2016 is the year of attribution

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Attribution, the process by which marketers quantify the contribution of various media in an ad campaign to the its desired impact, is receiving renewed attention as mobile grows increasingly central.

It’s the time of year for predictions, and we’re not immune to that impulse.  As the calendar starts running low and we all get busy with the rush to wrap things up, it’s useful to stop a moment and take a bearing on what the year to come will hold.  Thinking about the conversations we’ve had with stakeholders from across the digital media industry, we increasingly believe that 2016 will be (among other things) the year of attribution.

People have been talking about attribution for years,  but it feels like little progress has been made in terms of achieving clarity on what it is and how to do it. Meanwhile, the rise of mobile, social, and automation means the world of media has grown ever more complex. Like “engagement,” “attribution” is a slippery term.  Almost everyone agrees that it’s important and that marketers want it, but varying firms and individuals define it quite differently.  As a result, there’s a market need to take a step back and examine attribution’s several meanings in some kind of logical framework.

Last month, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) held a town hall titled Making Attribution Work. This brought a diverse set of stakeholders together to discuss the many manifestations of attribution and chart a course for us, to help the market get a better handle on key aspects of attribution and to begin to define an IAB agenda for attribution in 2016.

Mobile attribution: store visits as a KPI

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One form of attribution that mobile is transforming is the use of mobile location data to measure store visits resulting from exposures to advertising.  Naturally it’s easiest to do this for ad views on mobile devices, but vendors that can map usage across devices extend that capability to track store visits based on PC advertising. TV, radio, print, and outdoor ad exposures are not too far behind.  Store visits don’t work for every kind of marketer, of course, but for retailers, quick service restaurants, and even some CPGs, this form of mobile-based attribution is going to be extremely valuable.  Granted, foot-traffic is one step removed from sales, but it’s potentially easier to measure and to scale.  More information on the use of location data-based attribution can be found in an IAB paper from earlier this year titled Marketing ROI and Location Data.

Cross-device attribution: exposure across devices

Another way mobile is changing expectations around attribution is simply by being an additional device in the cross-device attribution mix. In the days before mobile, attribution sometimes meant understanding how the various parts of a PC digital campaign worked together – for example, assessing the relationship between search, static display, and video, or sometimes looking at how PC-based ads complemented TV and print. Each of those brings its share of challenges to measure. Although, as one might expect, adding mobile to the mix brings a new level of complexity to the attribution puzzle. However, it’s increasingly important to marketers that want to know who they reach with their messages, with what frequency, across which screens, and with what level of impact.

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Programmatic and attribution

The rise of automated ad buying also complicates attribution. Media decisions are made increasingly in real-time by software and are based on a complex weighing of multiple variables about an advertising opportunity. As a result, attribution solutions need to generate results more quickly in order to be useful. In general, attribution methodologies require all the data from a completed campaign and substantial time and effort to build an explanatory model. Moreover, attribution insights currently require manual changes to media plans – even when those media plans are being executed programmatically. For buyers to really leverage attribution in programmatic trading algorithms, it will require deeper integration efforts between measurement vendors and DSPs to normalize attribution data with delivery and decision making.

Doing attribution better

The simplest way brands have assigned attribution values is to ignore all the complexity and simply give the full credit for a transaction, conversion, or other success to the last interaction in the chain. Everyone knows this isn’t a great way to assess the actual effectiveness of the various components of a multichannel or multi-device strategy, but finding better ways can be elusive.

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Going into 2016, we’d like to make “anything but last-touch” a mantra for the digital marketing industry, because regardless of what vendor or methodology you choose, you can only improve your insights and understanding by moving from last-click to any more sophisticated attribution solution.

Another way attribution is like engagement is that there is no single, magical formula or methodology that will apply to all brands and campaigns. There may be some universal best practices, but it seems inevitable that attribution for an ad campaign that aims at encouraging downloads of a mobile game will differ from attribution for ad campaigns for a shampoo or new car or other product or service category. As the attribution conversation progresses, then it will have to dive more deeply into looking at verticals separately.

As we approach 2016, the time is ripe to help brands and agencies get a clearer handle on what attribution is and the many approaches and methodologies for doing it. We are looking forward to continuing the conversation, as the digital industry increasingly thinks holistically and synergistically about audience and impact in the cross-device world.

By: Anna Bager and Joe Laszlo, IAB

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