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The Evolution of Marketing Attribution Models

Marketing attribution is hard. And it's not getting easier any time soon—with the extent of channels your customers use to communicate with companies. 

"The average customer says they use 10 different channels to communicate with companies — ranging from telephone calls to voice-activated personal assistants. Customer service teams, who use an average of nine channels, are in a race to meet omnichannel expectations." —Salesforce

The goal of every business and marketer to know where to spend time and money and where to stop is increasingly difficult.

Attribution models are a way to help understand where conversions are happening in your marketing channels. And help track the impact of every touchpoint in your customers’ journey.

However, that is a TALL order.

Many challenges can plague your analytics and make it difficult to understand the B2B customer lifecycle. 

There are no one-size solutions that fit every business model. A start would be aligning the marketing measurement with your business objectives and KPIs, documenting conversion points, and measuring your campaigns.

By combining methods and testing, you’ll be able to answer all your questions about what worked, what didn’t, and what your 2022 investment strategy should look like.

Because Manage Inbound is an Inbound Growth agency, we understand how complicated it can become to create valuable content and experiences tailored for your customer and track your results.

Attribution models are a "set of rules" that helps determine who gets credit for what, but it's not always just an easy plug-and-play method. Based on our own experience, we thought it would be beneficial to discuss marketing attribution models, factors to help you determine the best one for you, types of attribution, the benefits and the limitations of these models, and possible solutions or alternatives.

(If these strategies capture your heart and you find yourself wanting more help with the Inbound Growth strategy, contact us. Our team can deliver a custom solution to meet your needs.)  



1. Marketing Attribution: Models and Factors  

Today's marketers rely on multiple channels to produce results. And there's no point in marketing if it doesn't produce results, namely revenue.

And despite its term, "marketing attribution," it has become an entire company affair for marketing, sales, and customer service. 

Marketing attribution helps identify which marketing strategies or campaigns drive your conversions or sales. It speaks as to what specifically triggered your customer to take action.

That action could be on a social post, blog, live chat, email, demo, webinar, website, etc.  

Various attribution models rely on the buyer's journey stages and where credit is due for a transaction. Some models focus on time-based metrics while others focus on engagement. 

There are two models—single-touch and multi-touch.

Single-touch attributes a conversion to a single touchpoint, either in the beginning (first) or the end (last) touchpoint. They are less granular and do not give a clear picture of your customer's journey.

Think of the time you searched on Google.

marketing attribution models

Maybe the search term was  "marketing attribution models," and you landed here and became a customer! 

In the single-touch model, the credit would ultimately be given to the blog post for the sale.🏆

But even I know that would be a lot of credit for one article to accept all the accolades. 

More than likely that customer could've gone to your social post on Linked In, another article on your blog, live chat, read an email, watched a demo, sat on a webinar, ricocheted to your website numerous times, etc.  

Multi-touch is highly likely, with the credit spread among all the touchpoints leading to a conversion.

Let's dive a little deeper into 7 Attribution Models and then we can talk about—I won't say new—but let's say possibly a different way to look at attribution models in 2022. 

2. Types of Marketing Attribution Models Today

The goal with any of the models is to dig deeper and learn some insights into messaging—the effectiveness of the messaging, a specific message that gave you the best result (yielded a sale), what channel is performing best, and any touchpoints that may have the most significant impact or influence on your customer. 

So here goes. 

Seven types to help you take the guesswork out of your marketing and gain insights towards what's working and where you should consider spending your marketing dollars. 

  • First-touch - Full credit to the first piece of content your consumer engages with.
  • Last-touch - Full credit to the last piece of content your consumer engages with.
  • Linear Multi-touch - Each touchpoint gets the same amount of credit across the board.
  • U-shaped Multi-touch - Emphasizes and credits the first and last touchpoint a user encounters with more credit than the touchpoints encountered in the middle of the customer journey.
  • Time decay Multi-touch - Distributing credit for the conversion across all content your consumer viewed, but the touchpoints closest in time to the sale or conversion get most of the credit.
  • W shaped - Assigns more credit to the first and last touchpoints before conversion and assigns heavier value to the mid-funnel touchpoint where a consumer can be actively considered a lead.  
  • Custom attribution - Each interaction leading up to the conversion is assigned a custom percent of the conversion value.
  • Self-reported attribution - You're going to have to wait until we talk about the others first, or you can jump to the section on Resolutions to Master the Complex Buyer's Journey.

Marketing Attribution Models 



3. Limitations/Challenges of Marketing Attribution Models

For successful attribution, you need high-quality data. 

And it needs to answer questions about what works and what doesn't. But not all people in the same company might agree on what the data means.

Marketing wants to know where content is being found and if it is generating truly high-intent quality leads.  Cause if your leads aren't truly high-intent, the odds of them making it very far through your sales process are slim and none. Marketers want to understand how their customers came to know their product or service.

Sales may want to know that as well. But salespeople may have more interest in other information, as in which in-person event generated the highest engagement?

Can you see the dilemma? Not all attribution models deliver the same information you might be after.

Customer expectations and behaviors are shifting faster than we can keep up. As we all experienced the impact of our "physical world" shrinking, customers demand digital-first convenience with a user-friendly experience with a splash of empathy.

