Last-Click Attribution Is Youth Hockey

Today in digital advertising, attribution is getting a lot of attention. Unfortunately, many marketers and advertisers are still assigning attribution to just the bottom of the funnel rather than attributing all levels of the funnel to the sale. This is often because they are using a last click attribution model, where credit for the sale is given to the most recent click the user made before purchase. In many ways, this is a flawed model, because there are a considerable number of touch points between the advertiser and the buyer previous to that last click.

Mercedes Benz, for example, claims to have a 20-year awareness process. They have a complex brand and the decision to purchase one of their cars is a big one. They therefore choose to approach their audience as children with branding campaigns. Attribution starts during the 20-year prospecting period and should align with the consideration period. This is clearly not an easy thing to track but it does illustrate the problem.

Think about the purchasing funnel from top to bottom and how each level relates to results measurement in programmatic.

Awareness – the customer is aware of the existence of a product or service.

Consideration – the customer is actively expressing an interest in a product group.

Evaluation – the customer has developed preference for a particular brand or product.

Purchase – the customer is taking action to purchase the chosen product.

But where do the various forms of digital advertising fall into this funnel?

Display advertising prospecting techniques like geo-fence, behavioral targeting, and contextual targeting, social prospecting, etc. cover a meaningful portion of that funnel, but mostly towards the top – in the awareness and consideration levels. At the top of the funnel, brand awareness and filling the funnel is the goal. Here, marketers should measure the overall cost of luring new customers into the sales funnel and which people to whom they advertise eventually become customers.

Retargeting campaigns both on display and social media are designed to reach middle-funnel users who have not yet purchased. A retargeting campaign reaches those users in hopes of driving them down the funnel. Clicks and conversions are most important when measuring retargeting success.

Paid Search advertising is typically towards the bottom of the funnel where users are developing their product preference and evaluating options with (notably) the intent to buy. This is where it makes sense to focus almost exclusively on cost per conversion.

Many times attribution is assigned primarily to the bottom of the funnel rather than attributing all levels of the funnel. This is in effect saying that top-of-funnel and middle-of-funnel advertising had no effect on the conversion, which obviously isn’t telling the whole story.

In digital, we often impugn more traditional advertising mediums because their results are not nearly as measurable as in digital advertising. Advertisers are now doing more in digital at the top of the funnel because that is where the audience is spending more and more of their time. This is positive because we can measure results and gather data through digital advertising at a much more granular level, but it is negative as many attribution comparisons are made to bottom of funnel techniques.

If this seems complicated, look at attribution this way: We have been looking at digital advertising reporting the way a young child plays ice hockey, where every player wants to score a goal. On most youth hockey teams, it is difficult to incentivize players to be the goalie or to play defense, though both positions are critically important to success in the game.

In awareness, the goal is to get people into the top of the funnel. It’s like the goalie position. It’s hard to score a goal from their place on the opposite side of the rink but getting the puck out of the defensive zone is just as important to scoring a goal as the actual shot is. Last click and last view are ways that we attribute sales but attribution touches that live higher in the funnel are very important to look at as well. Using a Time-Decay Attribution Model, the media touch point closest to conversion receives most of the credit, and the touch point prior to that gets less credit based on a simple algorithm.

Therefore, when we look back at upper funnel campaigns that did not perform the way we would’ve hoped in last click attribution, its often evident that the efforts were in fact successful and did generate interest from new customers. These campaigns appear to be less effective because credit is given to a lower-funnel tactic. As advertisers, it’s important to attribute campaign success differently at different levels of the funnel so we know where to spend budget moving forward. Depending on the scope of a campaign, looking at results with a Time-Decay Attribution Model may make more sense for attributing success at all levels of the funnel. Just like the youth hockey goalie, some of the positions farthest away from the goal may be key in determining successful outcomes.

Ryan Wilson
Founder & CEO
Ryan has his hands in a bit of everything, but he mostly focuses on client success and the technical aspects of advertising. Ryan likes 90’s hip hop, heli-skiing, and spending time with his family.