to a loss of credibility that tarnishes all of your reporting.

Quantity Versus Quality: More touches are not necessarily better. Some campaigns will touch everyone. However it doesn’t mean those interactions made the slightest bit of difference to closing a deal. Quantity alone provides an inaccurate sense of success because there often was little-to-no influence. That’s why there needs to be a focus on the quality touches that do matter. A true understanding of attribution occurs at the intersection of quantity and quality. Only then will you understand what actions need to be taken in the future.

No Sales Touches: Most marketing models only look at its own interactions and take full credit for opportunity values. That essentially is saying sales activity didn’t contribute to closing the deal. How does that make any sense? “What happens is sales claims 100 percent of revenue,” New-Waterson said. “Then marketing claims to have a hand in 100 percent of the revenue. So there’s 200 percent rolling around there, and it’s not real. You need a revenue attribution model that’s holistic and includes both departments.”

Playing Loose with ROI Numbers: Every marketer wants to prove impact on revenue. But trying to show that can result in some laughable claims when it comes to return on investment. Marketing’s costs rarely match the totals crunched by the finance team. A trade show might include the booth fees and service costs, but don’t include the complete cost of travel and entertainment. Additionally, there is very real expense in employee time and energy that needs to be included in campaign costs. If your ROI numbers stretch credibility – think 10,000 percent ROI – why would anyone to believe the rest of your figures?

Marketing, in general, is hard. But nothing is harder than figuring out true insights from reporting that can be used to make business decisions.

“It has always been a struggle in B2B,” New-Waterson said. “We have these really long sales cycles that can last months and even years. You have all of these people who are coming in and out of the deal along the way. The challenge is figuring out what things marketing did that had an actual effect on closing a deal.”


Cracking the Attribution Code

Marketing teams are under more pressure than ever to quantify their influence and justify budgets. At a time when marketers are expected to prove Return on Investment, LeanData is exploring the challenges they face and how it is possible to improve account reporting.


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