As our customers shift in their behavior, we need to pivot in ours. Digital engagement will continue to rise, and data privacy will impact marketing and reporting metrics. The advent of digital privacy regulations has led to the disappearance of third-party cookies, one of marketers' most valuable data sources.

But we can use data privacy as an opportunity. We need to get a handle on data protection law quickly if we want to market goods and services without compromising an individual's right to data privacy.

But the point is there are limitations in even the best marketing attribution models.

I would like to think that a visitor finds our blog—this article, for example, and immediately converts into a lead or sale. But c'mon, we know that's not how it goes. 

The attribution models available try to determine how credit for sales and conversions are assigned in conversion paths. But we know nothing is linear, especially with the digital-first buyer in 2022.  

How many touchpoints do you think it presently takes for someone to go from a prospect to a buyer in 2022?

The simple answer—more than most people think! 

Traditional marketing teaches that somewhere around 6-7 touches were always enough.

In today's environment, it's jumped to 27— and this data is almost a year old:

"Although the number of buying interactions has been increasing slightly every two years (e.g., from 16 to 17 between 2017 and 2019), the number of buying interactions during the pandemic jumped from 17 to 27!"—Forrester

27. That's the number of interactions individuals will have in their buying journey to educate themselves about a specific product, competing offers, and providers or services. That’s a lot more work for marketing and sales and demands significantly more organization, tracking, and attribution.

Can you easily see each touchpoint in a clear, linear view or use any of the attribution models leading to the sale?

How people decide what to buy lies in the 'messy middle' of the purchase journey. To think we can track that is messy—and it's only getting messier. 

Google calls the 'messy middle',

"a space of abundant information and unlimited choice that shoppers have learned to manage using a range of cognitive shortcuts."—Think with Google

So, where do we go from here?

And how do we figure out that messy middle?

4. Resolutions to Master the Complex Buyer's Journey 

There’s a greater puzzle to be built with so many touchpoints. The puzzle comprises all of your tracking, attribution, and customer journey data. Of course, the more data you have, the more complete the picture of your marketing puzzle. 


Your data must be accurate.

The challenge is how do you gather as many pieces of data as possible?

Your technology platforms you are using to track data are limited—to how your consumers are actually being tracked.

Your technology may lump it into organic search or direct traffic as it doesn’t have the capability to place it anywhere else. In reality, it could have come from “Word of mouth.”

This is where self-reported attribution picks up the slack. You benefit from real-time results when you ask on a form and/or have your sales team report on it. "Where are your best leads are coming from?"

Direct traffic, organic traffic, organic social, paid search, paid social, or referral—technology can’t capture all the data adequately.

So, what can you do to gain better insights into your data?

Keith Gutierrez, CEO, of Manage Inbound, has some pointed advice on building buyers' trust through content consumption and how to track the data with self reported attribution . . .  



As you heard, for starters, we placed, "How did you hear about us?" on our high intent conversion form where it was necessary—on our book a strategy call. Thank you, Chris Walker, CEO of Refine Labs for teaching us that golden nugget.

self reported attribution model question

I might add it was a free-text field, so the consumer had to use their words, not ours. Dropdowns could skew the results leading the person to an answer that might not be the real one, but it was convenient and the first one listed.

We made all the fields required to get more data and results, and we didn't lead any of the fields with information or suggestions. (How did you hear about us? For example, adding suggestions, social, colleague or, referral?)

You can take that information and compare it to what your technology platform is reporting. 

  • Customers are going to report what CREATED the demand. (the social media channel, podcast, video, word-of-mouth, etc.)
  • Attribution software is going to report what CAPTURED the demand. (organic search, paid search, direct traffic, etc.)

The snapshot below compares a client's self-reported attribution report on the left and technology source attribution on the right.

Word of mouth stands out as a chief differentiator between the two.


snap shot of self reported vs technology


As we continue to capture real-time data, it will be interesting to analyze the differences to make smarter business decisions. Together the reports will become extremely powerful and valuable to understand conversions and the customer's buying journey.

Nobody said this would be easy. And if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. 

As businesses, the point is that we have to start evolving with the digital-savvy consumer. We have to become the voice of trust, and we have to show up where they are and gauge as best we can where those channels are. 

I never really cared for the phrase "Think Outside the Box"—always thought of it as a business cliché. But in this case, it means approaching problems in new, innovative ways.

Today, a buyer's journey involves many devices and touchpoints (27 was the last I read). A business must meet the consumer with a multi-channel approach when promoting its brands.

So it makes sense the attribution models need to as well.

Even the best marketing attribution models have a few limitations. No doubt, it's hard to give the true ROI (return on investment). 

In closing

Having a sales-ready website is one thing. Understanding sophisticated automation and reporting tools is still quite another. Understanding the benefits of both is easy; understanding the challenges is more complicated—that's why it's called a challenge.

Your inbound marketing strategies accelerate your growth, but you need to analyze and understand your numbers. For example, return on your marketing investment, conversion rates, if your marketing efforts are resonating with your ideal customer, and so much more.

If you're ready to start strategizing with us, discuss your business goals, and get a proven, actionable, and measurable inbound strategy Talk with an adivsor.   

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