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What is a digital marketing attribution model?

In digital marketing, attribution models are used to measure the success of different touchpoints a consumer will encounter along their path to conversion. An attribution model is essentially a method which allows you to give credit to the channels that have influenced conversions, rather than simply crediting the digital marketing channel that was the last click before the sale. 

Using these models you can give your business a more precise understanding of consumer engagement. An attribution model can help you you gain a better understanding of how to leverage the touchpoints that will generate the best overall ROI.

If like many businesses are, you are placing your digital marketing efforts into more than one channel (PPC, SEO, Paid Social etc.), then you will benefit from knowing how these channels are working together in order to find the optimal mix of channels. 

Why does it matter? 

It will typically take a customer more than one touchpoint with a company before completing a conversion. These will differ depending on things like your industry, product, and the length of the consideration process. 

For example, booking a holiday will usually require a longer consideration process than purchasing an item of clothing. Users take different journeys depending on what they are looking for. So, we need to know how to measure different parts of these journeys and optimise campaigns as a result.  

Common types of marketing attribution models 

For digital marketers engaging consumers across short sales cycles, i.e. with minimal touchpoints – first or last touch attribution models can identify the messages that initiate or close a sale.  

First-Touch Attribution 

First-touch attribution looks at a consumer’s engagement history and places full value on the first touchpoint in the sales cycle. This means that all credit is assigned to the touchpoint that was first in the journey leading to conversion.  

A key benefit of this model is that it’s easy to set up and track. It also provides insights into how consumers are finding a brand. The downside would be that it disregards other touchpoints along the journey. 

Last-Touch Attribution 

Last-touch attribution looks at the final touchpoint engaged with before conversion. For digital marketers, this can be a helpful way of investigating the touchpoints that influence consumers the most at the bottom of the funnel. Like first-touch models, this is relatively easy to set up and track.  

It makes sense to use this model if you are only using one paid channel, e.g. Facebook or Instagram ads. Facebook use this as their default model – assigning all credit to the last touch, whether that’s an impression or click. Again, the downside is the lack of insight into the impact of other engagements along the sales cycle.  

Attribution Models for Longer Sales Cycles  

There are more comprehensive models available for users who are engaging consumers with a higher number of touchpoints. We can use these to identify the most effective and valuable touchpoints in longer sales cycles: 

U-Shaped Attribution / Positional  

The positional – otherwise known as the ‘U’ shaped attribution model, typically works a 30% or 40% model. In the 40% model, the first and last touchpoints are both credited with 40%. The remaining percentage is then split between all other touchpoints. In the 30% model, 30% is given to the first and last touchpoints – and the remaining credit is split. 

This model provides a more in-depth, complex way of tracking how individual digital marketing channels work together. For example – unlike first and last touch alone – positional attribution would consider things like the discovery phase and final conversion push together. 

Time-Decay Attribution  

Time-decay attribution is a multi-touch attribution model meaning it does consider more than one touchpoint. It gives some credit to all the channels that have led a customer to a conversion. However, the further back in the time a channel was interacted with – the less it will be credited.  

So, this model assigns more value to touchpoints as consumers become closer to the point of conversion. Although it recognises that various touches do provide some value (e.g. awareness) – it focuses mainly on what has led directly to a conversion. 

It values touchpoints based on where customers are across the funnel – as opposed to the impact each point had on them. The assumption here is that the initial touchpoints are there to plant a seed, and the consumers interest in purchasing or converting will grow later down the line. 

Linear Attribution 

Linear attribution assigns value across the entire sales cycle. This is probably the most straightforward way of looking at multi-touch attribution models, and it can provide useful insights into the customer journey.

It is generally a good place to start if you’re new to comparing models and want to get the ‘bigger picture’ of how your digital marketing efforts are performing.  

The catch would probably be whether you think it’s fair to attribute conversion credit evenly. For example, would the second point in the journey deserve the same amount of credit as the first or last?

Not all touchpoints are created equally – but from a digital marketing perspective, this can still be useful when identifying where within the digital mix you’re driving the most engagement. 

How to choose an Attribution Model for your business 

Many models and approaches exist because there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to selecting an attribution model for your business. Each model has its pros and cons. The key is to work out which one is a suitable fit for your digital marketing campaign. We’ve highlighted some of the things to consider when choosing a method:  

  • Your goals – Does your business runs high-spend activity across several digital marketing channels? Or is this is the first time you’re diving into attribution? If so, you will probably have a lot of data to uncover. Setting goals can make things easier to process. An example could be understanding which channel is driving the most awareness or which channel mix is boosting conversion rates.
  • The length of your customer journey - As we mentioned earlier, your customer journey lengths will depend highly on the nature of your company. Some companies have naturally longer journeys. Keep this in mind when deciding on your conversion attribution focus.  
  • The value of your conversions - Assigning a value to each of the conversions that you’re tracking will allow you to assess ROAS more accurately whilst using multi-touch attribution models. This may be more complicated for businesses that focus on generating leads, i.e. B2B marketing. 

To conclude…

Here’s a great summary of the different PPC attribution models from Search Engine Land:

PPC Attribution Models
PPC Attribution Models

 Ideally, you will need to combine models to get both top-down and bottom-up insights that provide the best opportunity to optimise campaigns for conversions. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with different attribution models! This is the best way to work out which one works best for your business.