Marketing Attribution: The Beginner’s Guide for B2B

The modern B2B customer journey is more complex and multilayered than ever before. 

In a prospect’s path to become a customer, they often engage in numerous digital touchpoints—social media posts, paid advertisements, email promotions, blog posts, webinars, and eBooks to name a few. 

This multitouch buying experience poses a difficult question for marketers: Which channels actually contribute to an eventual conversion—and how much did each channel contribute? Enter: Marketing attribution.

If you’re unfamiliar with marketing attribution or want to explore new methods to improve your existing attribution model, today’s blog post is for you. We explain the basics of marketing attribution and explore several popular marketing attribution models. Let’s get into it!

What is Marketing Attribution?

Marketing attribution is a system of determining which marketing touchpoints lead to a conversion, and subsequently assigning a specific percentage of attribution to each contributing touchpoint.

Several popular analytics platforms allow you to build marketing attribution models—but the most common and cost-effective method is to leverage Google Analytics conversion tracking.

Attribution models don’t just give marketers credit for the sake of credit—they also help assess the effectiveness of various campaigns and channels. Marketing attribution enables marketers to optimize their strategies and allocate budget and resources to the channels that generate the most conversions.

As marketers continue to rely on a wider variety of channels, attribution becomes that much more important. Consider these statistics (source):

  • 39% of marketers expect to use an average of 6 or more channels over two years.
  • 78% plan to adapt or increase their use of cross-channel attribution.
  • Attribution provides efficiency gains of 15-30%.

As these numbers indicate, attribution is critical to the success of modern marketing initiatives. If you’re not using marketing attribution or would like to increase the effectiveness of your marketing attribution model, keep reading. Next, we provide an overview of six effective attribution models.

6 Types of Marketing Attribution Models

There are many different attribution models available to marketers—and there’s no definitive right or wrong choice. In fact, studies show it takes an average of 6 to 8 touchpoints to simply generate a lead. The model you select depends on your specific strategy and campaign objectives. 

Keep in mind, each of the following models has specific benefits and shortcomings—so be sure you do your own research before implementing any type of attribution modeling. To look at specific attribution models, we break them into two categories—one-touch and multi-touch models.

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One-Touch Attribution Models

As its name suggests, a one-touch attribution model attributes an entire conversion to one channel. One-touch attribution models are easy to put into action and can be beneficial for specific campaigns—but they fail to paint a realistic picture of the customer’s journey. This category includes two primary models:

1. First-touch attribution

A first-touch attribution model assigns all credit to the first touchpoint that leads a prospect to an eventual conversion. While it only represents a fraction of the prospect’s path to conversion, a first-touch attribution model does have one key benefit: It helps you identify which top-of-the-funnel marketing channels are most effective at locating and capturing the attention of prospects.

Example: A prospect sees a paid Facebook advertisement for a recent blog post about essential tools for modern sales reps. They click the ad and ultimately read the blog post. Once they’ve finished reading your post, the reader subscribes to your sales newsletter.

Two weeks later, the same prospect opens a promotional email for an upcoming webinar about social selling. They attend the webinar, and afterward, they follow a link to a product page featuring your company’s social selling software, where they complete a form to receive a free trial. A first-touch attribution model would assign all credit to the paid Facebook ad that began this prospect’s journey.

2. Last-touch attribution

A last-touch attribution model gives all credit to the last touchpoint that happens before a conversion. This model’s primary flaw is that it disregards the channels a prospect interacts with during the early and middle stages of their journey. But, a last-touch attribution model can tell you what channels are most effective at driving conversions and giving prospects the final push they need.

Example: Let’s refer to the previous example, where a prospect interacts with a Facebook ad, a blog post, and a promotional email before a webinar ultimately persuades them to request a free trial of your product. A last-touch attribution model would assign all credit to the webinar—as it’s the last touchpoint prior to conversion.

