Three Methods for Mastering Email Attribution

I recently participated in MediaPost’s 2015 Email Insider Summit, held June 7-10th on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. While much of the chatter that week revolved around conference activities like golfing, kayaking, and coastal fishing, the conversation indoors was just as interesting—especially when the industry problems surrounding email marketing attribution were addressed.

The panel I was part of was titled, “Solving the Email Attribution Problem.” The moderator was Jeanne Jennings from Digital Prism Advisors, and the panelists were Jean-Michel Boujon of, Dave Hendricks, of LiveIntent, and Vicky Hsu from Bauer Xcel Media. While each speaker gave great insight into the challenges marketers continue to face with effectively managing attribution, there simply wasn’t enough time to touch on all of the key points organizations face when confronting today’s attribution problems.

Many of the points I made highlight a theme that marketers need to spend more time dropping bad habits rather than trying to figure out which new ones to adapt. While the word “quit” has never been a frequently used verb in my vocabulary, sometimes it’s necessary to give up old conventions in order to embrace new methods of doing things.

This is especially true when it comes to revamping your organization’s outdated methods of assigning attribution. Here are three things you can quit right now that will help set your business on the right path toward accurate marketing attribution.

1. Abandon first and last click attribution.

If your organization is still assigning first and/or last click attribution, then please, stop. First and last click attribution is the equivalent of letting a furniture store run web promotions, email campaigns, and pay-per-click ads, only to give all of the credit for the sale to the guy dressed up like Uncle Sam waving at everyone pulling into the store. He was the last “marketer” to make contact with the customer, so he must deserve full attribution, right?

Wrong. First and last click attribution is something your organization should feel good about quitting. The customer journey is no longer a linear path, so why would your attribution treat it like one? Try focusing on methods that distribute attribution in ways that take into account the many touch points customers experience in a modern customer lifecycle. Using a flat model of attribution (also known as a uniform credit or even attribution), for example, assigns equal credit to all marketing channels. You may also consider weighing each channel based on internal goals, such as taking advantage of email’s resolute profitability. Such a model would attribute more credit to email, with other channels receiving a smaller portion.

The bottom line is this: there are several variables you can play with when fine tuning your attribution methods, so long as you are actually working to give credit where credit is due. Taking the easy way out by applying a simplistic first and/or last touch attribution method does little more than making sure Uncle Sam keeps his day job.

2. Quit fighting over attribution formulas.

Attribution by its very nature is a very political animal to confront. When the heads of the email channel, the website, direct mail, and the call center all get together in a room to discuss future funding, it can sometimes seem more like a battle royale and less like a marketing meeting.

Believe it or not, the perpetual fight between marketing teams over attribution models is actually an unwarranted one. A recent Forbes article focused on findings from eBay Europe’s Head of Customer Analytics and Insights, Suresh Pillai. In the article, Pillai stated that in his company’s case, all of the wide ranging attribution models eBay Europe was implementing yielded substantially the same results. In other words, all of the infighting over attribution models didn’t matter, because the same aggregate answers were turning up with each and every variation.

So what’s the moral of the eBay story? Pick the formula that works for your specific business. If one formula can keep the peace in the boardroom, then it’s completely okay to go with it, because regardless of common convention or what your gut is telling you, your organization is going to get substantially the same results no matter which model you decide to go with. Of course, if you’re unsure that eBay’s situation will apply to your own, running the same simple test eBay did will help you determine whether or not choosing the most politically correct attribution formula is right for your business.

3. Stop fearing the algorithm.

Speaking of what your gut is telling you, how many crucial decisions does your organization make on a daily basis by relying solely on gut instincts and intuition? That may work for some company decisions, but when it comes to attribution formulas, going with your gut leaves way too much room for subjectivity and bias. What marketers today should concentrate on is moving from subjective to objective methods of attribution. When companies decide to let go of their aversion to technology and trust in analytical tools to make decisions for them, they are letting go of fear while allowing logic to take the reigns moving forward.

How can your business find an objective way to determine what channels and interactions get the credit in your program? By embracing technology and letting the system do the work for you. When you apply analytical tools that allow you to state your goals, specify your budget, determine what you want to evaluate, and then let the system learn so you can auto-assign cost and attribution in those channels, you are taking the emotional–and occasionally subjective–aspect out of your decision-making process and relying on the numbers to make the important decisions for you.

Dropping old habits while pressing on with contemporary email attribution methods means embracing cross-channel attribution while letting go of inclinations to fight over email points and credits. In the end, allowing analytical technology to do the heavy lifting while backing off from attribution-related boardroom brawls gives your team more time to focus on other important tasks, like improving email personalization, context, and customer engagement. Mastering email attribution isn’t just about perfecting a single channel, but ensuring that every channel works in harmony with the work horse of your marketing department: the email channel.