Conversions – The Attribution Problem

By Jon Elordi

In marketing, we have a catch-all term for what we want to accomplish: conversions. The word can mean anything and everything. Subscriptions are conversions. Three page views in a session is a conversion. Purchases are conversions. A conversion is your marketing goal. Therefore we want to get as many conversions as possible.

This leads us to the most frustrating part about digital marketing analytics. Attributing conversions to marketing channels.

The problem arises because of last-click attribution. Last-click attribution is the default Google Analytics setting for attributing conversions to marketing channels. It works as you would expect. For example, someone clicks on a Facebook ad then they come to your site and make a purchase. That purchase is then attributed to Facebook. For basic marketing campaigns, it’s pretty straightforward and all you need. However, it leads to problems with more complicated marketing strategies.

Most marketing strategies involve the use of several marketing channels. You could have Facebook video and display ads, Google Search ads, YouTube pre-roll video, and Taboola sponsored recommended content all running at the same time. The customer journey is now more complicated. What if:

  1. Someone sees a Facebook ad clicks on it explores your site and then leaves. They are now educated about the product but they’re on the bus and don’t feel like making a purchase.
  2. That evening at home they go on to YouTube see the pre-roll ad and are reminded of your product
  3. Having seen the ad they do a Google search and then click on a Google Search Ad and make a purchase

What marketing channel gets the credit for the purchase? In the last-click attribution model, Google Search Ad would get the credit for getting the conversion. It was the last step that got a person to make a purchase. It didn’t do all the work leading to the conversion.

Misleading Data

If you’re unaware of last-click attribution it can lead to you making some costly mistakes.

I’ve seen many people do this. Just like in the example above people will see that Google Search leads to the most conversions, so they’ll take the budget out of other media channels and put it all into Google Search. They think that they’re about to increase their purchases, but in actuality, their purchases go down. Because while the Google Search Ad was the last marketing channel used to make the purchase, it wasn’t the marketing channel that kicked off the purchase process.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much of an alternative. There are companies out there that are trying, but I have yet to see any product that actually does a good job. If any marketer claims they can do a “full customer journey acquisition model.” They’re not telling the whole truth. While those types of things can provide some information. I used to make those for my marketing agency. It was a lot of BS. Don’t fall for that trap.

Instead, understand how last-click attribution works and understand your customer’s journey. Lower Funnel tactics will always “convert” more than higher funnel tactics. But that doesn’t mean those higher funnel tactics aren’t valuable.