Digital attribution too often measures what’s easy, not what’s right

Driving marketing investment through data is key, but can we trust the numbers? Ebiquity's Jonathan Fox explores the complex world of digital ROI.

There’s a recently established trend in advertising where marketers have begun to question their investment into long-term brand building activity, and it’s growing.

Where in the past advertising has focused on creating a strong, memorable brand through emotive advertising, more and more advertisers are now chasing faster, short-term results – as noted in Binet & Field’s recent report.

With this move in the industry from long to short-term, it’s no surprise that more and more media dollars are being pumped into online advertising. Online campaigns can be easily tracked, monitored and measured, right?

Perhaps that’s true if you’re measuring impressions and clicks, but it is much harder to make an accurate link to sales revenue. This is the business metric that matters to the C-suite.

It is vital that advertisers question the data that supports the decision to invest so heavily in online advertising. Is this investment really driving sales?

I recently had the opportunity to interrogate this topic at Mumbrella360 in Sydney, where I explored the complexities of attribution: what it is, how it quantifies which media contribute the most to sales, and how it can mislead us if used incorrectly.

So, what is it that’s making advertisers take this path? Well, advertisers are using digital attribution to measure how successful online advertising is at generating revenue. Of those consumers that purchased their products online, they track which online media touchpoints their consumers were exposed to, such as paid search, social, online display, email, and online video.

But these measurements are typically based on pre-defined rules. Even when allocated using algorithms – the best form of digital attribution – it does not tell the whole story when carried out in isolation.

By example, say I want to buy a pair of running shoes. I talk to a friend and he recommends trying his brand of shoes and tells me how great they are. On my journey home from work, I see another runner in the same shoes. Perhaps later in the week I walk past a store and see the same shoes displayed in the window. Lots of touchpoints, and none of them media related.

I decide to buy these shoes, so I sit down with my laptop and type the brand name into Google. Up pops the first search result: a promotional link to the brand’s website. I click it and make a purchase.

Did I click it because it was a promotional link? No. Was the link responsible for the sale? Absolutely not, because I had already decided to buy the shoes. I would have gone to the brand’s website whether the promoted link had appeared or not. Those cues or nudges toward buying the shoes happened long before I sat down at my laptop to start my online journey.

In this same way, digital attribution results are misleading advertisers. When looked at in isolation, the results are showing them that their digital advertising is driving consumers to buy the shoes, or the insurance, or the car or whatever it happens to be. The data that’s being collected on digital attribution isn’t representative of the entire customer journey, it’s falling way short.

In fact, a more appropriate name would be digital misattribution. And it’s possible that these misleading results are prompting advertisers to invest too heavily in digital media.

There’s also the question of the long-term view. How is advertising driving brand-health metrics over time? Which brand health metrics are driving your core business?

Marketing activities that bolster long-term brand building will also drive online sales, but digital attribution typically ignores this. We’re all spending more time online and making more online purchases, but the data I’ve seen suggests online advertising doesn’t influence people as much as we would like to believe. We’re still walking around in the real world, exposed to shop-fronts, trends, TV shows and talking to friends and family.

The only way to know for sure is to look beyond digital attribution and incorporate results obtained from econometric modelling. This is essentially attribution in a wider sense, beyond digital, that takes into account a variety of sales drivers (not just media) and quantifies their impact. Taking this holistic approach accurately measures the impact of all marketing investment: pricing, promotions, distribution, and understanding all key sales drivers.

Ultimately, this insight is valuable to advertisers for the simple reason that it demonstrates the importance of implementing the right measurement framework. It allows for a conversation to determine the right balance between short and long-term goals. And it also provides a catalyst for the question of whether the right metrics are being measured within the company, because data is easy to take as gospel when sometimes it needs context to tell its story more clearly.

This discussion is set to continue, but the sooner advertisers can see past the digital lens to the wider picture, the sooner they’ll be clear about what’s working for them and where they can improve. And it’s vital that advertisers are collecting the data that’s going to show them the complete picture, and not lead them astray.

As the wise Seth Godin said: “Measurement is fabulous. Unless you’re busy measuring what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important.”

Jonathan Fox is Ebiquity’s head of effectiveness for Australia/NZ.


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