The Changing Role of Marketing Attribution in Determining ROI

Marketing attribution is one of the most  significant opportunities to come out of modern digital marketing. What it does, in simple terms, is allow marketers to identify “a set of user actions…that contribute in some manner to a desired outcome, and then assigning a value to each of these events.” Wikipedia

The user actions that are typically tracked include anything from clicks to conversions—such as a form fill—and are then tied to sales and revenue.

The reason that attribution presents such significant opportunity is the fact that it underlies the marketing holy grail – ROI. Many marketers, as well as those that they report to, are enamored with the idea of ROI. After all, it a represents a hard, fast number that can immediately tell marketers whether their efforts are successful. Right? Well, sort of.

ROI, Marketing Attribution Models, and Dealing with the Unmeasurable

As it turns out, ROI is a bit subjective and is definitely more complicated than appears at first glance. This is made more complicated by the fact that marketing attribution itself can be configured different ways and simply cannot always account for all factors. For example, some of the more popular marketing attribution models include:

  • First Touch Attribution
  • Last Touch Attribution
  • Multi-Device Attribution
  • Multi-Channel Attribution
  • Real World Attribution

As you might guess, they all turn out different versions of ROI and channel value. And there is no wrong answer–or in this case, wrong model. The marketing attribution model your team chooses to use should align with your goals and your vision of marketing success. Nevertheless,  they all rely on certain gaps and assumptions and, therefore, all have their own issues. The model that is perhaps most warned against is the last touch attribution, as it stacks ROI in favor of lower funnel efforts and typically causes a deemphasizing of crucial upper funnel tactics. Still, it’s not objectively incorrect to use last touch attribution, just typically not suggested.

On top of the complication of choosing the best marketing attribution model for your needs, factors such as existing customer/client base, brand equity, and unmeasurable offline efforts all contribute to marketing success in ways that marketing attribution models cannot always pick up. This makes your ultimate ROI essentially impossible to fully and solidly determine.

While it may initially seem like kind of a bummer that your standardized measuring stick for success is not so standardized anymore, it should also be a relief. ROI is ultimately no different than other kinds of data, which can be analyzed and interpreted in different ways to provide valuable insights.

Battling the Pressure for Positive ROI

Even if 100% accurate attribution and indisputable ROI is not realistic, though, the pressures to achieve this are still very real for many CMOs. For example, 93% of CMOs say that they are under more pressure to deliver measurable ROI. On the other hand, just 21 percent of companies consider themselves effective at measuring mobile ROI, an important effort to measure in our increasingly mobile world. (Adobe) At this point, the ability to measure ROI and prove your worth is also becoming necessary for job security. So, explaining that ROI is both difficult to measure and should not always be taken so seriously may not fly at the executive table. What might be helpful, though, is to reframe the role of ROI and marketing attribution as a litmus test for performance across a complicated and vast digital space rather than a measuring stick of success.

The New Focuses for ROI and Attribution: Holistic, Actionable, Targeted

The thing is, marketing is extremely fragmented, more so than it ever has been before. And while ROI may never be rock solid, attribution offers the possibility to connect the dots across channels to tell a convincing yet nuanced story with data. Certain channels are easier to measure than others with only 8% of companies saying they can determine ROI from their social media spending while, on the other hand, email has been nominated the reigning king of ROI measurability. (Adobe) But, any modern marketing program should be striving for a holistic marketing strategy, rather than only relying on channels that they can prove returns on. Thus, marketing attribution models should be used with the idea of holistic measuring in mind as well.

What is the point of looking at the full scope of your marketing efforts, though, if the information gathered doesn’t lend itself to action? As marketers increasingly learn that everything can be measured—but not everything should be measured—actionability and agility are key. Marketing attribution needs to provide data that allows marketers to immediately know what they need to do with it and they need results that can detect small changes in a complicated landscape and allow them to act quickly.

On the opposite end of the holistic spectrum, the more targeted attribution can be, the better. Of course, this is to say targeted on the individual level, not on the channel level. For example, your marketing attribution model might be able to tell that your blogs are assisting in conversions. Your entire audience doesn’t behave the same way, though. So a portion of them may be driven to conversion via blogs, but another portion may be more interested in your YouTube channel. Looking at attribution at the individual–or segmented individual–level will give you more insight into what works for what type of person across the holistic landscape of your marketing efforts.


The good news is that attribution models and measurement capabilities are constantly improving. The bad news is that they will never be perfect. Like anything else data related, measure, test, predict, compare, repeat—just keep the bigger picture in mind at all times.


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Did you like this post? Let us know why (or why not) in the comments. In the meantime, check out our blog Blurred Lines: The De-Silo-Ing of Marketing to discover why breaking down organizational silos is key to staying agile and ahead of your competition.

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