The mythology of attribution – who gets the credit?

Image credit: Mascha Tace |

Before I get to the main topic of attribution in marketing, please permit me to set the scene. When we were students, we used to solve syllogistic problems like this:

Statement: No mouse is a dog. All dogs are cats.


  1. No mouse is a cat.
  2. No cat is a mouse.
  3. Some cats are dogs.
  4. All cats are dogs.

What do you think is the answer?

  1. Only (2) and (4)
  2. Only (1) and (3)
  3. Only (3) and (4)
  4. Only (3)
  5. All four

Well, this quandary does need logic and does seem to have a definitive answer. Think carefully – it might be simpler or more complicated than you think based on your frame of reference. What we are discussing here is a hypothetical question – however, if it had a very real implication like gathering intelligence on your online behaviour and purchase patterns, would you feel comfortable answering questions like this?

Now to get to the point – it is just as important for us to understand the consumer journey outside our own ecosystem as inside. It has been a constant endeavor of online marketers to plug consumer journey ‘leakages’ and get maximum transactions completed. Attracting relevant traffic, that initiates transactions on websites, is not getting cheaper in this era of cut-throat competition.

Whatever the case, all this traffic still has people at the other end of the line. Those people – millions of them – doing millions of different things, with their different activities and affinities, are being categorized neatly in buckets, ready to be layered on exchanges in order to find similar audiences and their lookalikes.

This brings us to marketing attribution funnels where much is spent analyzing where the traffic is coming from and who gets the credit for the last step in the consumer journey.

So how are marketers analyzing their consumers? Where are they coming from? What were they doing when they thought “let’s buy this thing on”? Probably they were searching for the product and the site that gave the best deal. Alternatively, they were searching sometime back, got somewhere and bought it. Now they see an ad banner for the same product that has been following them across sites. Probably because they opened a site, which showed the banner. They may have ignored that and then after a week, they saw another banner at another site but they still let it pass. Finally, there was an ad on TV which made them actively search for it.

Q: Who gets the credit for this conversion and why?

In this era of integrated media ecosystem, touch points have to work in tandem aligning with one consistent story for the user to understand his need/want/desire to be satiated with a purchase decision. Be it online or bricks and mortar store.

Tactical advertising might get some conversions but for a consistent mind space domination, the story needs to be told consistently through ad spots leading to engagement or dialog. While all this is going on, the consumer is already spoilt for choices and most probably had already made up his/her mind.

They are doing a lot of things – maybe consecutively. They are reading about their prospective purchase, checking out competition sites for a better price, comparing with other brands, discussing with peers while doing whatever it is that they do in their day-to-day life. Marketers see these activities in isolation and target all or some of those activities to drive then towards path to purchase.

The consumer journey is highly non-linear and broadly unpredictable. So from the marketing standpoint, fragmented media is converges to form a connected story and help the consumers to make up their minds in terms of preference, awareness, intent, etc.

So how do we take this non-linear journey and, more importantly, how do we make sense of this journey so that the messaging makes more sense in context, relevance and acts across devices? Audience data is available now at every step, but it is highly fragmented. More critically, data from different sources and different mediums/platform comes in different formats. In many places, data is simply not available. Now add the complexity of multiscreen.

The solution

Attribution theories are not new, but new ways have to be evolved to make sense out of the whole consumer journey path. Maybe it’s time for us to think of new variables and stages to map the consumer journey that relies on real data generated through online/offline footprints while allowing some elbow space for privacy fanatics as well.

To really map the consumer journey we must collect multiple data streams from both online and offline worlds that seamlessly plug in to first/third party data platforms depending upon who owns the ecosystem – an ideal marketplace like the one in Minority Report (powered by devices until consumer technology becomes bio in nature).

That really requires the business to have a single view of the customer across various offline and online touch points. In this ecosystem, all systems should be able to talk to each other so that data flow is seamless and that is the key to an ideal integrated marketing ecosystem.

The connected devices ecosystem is showing a lot of promise in that direction. Of all the scenarios that are enabled by IoT, data is the most prominent. 

Picture this:

A guy starts to think of buying something and starts to browse the web. He searches for it and lands on the brand’s website for more product info. He also happens to follow the social media page of the brand and does some interaction there. His Google creds from the initial search are also attributed to the CRM system. Finally, he steps into the store and that gets recorded through a connected Wi-Fi proximity beacon, geo-fencing or a simple input to the CRM system. He browses through some stuff, checks the price etc. and walks away.

Now he reads further reviews where he might be exposed to retargeted banners and eventually, buys the stuff from an e-commerce site. However, to activate warranty, he needs to register the product on the website so he comes back into the CRM system. That’s the way that person’s journey is traced back to every action that he did as all that data gets fed into the Data Management Platform where his email address, device ID and cookie data is hashed into one Customer ID that eventually gets layered to the whole marketing and media ecosystem.

In theory this seems almost impossible today, but the future is not far away where this will actually become a practice and will pave the way for a reinvented way of how marketing is structured and practiced. That would be a future enabled by data, AI and automated marketing engines that will define the touch points and the engagement with the end consumer.

Written by Riju Srivastava, a senior business leader from the Digital Media domain with extensive experience in media planning and strategy building, as well as expertise in AdTech spanning across multiple devices. All views are personal.

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