Multi-Touch Attribution Models

A multi-touch attribution model gives credit to every piece of content or channel a prospect interacts with on their journey to the final conversion point. Multi-touch models have become more prevalent in today’s digital landscape, as marketers aim to understand a customer’s entire buying journey rather than just the first or last step of the buyer’s journey. But, there are several types of multi-touch attribution models—each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

1. Linear attribution

A linear attribution model assigns equal credit to every touchpoint in a prospect’s journey to conversion. A linear model helps marketers understand which channels contribute to conversions so they can continue to focus their efforts on those channels. But, linear models fail to distinguish which touchpoints were more influential than others in the customer’s journey.

Example: We’ll keep things simple and stick with the same example we used for one-touch attribution models. In the case of a linear model, all touchpoints the prospect interacted with—the paid Facebook ad, the blog post, the email newsletter, and the webinar—would be given equal credit for contributing to the eventual conversion (the free trial request).

2. Time-decay attribution

A time-decay attribution model gives credit to all touchpoints but weighs the most recent touchpoints more heavily. A time-decay model is useful for longer sales cycles—where the most recent touchpoints tend to be the most influential in the conversion process. This is especially helpful in the B2B world, where sales cycles tend to be longer than B2C sales cycles.

Example: In a time-decay model, all touchpoints in the prospect’s journey from the Facebook ad to the free trial request would be given credit. But, the email campaign and the webinar would have a higher percentage of attribution. This is because these touchpoints happened closer to the conversion point than the Facebook ad or blog post.

3. Position-based attribution (U-shaped attribution)

A position-based model, or U-shaped model, gives 40% of the credit to both the first and last touchpoints that lead to a conversion. The remaining 20% is divided among all channels between the first and last touchpoint. Position-based models combine the benefits of first- and last-touch models but don’t ignore the middle of the prospect’s journey.

Example: A position-based model would assign a 40% attribution to the Facebook ad and the webinar, as they were the first and last touchpoints. The blog post and the email campaign would each receive a 10% attribution each.

4. Custom attribution

The final model we’ll discuss is the most sophisticated. But, this model can provide the most realistic view of your marketing channels. Platforms like Google Analytics allow you to create unique attribution models, where you assign a custom attribution to each touchpoint that lead to an eventual conversion. 

A custom attribution model requires an in-depth understanding of your customers and their buying behavior. To create a custom attribution model, you’ll need to examine historical customer data to identify trends in behavior and to determine which channels have the biggest impact on conversions.

Example: In the previously discussed models, the first and last touchpoints—the Facebook ad and the webinar—were given most, or all, of the credit for the conversion. But, your historical data reveals that email campaigns play a role in the majority of your free trial conversions. 

Though they’re often a touchpoint in the middle of the prospect’s journey, you determine your email campaigns are critical to converting prospects. As a result, you decide to assign a higher percentage of attribution to email campaigns in your custom model.

Marketing Attribution and Technology

Marketing attribution is far from a fully realized concept. It’s a tactic that continues to develop and improve, as marketing technology advances towards the idea of a “perfect” attribution model. But, the trends we discussed today prove that the buzz around marketing attribution is much more than flash-in-the-pan industry hype. 

If you have yet to explore the value of marketing attribution, now’s the time to start. A word to the wise: The benefits of marketing attribution aren’t always immediate. It’s likely that you’ll experiment with a number of attribution models before you find the one that works for your organization. Work out the kinks now and you’ll stay ahead of the curve as marketing attribution continues to evolve into a vital business strategy.

Attribution Technology’s Impact on Marketing Budgets

In a recent survey, marketing leaders were asked how attribution technology has affected their marketing spend across the channels they use. While responses varied, the survey results showed a general increase in spending on channels like content marketing, paid search, and organic search. Conversely, paid social and display advertising saw a general decrease in spending.

What do these results mean? For one, they show that attribution modeling has helped marketers develop a better understanding of SEO/SEM and content marketing ROI. But on a broader level, surveys like this one point to a trend in how marketers will allocate their budgets moving forward. 

Marketing attribution is paving the way for more strategic allocation of money and resources. 

By optimizing their spending based on attribution metrics, marketers are able to ensure that every dollar they spend is actively driving conversions. 

