We’re looking in the wrongplace for our attribution models

The online landscape is getting more complex. Speaking from a marketer’s perspective, there are more points of influence that can alter a buyer’s path. At the last Search Insider Summit, John Yi from Facebook introduced us to something he called Pinball Marketing. It’s an apt analogy for the new online reality.

Hoping for a Strike

In the past, marketing was like bowling. You would build a campaign with sufficient critical mass and aim it towards your target, hoping at the end of the campaign (or lane) your aim was good enough and the ball/campaign had enough kinetic energy (measured in REACH X FREQUENCY X AD ENGAGEMENT) to knock down all the potential customers. If you think about marketing in this perspective, it explains the massive amount of pain traditional marketers are feeling as the pull their bowling shoe clad feet from the old world and gingerly dip their toes in the new. The bowler was in control (theoretically) and the success or failure of the campaign lay in their hands alone. The paradigm was simple, clean and linear, just the way we marketers like it.

The new game of marketing is much more like pinball. The intersections between a buyer’s decision path and a product’s marketing presence are many, and each can send the buyer off in a different direction. Some of those intersection points are within the marketer’s control and some aren’t. Marketers now have to try to understand engagement and buyer impact at each of these intersections and, in the process, try to piece together a map of the buyer’s journey, assigning value in the appropriate places.

Repealing Newton’s Law

But even though the frenetic path of a pinball gets us a little closer to today’s marketing reality, it still doesn’t get us all the way, because there’s one fundamental difference – pinballs don’t have brains. Nor do they have emotions, or feelings, or needs. Pinballs are just little metal spheres that obey the laws of physics. And therein lies the difference. How much more challenging would pinball be if, rather than relying on Newtonian physics to set the path of a ball coming off a flipper, it could decide whether it wanted to go right, left or simply stop dead in its tracks, refusing to go one inch further until you showed it a little more respect. As physicist Murray Gell-Mann once quipped, “Imagine how hard physics would be if particles could think.”

As we try to understand what influences our buyers, we tend to apply something like the laws of physics to unraveling attribution. We apply formulas to various touchpoints, mathematically weighting their respective values. We can weight it to the first click, the last click, or divvy up the value based on some arbitrary calculation. But, in the end, as we try to figure out the new rules of marketing, we tend to forget that these balls have brains.

Go to the Source

If we want to understand what makes a buyer buy, we should ask them. We should base attribution models on decision paths, not arbitrary formulas. We should walk through the buying landscape with our prospects, seeing how they respond at each intersection point. And when we build our attribution models, we should base them on psychology, not physics.

Is this approach harder than the holy grail of a universal attribution formula (or even multiple variations of said formula)? Absolutely. It’s fuzzy and sometimes messy. It tends to squirm around a lot. And unlike Newtonian physics, it depends on context. What I’m proposing is riddled with “ifs” and “maybes”. In short, it’s human in its ambiguity, and that’s really the whole point. I would much rather have ambiguity that’s somewhat right than clarity that’s completely wrong.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider June 16, 2011