Marketing Attribution – Worth the Effort?


Challenge: Considering the Challenges of Marketing Attribution, How Deep Should You Go?

Marketing attribution is a hot topic. You need to know which programs are worth the effort and expense and marketing must demonstrate its contribution to revenue. In fact, both marketing and sales must both carefully plan and measure their unique contributions to more accurately predict revenue.

However, Sergio Maldonado’s recent guest post on Scott Brinker’s Chief Martec blog raised some very important questions about the veracity of marketing attribution. The article challenging various aspects of marketing attribution is timely and worth a careful read. It also caused me to re-evaluate my ongoing efforts to focus on attribution.

The journey starts with developing a standardized way to tag Leads, Contacts and Opportunities to marketing campaigns, followed by a methodology to differentiate sales from marketing contribution (as well as sourced versus influenced). Adding various program costs and labor investment to the formula provides a more complete picture. However, this tells just part of the story as it analyzes attribution from first ‘form conversion’ to closed deal, without consideration for pre-conversion activities.

Tracking and attributing the activity of all stakeholders before form conversion is more difficult. Furthermore, attribution-to-revenue calculations only provide results for Contacts associated with a closed-won Opportunity, whereas other Leads and Contacts not associated often influence the deal. Therefore, this methodology ignores Leads and Contacts that influence but are not associated with the opportunity as well as all awareness phase marketing touchpoints that positively affected the opportunity.

By focusing only on campaigns with direct attribution, marketing may erroneously optimize for those programs only – at the expense of awareness and early stage funnel activities where attribution is much more difficult. The resulting focus on ‘directly attributable campaigns’ that occur at or after the first form conversion can easily result in a decreased ‘share of voice’ and ignore important early stage touch points. Often, sales prospects are unaware they have a problem or they’re unfamiliar with solutions better suited to their challenge. Awareness programs focusing on the earliest stages of the sales cycle are key to growing sales in the long run.

So if strict adherence to attribution metrics will lead to sub-optimal marketing resource allocation, should marketing invest time and resources in it? Unequivocally yes. At the highest level, Lord Kelvin was right when he said, “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it.” The attribution process is not at fault here (though it can and will certainly improve), rather the issue is how this data is used to make marketing investment decisions. Even though early stage program investments are not measurable in the same way that later stage programs are, they remain an important part of the marketing mix. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the marketing team to explain and defend these ‘awareness’ investments for the long-term health of the organization. The marketing team should also look for important correlations to justify these programs (correlations of direct/organic traffic with various programs, for instance).

In my opinion, marketing must continue to pursue attribution while keeping in mind the limitations of the current systems. Marketing investments should be made recognizing that the team cannot measure all aspects of the marketing mix, and more importantly, additional attribution effort investments should be made with an eye on overall effectiveness. While imperfect, I am reminded of the saying, ‘Even one candle sheds a lot of light in a dark room.’ Without attribution, marketing has no guidance about future investments.  But at the same time, marketing programs with impacts that are difficult to measure must not be ignored.

[Important note: Management should also look at the costs and benefits of the attribution process itself to ensure it is worth the effort. Tracking every last ounce of attribution adds significantly in terms of labor and cost, and at some point, these programs reach diminishing marginal returns. How a marketing team should optimize its spend on marketing attribution is a discussion for another time.]

Lesson: Spending time and resources on marketing attribution is critical, but it is just as crucial to realize program and system limitations to make truly optimized investment decisions.



Your Message has Left the Building

Challenge: Ten years ago, companies controlled almost all of their messaging because there were so few additional or alternative channels from which the general public could gather information to form an opinion.  Social networks didn’t exist and media outlets controlled the majority of the print and online content (outside of comments, editorials, and letters to the editor sections).  With the popularity of social networks, readers today share their own product reviews, seek out opinions, post personal blogs, and comment on articles that draw numerous additional links, references and likes. As a result, customers are engaging peers first to learn about new solutions, read reviews, and evaluate products.

Forrester estimates between 66% and 90% of the customer journey is completed before ever even engaging with the vendor.  If customers get most of the way through the sales process without engaging the vendor, do vendors really control their message? It is the leading advocates on social networks who control much of the early stage buying experience.  So what’s a company to do?