Cross-Device Attribution in Today’s Trends

While the rise of multi-touch attribution is promising, there’s much more progress to be made. Modern customers don’t just use more than one to engage with a brand before the point of conversion. They also use multiple devices. 

In fact, Google reports that a majority of online consumers who use multiple devices start their purchase on a smartphone and complete it on a PC or tablet.  

Marketers who implement an attribution model are beginning to recognize the importance of tracking customer behavior across multiple devices. To illustrate the value of cross-device attribution, let’s look at a hypothetical scenario:

  • A person clicks on a paid advertisement for security software on their smartphone. 
  • They’re intrigued, and later they visit the company’s blog and social media feeds while using their tablet. 
  • The next day, they use their laptop to visit the company’s website and submit a free trial form.

In the above scenario, a standard attribution model may only recognize the final touchpoint of the prospect’s journey: they went to a website and filled out a form. Meanwhile, cross-device attribution would recognize the prospect’s previous actions on their smartphone and tablet, which led them to the point of conversion.

The question is: How does one identify and track users across different devices? As you might expect, there’s no easy answer. But, there’s been a strong push among marketing software providers and data management platforms to solve this cross-channel conundrum. 

As technology becomes more adept at tracking users across devices, we should expect to see cross-channel attribution become the norm in the coming years.

Consolidating Sales and Marketing Technology Stacks

Attribution modeling provides more insight into the buyer’s journey and allows for more accurate, comprehensive reporting. But, marketers fail to fully realize these benefits when their technologies do not integrate with those used by their sales department.

For example, let’s say your marketing team uses a specific tool to track your various channels and assign attribution. If that tool does not integrate with your CRM, important prospect and customer data become siloed, making it more difficult to analyze and create comprehensive, accurate reports.

Consolidating your sales and marketing technology stacks yields a number of benefits that contribute to better marketing and sales alignment. As marketing attribution becomes more ubiquitous, fully integrative technology stacks will become even more prominent among sales and marketing organizations.

Key Considerations for Marketing Attribution

We’ve now looked at several marketing attribution models and the various benefits of each. But, marketing attribution isn’t as simple as setting up one of the models listed above and promptly forgetting about it. Here are a few things to consider when implementing a new marketing attribution model:

1. Set actionable goals for your attribution model.

Marketing attribution can be a complicated and confusing process, especially if you attempt to build a more complex multi-touch model. Marketers often prioritize marketing attribution implementation and then fail to take meaningful action based on their attribution results. 

Avoid this problem by setting clear objectives for your attribution model as well as each individual marketing channel you leverage. Determine what actions you’ll take to improve your strategy based on specific attribution results. And, be sure your entire team understands the purpose and functionality of your marketing attribution model.

2. Facilitate strong alignment between departments.

It may have “marketing” in its name, but marketing attribution requires the cooperation of your entire organization. The alignment necessary for successful marketing attribution goes beyond standard sales and marketing alignment. Everyone from executives to finance professionals must be on the same page to effectively set goals and allocate budget based on attribution reports.

For this reason, it’s important to openly communicate with all vital personnel before, during, and after the implementation process.

3. Test and update your attribution models.

Attribution models aren’t a tool you can set once and leave alone. As you test and tweak your campaigns over time, you must also adjust your attribution model to reflect these changes.

It’s also important that you don’t expect to build and execute the perfect attribution model right away. Flaws within your attribution model are acceptable—as long as you continue to improve your model through testing and experimentation.

Key Takeaways About Marketing Attribution

There’s no way around it, marketing attribution is an intricate and often intimidating process. Marketers must choose the attribution model that best fits their strategy and goals. Then, over time, they must iterate and improve upon their model over time.

But, here’s the good news—attribution modeling is a cost-effective initiative thanks to the availability of free tools like Google Analytics. Don’t panic if you struggle in the early stages of implementation. You’ll learn through experience and soon create the model that best suits your business.

Once you’ve mastered attribution modeling, your digital strategy will become more efficient. And, you’ll have a more complete perspective of each prospect’s journey.