Including E-mail in the Attribution Equation

In the 1999 movie “Analyze This,” the psychiatrist played by Billy Crystal asks his insecure gangster patient (Robert De Niro), “What is my goal here? To make you a happy, well-adjusted gangster?”

Keep the doctor’s question in mind.

In past columns, I’ve focused on how you can use segmentation to achieve greater success. This time, I hope to stimulate discussion about a different kind of tool, one that reflects a growing concern about allocating the right amount of attribution, or credit, for influencing a sale or other conversion.

If you’re a success-driven optimization junkie, the question you always ask is “What to optimize?” which inevitably leads to “What to analyze?” Analyze this.

How Do We Attribute Conversions in a Multi-Channel World?

Over the last decade or so, e-mail marketing has made tremendous strides in optimizing how marketers interact with their audiences. Marketers who have put this knowledge to work in their e-mail programs are the ones reaping the greatest benefits from the channel.

Most of this has been “point optimization,” focusing solely on measuring e-mail’s success as a standalone channel driving customer relationships and revenue.

It’s time to move beyond this silo model into the next phase of marketing evolution, to measure e-mail’s impact on the entire marketing framework and all the channels within, both online (Web site, e-mail, search, mobile, Twitter, Facebook, blogs) and offline (print, broadcast, out-of-home, etc.).

This is where you need to be involved, whether paying attention on the sidelines or actively in the effort to create new measurement standards.

Measurement: From Channel-Specific to a Holistic View

The old models were fairly simple. With e-mail, for example: “See this e-mail message. Click this link. Buy this product.” It’s easy to measure, easy to attribute sales to that specific e-mail message.

The new model might be more like this: “Hear about this product on TV. See a mention in a tweet or on a social network blog post. Receive an e-mail promoting this product from a trusted source. Click the link to view the product on the site. Search for more information. Read product reviews. See product display in store and buy it there.”

A recent study at McKinsey & Company management consultants, “The Consumer Decision Journey,” highlights that this type of nonlinear (non-funnel) customer behavior is increasingly common and important to understand.

Marketers have always known about the interaction between multiple marketing messages, especially in industries with high consideration products. The “last-click” model doesn’t capture the entire matrix of influence that leads to a conversion, whether it’s a sale, demo request, download, subscription, or whatever. Sooner or later, the “last click” model must be replaced.

Coming up with a new, more holistic model isn’t easy. But now, a special interest group within the online retail group is banding together to define the standards used in allocating the proper amount of attribution for a conversion.

Call to Action: New Standards for Allocating Attribution’s Online Marketing Attribution special interest group (SIG) recently issued a well-defined call for measurement standardization in a blog post by group leader Anne Ashbey.

The initial guidelines will likely be a “good, better, best” evaluation of techniques adjusted for company size and type of products sold. We’re still figuring this out.

If you’re not a retailer, don’t walk away. Anyone marketing or selling in a multi-channel environment will benefit from this group’s findings and results, whether you measure success in sales, registrations, donations, downloads, subscriptions, or even requests for more information. Retailers represent a minority of my clients, so I’m committed to finding ways to apply the group’s findings outside of retail, which is why I’m involved with this SIG.

Attribution Management Is Critical for E-mail Marketers

Models that measure first, last, or in-between attribution are emerging in search and display advertising, but they’re just as critical to have for e-mail, the ultimate lead-nurturing channel.

We still face serious challenges in the methodology. For starters, look at the American Attribution Index, which measures “the relative effectiveness of each online advertising source and influence factor on consumer purchases and conversions.”

Several of my retail clients are large multi-channel retailers, with e-mail programs that drive between 30 and 40 percent of their online revenue, as measured by the last-click attribution model. The AAI model allocates e-mail exactly 0.0 percent of attribution for “large advertisers” and 1.25 percent for “small advertisers.” That’s impossible to believe. Clearly we have lots of work ahead.

Let’s Get Started

Now, back to the good doctor. Let me rephrase his question to his gangster patient: What is our goal here?

It would be great to see discussion grow around these points:

  • What is our goal?
  • What should the SIG accomplish?
  • Do you want to be a part of the standards-development group?
  • What special concerns do you want me to relay to the rest of the group members as we begin our work?
  • Do you have any solutions we should consider?
  • What else do you want to know about attribution allocation or management?

Your input is welcomed. Post it in the comments section below or send me an e-mail. Your concerns and questions will be addressed in a future ClickZ column and through my work.

This column originally ran on ClickZ on Sept. 17, 2009.

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