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.


Drip Email Nurturing – Who Wants to be a Drip?

Challenge:  Drip email campaigns often are not customer responsive

It is common for marketers today to identify customers with common characteristics and drop them into a drip email program because it’s easy and can automate outreach to thousands of customers.  The drip campaign creative can be tightly tied to a product or specific value proposition.  However, all too often the process is something like this:  ‘Prospects with this criteria/engagement are ideal for this product so let’s drop them into the ABC drip series.’  On the surface, it sounds like good marketing: targeted list, customized messaging and marketing automation. 

However, this process neglects the fact that these prospects are not uniform in any way.  No matter how tightly we segment our lists, each prospect is truly unique.  In common practice, drip email campaigns are static, having a fixed number of messages at somewhat fixed intervals with fixed messaging.  Those that operate at a higher level have some activity-driven content to alter the messaging throughout the drip to more tightly align to the prospect, but this is as far as most drip programs have progressed.  However, with effort, we can aspire to much more targeted marketing.  Take Amazon, for example, where recommendations are made based on recent purchases and web visits.  I love Amazon because it is timely, relevant and easy to use.

What we need to strive for is something much more responsive.  We need to integrate a broader set of inputs to drive a more relevant set of messages for each prospect.  These other areas of input may include: last website visit date, website pages visited, other contacts at the same company visiting the website, organic/paid search terms, previous products purchased, industry, and more.  Unfortunately this creates more complexity for the marketer, but it creates a more relevant and timely set of messages for the prospect, which is far more important. Additionally, marketers should consider alternate outreach vehicles like a call or mailing. 

While the typical drip program is better than ‘spray and pray’ email marketing, the goal should reach higher.  Think of prospects who look forward to receiving email messages.  Imagine doubling open and click-through rates.  This can only happen with significant changes that make your messages much more relevant to your audience.  What this takes is monitoring key data elements available in your marketing automation system and leveraging these to send the right message with the right offer at the right time.  This is certainly a tough task – and one that will increase complexity over a static drip program.  However the result will be dramatically higher engagement levels.  

So drip nurturing can make the sending company look like a real ‘drip’! 

Lesson: Let’s strive to optimize our outbound programs by including a variety of inputs driven by the actions of the prospect to ensure timely and relevant contacts that move the relationship forward.

Matching Marketing Automation to Prospect Online Posture

Challenge: So you have implemented a basic email program and lead scoring — what’s next?

Lesson: Developing sophisticated lead development programs that respond to your prospects’ online postures takes effort but will most certainly take your marketing automation programs to the next level.

Challenge: So you have implemented a basic email program and lead scoring — what’s next?

Almost all marketing automation systems will have you start by building an initial email series for new prospects, a lead scoring system and other programs to optimize your organization’s sales processes. You’ve built the systems and spent time troubleshooting and optimizing these programs. Next, it’s time to take these programs to the next level.

Step One: Data Analysis

You are likely capturing and tracking very valuable information: Data on initial lead source, key campaigns, important offers, customer segmentation, lead scoring, lifetime customer value and more. Take sufficient time to extract and analyze the data to show which campaigns, offers and other programs are associated with the acquisition of new customers (the logic being that if you continue to acquire new customers, you can also later optimize lifetime customer value). Investigate the various flows prospects take as they enter your systems through to a sold deal. Which campaigns or offers are associated with capturing new leads? Which campaigns or offers are associated with moving these leads through to initial sale? What common threads drive leads that do not progress at all or move to a ‘closed-lost’ opportunity? In just a few hours, you are likely to find key trends in your sales process – some trends you want to replicate and others you want to avoid.

Step Two: Collaborate with Sales

Armed with this information, collaborate with the sales team to validate the data your system uncovers with their real world experience. Very often, they are driving many of these ongoing touch points and can provide key insights behind these reports. As a result, you may also develop additional questions that will drive further data analysis to discover true causal relationships. The goal is to reach consensus on how to best support sales efforts with your marketing automation systems. Ideally, you will be able to identify areas where the sales team spends significant time/effort and explore opportunities to accelerate deal flow or reduce overall friction in the sales cycle. From these meetings, you should have a set of tactics where marketing can assist in the sales process. These tactics may be to focus efforts on certain industry verticals (greater segmentation in marketing automation), improved sales process (better offers at various stages of marketing automation) or optimized profiling of target prospects (better data collection or enhancement to make better decisions) – to name a few.

Step Three: Match Prospect’s Online Posture

Armed with your new-found insights into levers that drive sales, you can evaluate how your marketing automation systems can best support the sales team. You should now have insights into optimal lead sources, leading indicators when a prospect is ready to move to the next stage and good predictors of imminent purchase decisions. Your marketing automation system should be capturing these details and triggering the next phone call, email or offer.

Now you can optimize your initial marketing automation programs – and specifically the flow of your programs that will more reliably deliver relevant content for your prospects to take them to the next sales stage. If you see that a prospect takes one action or visits certain content on your web site, you can alter your programs to deliver better offers at the right time. Read your prospect’s ‘online posture’ by evaluating the offers they have consumed and the actions they have taken – and then offer them up the next likely step in the sales process.

Most marketing automation programs in their first or second generation are really just a series of emails that don’t respond dynamically to the actions of the prospect. To be fair, these programs take significant time and effort to set up – even at this basic level. However, once in place and optimized, now is the time to re-engineer the program, adding more options based on your prospects’ actions. This will probably entail more complex programming that creates different paths for your prospects – ones that more closely match their needs and interests.

Your goal is to get the right offer in front of the right prospect at the right time. If this were a face-to-face interaction, a sales rep would be reading and interpreting body language, tone, word choice, etc.,  to make the most appropriate, and therefore optimal, recommendations. You will have to make these recommendations based on how the prospect interacts with your website and your content. Your goal is to read the prospect’s online activities and then to adapt your response.

Step Four: Optimization

Once implemented you will again need another round of optimization – likely your initial design can be improved by watching open rate, click-through rate (CTR) and the actual completion of the offers delivered. You may find that you thought an offer was great but the CTR is very low. This may require changes to the messaging, a different offer, or changed timing. In fact, you may find that your initial results were lower than your previous simpler program! Don’t worry. If your analysis of sales process was accurate and your new automation design solid, you will be able to change timing, offer, copy and other variables to dramatically improve your results. These tests will take time and patience – but the results will be well worth the effort.

Lesson: Developing sophisticated lead development programs that respond to your prospects’ online postures takes effort but will most certainly take your marketing automation programs to the next level.