Why it's time for a new attribution paradigm

- 's-Hertogenbosch

The cookie apocalypse is going to significantly change e-business and online marketing, and as we bid farewell to third-party cookies, we can also abandon all hope of ever building a fully transparent customer journey. Instead, it’s time to fundamentally alter how we think about conversion attribution.


Not another article on attribution... I know. I’ve now been in the digital marketing industry for more than a decade and I can’t remember a time when attribution was not on everyone’s minds. And there’s a good reason why we’re still talking about it in 2021: we just haven’t been able to figure it out yet. And let me burst your bubble: we won’t get a complete grip on attribution in the near future, because we’re about to be inundated by waves of new developments. In fact, so many profound changes are rushing towards us that I think we will find ourselves with no other option but to fundamentally change how we think about conversion attribution.

‘Online marketing professionals adore conversion attribution’

I’m one of them. As an online marketing professional, I’ve always had one eye on conversion attribution. After all, making a consumer’s multi-channel journey to conversion fully measurable has always been the dream, a dream that was closest to coming true in the noughties. Cookies enabled us to track consumers, who were still using a single device for their online purchases, from first contact up to their purchase, spawning the dominant form of conversion attribution used by online marketing professionals: multi touchpoint attribution (MTA).

The dream was short-lived, however, because with the rapid rise of mobile devices, and the active countering of tracking by Mozilla, Apple and lawmakers, tying together touchpoints from customer journeys has become impossible. Sure, some things are still possible within the walled gardens of Facebook, Google and Amazon, but a real, complete journey? Fuggedaboutit!

The death knell for multi-touchpoint attribution

Enough has already been said about it in recent weeks, so I’ll cut to the chase: the cookie apocalypse could significantly change our work. Lawmakers are tightening the thumbscrews and as we bid farewell to third-party cookies, we can also abandon all hope of ever building a fully transparent customer journey. Don’t fall for anyone claiming that they have the solution: they don’t. And even if there were a solution, brands may ask themselves whether they want one in the first place.

There are certainly a few b(r)and aids you could use here and there to keep your systems and reports up and running, but strategically savvy marketing professionals know that it’s time to fundamentally change how we think about conversion attribution.

New-world metrics: three opportunities

The bad news is that there’s no off-the-shelf solution that offers a complete fix. The good news is that there are several contenders that, if deployed smartly, will help quantify results even without cookie-based tracking.

Opportunity 1: First-party-first strategy

The more you know about your existing customer base, the more you can learn from it. The key, then, is for brands to work hard on collecting customer and prospect data and build flexible solutions to combine data with other sources and activate them. Breaking through silos to learn more about your existing customers’ journey and purchasing behaviour will help you learn more about how your marketing efforts resonate and pay off.

Opportunity 2: Attribution modelling

Traditional media have been modelling attribution data for ages. By modelling certain variables such as media spend or media pressure, you can compare them with sales for insight into the added value of a particular purchased channel. This is already common practice in the offline world, where they call it ‘media mix modelling’, and this approach to attribution has been making inroads in the digital world too, bridging the gap between online and offline, which of course, is good news.

Google is also convinced of the potential of attribution modelling. At Springbok, we’re already working on experiments with this type of attribution with various brands.

Opportunity 3: Content attribution

Last week, a colleague turned me on to this interesting article on ‘The Trust Web Times’ about the so-called attribution war. Author Shapiro argues that the Internet was never made to allow for one-to-one tracking and personalisation, but that the basis of the Internet lies in distributing content.

This argument makes sense to me, because we’ve known for years that our ad ecosystem has never actually worked and is never going to work optimally. As we’ve already said, the same applies for the conversion attribution issue.

Shapiro makes a case for content-based attribution, with marketing professionals focusing on what content works and what doesn't. We’ve been seeing this trend with brands for some time now, in which MTA is used to see which content blocks work well on a website, rather than which users have the highest conversion rate. Be sure to read the article, it’s very inspiring.

In a nutshell: the future is now. Sure, you can choose to bury your head in the sand. Sure, you can rely on band-aids to stay afloat in the short term. Sure, the future of conversion attribution is still uncertain, but I can say with near-certainty that old-fashioned multi-channel MTA is on its way out. Forewarned is forearmed, so put your newfound insights into practice and get started with the alternatives. How are you preparing yourself for the future?

Author Youri Harmsen is Managing Director at Springbok. This article previously appeared on Emerce.