Customers are continuously evaluating your product and sharing their thoughts on the web. They have more information earlier in the sales process. Consider Amazon.  It is a great ecommerce site that also makes it easy for shoppers to look at reviews in support of making a purchase, which is crucial in the customer buying process. In the enterprise space, there are IT communities dedicated to sharing reviews with colleagues, such as Spiceworks and IT Toolbox with millions of members. There are also LinkedIn groups and well-informed bloggers who focus solely on these topics. With the abundance of well-researched, end-user generated content, it is no surprise that the majority of the customer journey happens before customers engage with your website.

So what is a company to do to control the message its customers and prospects get? Employ active social listening to hear what is being said about products and services. Think of this as continuous customer engagement: Engaging with customers before, during and after they purchase your products. In many ways, this is back to the basics of developing products customer really want by carefully listening to their needs and desires.  (See my post on developing a customer persona.) As you review this straightforward and truthful, often in-your-face customer feedback, look for the common themes, words, and phrases.  The comments that keep rising to the top most often are those that customers value most from your product or service. This is gold and should be a core part of your outbound messaging.

Does your outbound messaging need to match this precisely?  Certainly not.  Your messaging should lead your customers from your current product offering to your planned product direction. However, by leveraging the same words and phrases your customer’s use in your outbound messaging creates a virtuous cycle in which what customers hear from you is what they they later experience with your product. This alignment propels and extends your activities. It also fortifies your brand by delivering on your promises.

Lesson: Messaging alignment between what your customers are saying about you and what you are saying about your own products creates a virtuous messaging cycle and builds brand trust and authenticity.

Know Thy Customer Persona

Challenge: Drive inbound leads with content focused on your target customer? Of course. But what does it mean to really know your target customer?

At the heart of every marketing organization is the knowledge of the target buyer.  But what does it mean to really understand your customer buyer persona?  Certainly this includes demographics like age, income, and education.  We can add in firmographics like industry, company size and location.  Is this what we need?  Well, it’s a good start but far from complete.

Building detailed customer persona’s for all of the buyers and influencers in your product’s purchase process is an essential starting point.  Your organization needs to spend time and effort here developing a detailed profile for each role.  This profile should include:

  • A ‘day in their life’
  • Their fears, frustrations and aspirations
  • The ‘customers’ they serve inside their organization
  • How they are evaluated by their boss
  • What they find funny
  • Their office and work environment
  • Their biggest challenges
  • What they do outside the office

One way to think about this is to understand the persona of your target buyer to a depth where you could purchase the perfect gift for them.  By understanding their daily challenges, work environment, current methods of operation and more, then you can correctly create content that they will find interesting and relevant. Your materials need to be helpful, funny, interesting, interesting, thought provoking, etc..  With a detailed persona, you can demonstrate you truly understand their needs through the materials you create.  Therefore you earn the right to be read and have an ongoing conversation with your buyer – online, via email, in print and more.

In my experience, I have been targeting the IT professional.  This person is:

  • Generally male
  • Technically astute
  • Generally less socially outgoing
  • Enjoys finding clever and simple solutions to complex problems
  • Completely out of time dealing with break-fix items
  • Frustrated by end users who can’t his systems correctly
  • Would rather experiment with a new technology than engage with people to answer his questions
  • Enjoys gaming and science fiction (Star Wars, Dr. Who, etc..)

How do you get this information?  Take every opportunity to get on the phone or get in front of customers to learn more about them.  Review materials created by other vendors targeting this market.  Participate in the social media channels where these customers search for information.  Survey your existing customer base.  Run contests to see what captures their interest.  Bring in focus groups of your customers to brief on your product direction and get feedback.

Now what?  Time to publish a detailed persona description internally and get your entire team up to speed on common definitions of your customer.  Create a poster with a picture and key details.  Build a short slide deck explaining key attributes of your persona’s with names and roles.  Educate all new employees on the persona’s you are targeting – so everyone is on the same page.  Test all new campaigns against the persona to ensure they are consistent.

Lesson: Know your destination before you leave.  Take the time to develop a detailed understanding of your customer persona’s and drive this through your organization to better focus and target your outbound programs.

Branding vs Lead Gen – Can’t we just get along?

Creating an Umbrella for both Branding and Lead Gen

Challenge: Corporate brand guidelines can often stifle tactical lead generation

Every company lives by driving revenue.  In the case of B2B technology companies, marketing ensures revenue results by driving the quality and quantity of the prospects in the pipeline in order for the sales organization to reach its sales targets.  Marketing provides the fuel with which the sales organization can meet and exceed business plan targets.

