Attribution—the way we assign credit to various points of the customer journey—is a complex mixture of art and (computer) science. That doesn’t mean, though, that digital marketers need to get into the technological weeds when it comes to discussing attribution methodology. On the contrary, the smart move is to ask the following basic questions about attribution methods and results. What you learn will probably surprise you.

  1. “What phase of the customer journey is getting the most credit for conversions?” If your company is like most of its peers, the answer is probably “last click”—the last touchpoint a customer interacted with before conversion, whether it was an online ad, your website, a TV spot, or an e-mail campaign. Indeed, last click is the only touchpoint many attribution systems have the capability to track. The problem, of course, is that this misses a huge part of the customer journey. Whether you’re an online site or a brick-and-mortar store, what twists and turns brought him or her to your door? If you miss the beginning of the journey, then you risk the chance that your competitor, and not you, is there when the customer is in the research phase. Full-channel attribution is the only way to see and respond to the entire customer journey.
  2. “Does our attribution affect our ad spend now, or three months down the road?” The typical process for many companies goes like this: buy a three-month flight of advertising and evaluate it, buy another three-month flight and evaluate it, and so on. What if you could get information in near real-time? For example, what if you knew that a weather event was having a severe impact on commerce in a given area, so you could move your ad spend elsewhere? What if you were alerted that your website was temporarily down, so you could stop driving traffic there? What if you could see that sales at a particular location were hot and you could drive more traffic in that direction? The simple answer to all of these questions is that if you had that near-real-time information, you would allocate your budget much more efficiently and reach more of the people you want to reach.
  3. “Are we relying too much on third-party cookies?” The answer to this is almost definitely “yes,” because third-party cookies—those attached to a user by a website other than the one the user is visiting—are so widespread. While third-party cookies have been essential marketing tools, there’s a problem: browsers are increasingly restricting them. In the next Safari update, for example, Apple will reduce the time frame for access to third-party cookie data from 30 days to 24 hours. When you add this development to the many existing means of blocking or erasing third-party cookies, it’s clear that over-reliance on them is a problem. There’s an additional issue with third-party cookies that has to do with reporting: a website may have as many as 15 or 20 pixels from various vendors, each with its own cookie embedded in it. This leaves a marketer in the position of having to download up to 20 reports in 20 different formats and trying to collate them. On top of that, the reports often don’t offer detailed information. Instead, all they provide is a tick mark that indicates a conversion somehow happened, with no insight as to how it happened. Again, you need to see the full path to conversion—not only to see how the user got somewhere, but also to see where they are falling off the path, so adjustments can be made.
  4. “What is the best way to track incoming phone calls?” True story: one customer told us, “We get 40% of our web traffic from organic search, so we assume 40% of our phone calls also come from there.” Many agencies either can’t or won’t track the sources of phone calls, and in any case prefer to take the easier road of making broad assumptions. For example, they don’t want to learn that a paid search campaign is generating 50% of a company’s website traffic, but only 10% of its phone traffic. That might raise uncomfortable questions about the kind of traffic the campaign is driving. At the very least, your attribution should segment paid traffic from organic traffic. Even better, it should segment by tactic. Banner ads can have one number for customers to call, search ads a second number, and Facebook ads a third. If you want to acquire more advanced knowledge, you can segment call traffic by browser, and track the keywords that led to calls. Add in the ability to monitor phone calls, and to judge which are good phone calls and which are unproductive calls, and you end up with the ultimate win: the most effective keywords deployed at the most effective times.
  5. “What is our true cost per lead?” If you are like most customers, the figures you’ve been getting probably include not just results from a programmatic campaign and pay-per-click leads, but also leads that come from several other sources—organic searches, email campaigns and so on. Therefore, you don’t really have insights into how a particular program is running. For example, imagine that 10,000 PPC leads sold 100 products. That means you paid $100 per lead. But if some of those 100 products sold came from organic leads, email campaign leads, etc. but have been included in the calculations without correct attribution, you have been working with the wrong denominator. And you will believe your CPL for a given campaign was lower than it really was. Digital marketing is about math. If you don’t know what’s truly included in your numbers, you won’t be able to correctly measure success or know where to make needed changes.

Ron Trenka is CIO and cofounder of Ai Media Group, a New York City–based media company that specializes in defining, managing, and executing online marketing strategies.