Attribution is Dead. Long Live Content

Attribution is Dead. Long Live Content

By Andrew Oziemblo. Founder and CEO of Chicago Search Engine Geeks , a digital marketing agency in Chicago that helps businesses reach long-term growth goals.

Those who have been around digital marketing for a while will tell you that it used to be simpler. It was possible to have a paid search specialist, an SEO expert, and possibly even affiliate experts to help you with your digital marketing efforts. These three experts could work independently, which worked well.

If outsourced, the SEO agency has never had to meet with the PPC agency. Although there were occasional cross-agency meetings, they rarely resulted in real beneficial synergies. Although an SEO company might do some PPC side-by-side, it would not be the main focus. Although there would be occasional discussions about how PPC could cannibalize SEO (especially on “branded” terms), the regular SEO consultant knew that PPC activity was not in conflict with SEO services. PPC was successful, as was SEO. The world was fine.

Photo taken by Merakist at Unsplash

A Mess Of Our Own Doing

The digital marketing landscape has changed dramatically. Online media landscape has evolved into a complex ecosystem, with an almost insurmountable layer of confusion about what works and what does not.

Digital marketing budgets have grown in size, but not to the same extent as traditional media budgets. This has prompted increased scrutiny. Digital marketing is not the project of the junior digital marketing executive; it’s now a topic for all the C-suite. All that attention and money can lead to different opinions and attitudes.

Direct-Response Rules The Roost

First, there are the direct-response type, which embrace digital marketing to prove that everything can be measured. Each marketing dollar can be traced back towards an outcome. The investment will drop if the outcome is not favorable. If the net positive result is achieved, the investment will go up. This group is home to CFOs, which should not surprise anyone.

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This group has greatly grown the digital marketing industry over the past ten years. Each digital marketing expense begins with a business case, and ends with a thorough settlement of the final balance. PPC was the clear winner in this world (along with email and affiliate marketing), but notable losers were display and video, as well as SEO (although local SEO had a small revival a few years back).

All social platforms had difficulty breaking through the barriers that direct-response type responses represent. This group faced a common problem: growing digitally. Even with last-click number crunching and razor-sharp return-on-investment (or even returns-on-ad-spend), the strict performance-based approach lacked the ability to bring new customers through the (digital) door.

Two Schools of Thought on Digital Growth

This gave marketers two schools of thought:

1) You can’t grow your business using digital media. Therefore, you need to rely either on

or traditional (and often expensive) media like TV, radio, and out-of home billboards.

2) We can grow your business by digital means. However, we don’t know how to measure it.

Some businesses would choose to go down route 1. They have a predictable track record, but they also face the familiar costs of traditional media. In most cases, companies that choose route 2 bet on some form of attribution.

The Attribution Challenge

Attribution has been a hot topic within digital marketing over the past few years. It is the idea that users can be tracked through the entire journey, so we can redistribute the conversion value across all touchpoints. You can now see the true value of your investment in digital marketing channels that are “higher funnel”, i.e. Video, social ads and display banners.

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The idea was to have a large portion of actual data (deterministic). This means you could know exactly where customers are located. It would be logged using a persistent ID and slightly enhanced with modelled data (or probabilistic data). Combining both data types and allowing for a fair amount machine learning you can create complete probability models. I.e. I.e.

It sounds exactly as it is. A lot of math and statistics are involved, and it relies on massive amounts data, uncharted machine-learning capabilities, and, it is safe to say, future tech ability. The best part is that it’s likely to be a dead-end street. If attribution refers to a chair, there are three legs already gone or soon going.

The Three Lost Legs of Attribution

1) Most cases, attribution relies on information being sent to or collected by a central servers. It almost entirely relies on user actions such as clicking on an ad. Views and impressions are not included within the data streams on which attribution is based. Traditional marketing 101 teaches us that part of the value lies in “seeing” the ad and becoming part of the consideration set. Virtually every attribution system doesn’t take into account views.

2 Facebook is one of the most popular marketing platforms. It is basically a closed garden. If you have a mix of Google Ads and programmatically purchased videos and banners as well as some paid social advertising on Facebook, then you’ll have at most two ecosystems for tracking. Google Ads and purchased ads on the Google Marketing Platform provide consistent data. However, Facebook will not plug into this. This effectively disqualifies sensibleattribution when Facebook (or any other walled-gard system) is used in this mix.

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3) It seems that the world is moving towards giving away less information. Most people will have heard about Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), which is built into Safari browsers, the default browser for iPhones. This effectively means that deterministic data has been removed from a mobile world (and iPhone users).

Long Live the Content King

This leads to the opposite of direct-response marketers, who are those who believe in content marketing. While output is important, it’s not the only thing you should be focusing on. It’s also the input that you’re steering towards. This gives social media the opportunity to show its true potential. This is a benefit to Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

This means companies must recognize that SEO is essential to their digital marketing strategies. This is not just theory. You only need to look at Gymshark, an online brand that has taken over the world, to see how inspired content can be used on the right channels. It is time to stop looking at the digital world as a direct-response last click wins model. Instead, embrace that content is still king and that brands and companies are not made by counting beads. They are created by giving meaning and relevance to people.