Many times brand guidelines can be seen (or enforced) in a way that limits pipeline creation.  This can take the form of narrowly interpreting brand principles that stifle advertising innovation or can limit more tactical/direct messaging that drives advertising response rates.  That said, the marketer needs to protect the brand and ensure that every outbound message reinforces key tenets and principles. Color palettes and visual IDs are frequently not the issue here. 

A formal messaging ladder that encompasses key product differentiation is what can really drive alignment.  Messaging needs to be detailed enough to enable the prospect to understand capabilities and differentiation while being consistent with higher level brand promises.  This can be challenging for large organizations with wide product portfolios,  where the messaging ladder also needs to be updated (sometimes frequently) to support the product portfolio.  There needs to be a clear set of messages that marketers can use to create and execute programs – while remaining brand compliant.  In the ideal scenario, the marketing group clearly understands the messaging platform and all creative is developed from the ground up in a way that is consistent with the overall brand. 

Scenarios where brand trumps demand generation must be avoided, and brand guidelines should be broad enough to support product and solution messaging that drive awareness, interest and consideration.  The purpose of the brand guidelines is to leverage messages over the long run and not limit pipeline in the short run. Brand should serve the needs of pipeline creation – while ensuring consistency of overall message, voice and visual structures and constructs. 

I am reminded about a time many years ago when my kids were little and they asked me what I did at work.  What is ‘marketing’ after all?  My answer at the time was, “marketing helps sales people sell.”  Focusing on brand purity at the expense of pipeline development seems to be putting the cart before the horse.  So brand guidelines need to provide a framework where demand generation can survive, grow and become increasingly effective.     

Lesson: Brand guidelines should serve product marketing and demand generation – not the other way around.

To Print or Not to Print: Advertising is the Question

Challenge: How to determine your print advertising approach.

Lesson: Don’t underestimate the importance of your print advertising programs – maintain a regular flow of advertising within the same publications to make your impressions last.

Challenge: How to determine your print advertising approach. 

All too often, companies focus on tangible programs that drive sales activities. Google pay-per-click advertising has dramatically shifted the balance of marketing spend because it is highly effective in driving early stage prospects to vendor websites and is highly correlated with future revenue. However, the marketer must remember that the buying process is just that – a process. There are many touch points in the sales process and print advertising still has its place.

Generally speaking, prospects now read less print than in years past. This has been reflected in the dramatic drop in number of print publications and the reduction in size of the remaining publications. Typically, I have found that the print readership is older than average – and potentially more valuable as they may be more senior in the organization. Therefore print advertising (including magazines, newspapers, billboards, etc.) must be considered as part of the overall marketing budget.

My general rule in approaching print advertising is to survey existing customers to learn more about the publications they read. If there is a clear direction in the publication, my preference is to establish regular insertions with simple messaging to reinforce the other online programs. Remember that your ad will likely be read within four to five seconds. What do you want someone to walk away with in this very short time?

Focus on color, graphics and the headline. These should reinforce your core messaging and therefore be another important step in the sales process. While hard to track, if you look at the number of prospects going directly to your website or using your company name as a key word, this is a measure of the impact of your advertising and PR programs (cannot forget partner sales activities as well). These are often your best prospects – so building your brand with consistent messaging and color will make all other elements of your programs more effective. Since funds are often limited, select one or two of the top publications and concentrate your advertising for maximum impact.

Lesson: Don’t underestimate the importance of your print advertising programs – maintain a regular flow of advertising within the same publications to make your impressions last.

Develop Your Own Flag – Color Matters

Challenge: Overcoming customer apathy and creating awareness.

Lesson: Raise your flag – Pick a bright color and wave it proudly.

Challenge: Overcoming customer apathy and creating awareness.

Companies frequently underestimate the impact of their color palette in their marketing campaigns. One of the greatest challenges faced by early stage ventures is gaining awareness while competing against much more well established companies.

Color can play a key role in developing as association with this nascent brand. Stay away from bland or colors that blend in to the background. You need your company to stand out. Not everyone will like a bright color – but they will remember it. Great examples include ShoreTel (deer hunting orange) and Extreme Networks (purple turned into a rallying cry for programs).

Color has a visceral effect on people and will make the subsequent programs more memorable. More established players will be afraid that bright colors may turn off some prospects. Use this to your advantage to take the road less traveled. Select a bright color and display it prominently on your website, in your advertisements, at your tradeshows and throughout your other communications. Get this color closely associated with your brand – so the public knows when they see your solution. You will look larger and more established – a key value when competing against larger competitors.

Lesson: Raise your flag – Pick a bright color and wave it proudly.