Invest in Marketing Attribution or Go With Your Gut?

There’s a common evolution in marketing we often see with clients.

Initially, the focus is mostly on getting the fundamentals in place: sharpening positioning, optimizing the website, onboarding with a proper CRM and standing up a couple lead gen campaigns.

From there, the mandate is typically to ramp up. Layer on channels that generate demand. Integrate lead nurturing and automation tools. Build out the tech stack.

At a certain point, what started as a simple campaign grows into a complex, multi-channel marketing and sales operation. More leads and revenue are coming in. Budgets swell, and there’s increased focus from leadership on maximizing spend, leaning into what’s working and dropping the duds.

A common recommendation for businesses at this stage: invest in marketing attribution to understand what channels are driving revenue.  The counterpoint, recently expressed in a blog worth reading by Rand Fishkin: skip it – you’re better off just going with your gut.

So, who’s right?

The Case for Bothering With Marketing Attribution

The case for investing in marketing attribution has been made by many, and it usually goes something like this.

You know that your prospects are likely to experience several touchpoints before they become a customer – and that their journey isn’t linear. Attribution helps you identify the channels driving revenue.

If this is new territory, here’s an example.

Imagine you’re marketing a software platform. Over the course of a few months, a new lead sees a handful of your display ads and paid social media before finally clicking an ad and visiting your site. She likes your blog, so she subscribes to your newsletter, but then stops engaging for another few months. Later that year when her need for your product becomes urgent, she remembers you from your newsletter. She searches for your business by name on Google, clicks your ad, requests a demo and ultimately converts into a customer.

What channel gets the credit for this one?

Of course, with our hypothetical lead, each of these touchpoints plays an important part. If she hadn’t seen the ads, she wouldn’t have checked out the blog and subscribed to the newsletter, and there would be no positive impression already created when she needed your product. And while the Google Ad at the end could seem redundant, let’s say it put you ahead of a competitor who’s also bidding on your brand name – thus lessening the chance of a last-minute interception.

By incorporating attribution reporting into your processes, you’re developing a more nuanced way to analyze performance so that you’re not discounting – or over-estimating – any given channel when it comes to allocating your budget.


The Case for Skipping Marketing Attribution

In his blog, Rand voices some skepticism we can apply to our software lead.

Let’s say you had marketing attribution set up and you could view how each of these touchpoints played their part.

Is it interesting to see? Sure. But it’s possible you’ve just re-learned what you already instinctively knew. Customer journeys are complicated. Having the right channel and content mix that addresses the different stages of the journey is critical. Timing is everything, which means consistency is everything.

So, what exactly would you do differently based on that information? More of the same, since there’s no obvious signal to cut, increase or reallocate?

Furthermore, consider that attribution will be skewed by the fact that last-touch channels like Google Ads are much easier to “prove” ROI than channels like the newsletter and blog and branded search. In our software hypothetical, the newsletter played a big role, but it’s highly unlikely that’ll be weighted much if at all in most attribution models.

If you’ve put in a heap of time and budget for marketing attribution that provides imperfect data and minimal actionable insights, it’s hard to make an argument this was a wise investment.

So… Skip It, Then?

I tend to agree with most of what Rand’s saying in his blog. For many businesses, investing heavily in software and data scientists for the purpose of marketing attribution isn’t the most impactful use of resources.

That said, I do believe there are a few instances where attribution provides enough juice for the squeeze.

    • You’re entering a new market and/or testing new channels with no historical data. It’s one thing if you’ve been building and iterating on a proven strategy in a known market. If that’s the case, trusting your gut makes sense. But if you’re marketing to a new audience or rolling out entirely new channels, you need to be able to test, measure and pivot quickly. Some channels and tactics will fail, and that’s okay – but what’s not okay is to run the tests and come out unsure about what’s working. With marketing attribution, you can keep tabs on revenue drivers in real-time to keep your operation agile.


    • You can benefit from useful attribution with low-investment software. Depending on your channel and technology mix, it’s possible you can keep a line on channel performance with attribution reporting in a way that’s not a boondoggle. For example, we use HubSpot’s attribution reporting for several of our clients (generally small B2B companies in tech, service and manufacturing with non-Superbowl-sized budgets). The reports are straightforward enough that we can create and analyze them without an army of data scientists. They serve a purpose as one lens among many that assess the drivers of pipeline and revenue performance – but we’re also conscious of the limitations mentioned above.


    • You have a massive advertising budget. This isn’t my world, but I’d think a company that’s pumping out billions of ad dollars from a multitude of departments and agencies should bite the bullet and invest in attribution to at least make sure things don’t go totally off the rails. 


Is Attribution Worth It for Your Business?

Hopefully, laying out the cases for when to invest vs skip marketing attribution is helpful as you determine whether it’s worth it for your business.

If you found yourself identifying with the first or second scenarios above, it can be helpful to see what your attribution options look like and talk to someone who has experience using them. We’d be happy to talk.