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Who has the right to play God in the ongoing attribution debate?

Who has the right to play God in the ongoing attribution debate?


The ‘attribution debate’ has been prevalent in online marketing spheres for several years now. Performance marketing is a simple principle, the conversion of traffic to leads or sales. Simple. So why are we still talking about attribution and why does the debate continue? Not only is attribution an issue for affiliates, who are looking for deserved commission on their contribution to sales, but also for marketers, who are looking to analyse a consumers journey to purchase in order to optimise all marketing outreach. With so many objectives I don’t think anyone can be blamed for the prolonged debate.

Why Discuss Attribution?

The initial reason behind discussing attribution was because consumer shopping habits have changed. Consumers have become more aware of online bargains and the ease of online browsing, meaning they spend more time researching purchases and looking for deals. Let’s use the example of shopping for a bike; it’s fair to say that you would browse several websites to find the bike you liked – it’s an investment purchase after all. You might research the specifications of your bike to double check it’s exactly what you want, read some customer reviews, you might even compare the price of your bike on a price comparison site. But when it comes to purchase it’s likely you’ll use a search engine to search for special offers or vouchers and only your last click will receive any reward for your purchase. The review website, despite being a major player in the consumer's choice to purchase a bike, is left without payment.

A solution would be to track a consumer journey and attribute a percentage of the purchase to each contributing factor. Simple. Actually, it’s not so simple. Problems arise when you start trying to break down commission and when a marketer starts deciding who gets how much - attributing small percentages over an intricate series of events and attempting to predict human behaviour is hard work. It’s a complicated issue and there is no single answer, consumer behaviour varies depending on the consumer and the journey they’re taking – there are far too many variables to make a single solution. It’s the difficult case of ‘one size fits none’.

Where The Problems Lie...

This isn’t just a problem for advertisers who want to build targeted campaigns – rewarding the affiliates who drive the most sales and maintaining those relationships, but also for publishers, who want to modify their sites to ensure they’re optimised for their audience. The key issue to solving the problem is one of data. Tracking data, identifying relevant data, analysing the data and implementing what has consequently been learned. However this process is complicated and marketers need to invest in developing an attribution strategy in order to do it accurately.

Another problem with the attribution model is the decision of who deserves what. The advertiser may decide who gets 2% and who gets 6% of the 10% kitty, but these percentages can’t be changed very often once implemented. It’s entirely impractical to expect a marketer to offer a variety of percentages to a variety of affiliates for a variety of clients dynamically, based upon the specific user journey. The whole thing turns into a logistical nightmare. And how can an affiliate base their budgets and marketing efforts on an ever changing income? Affiliates need to know what they’re getting when they sign up to a programme, otherwise what is booming business one day can be in dire straits the next. It’s not a practical business solution.

So, What's The Solution?

Well, in a nutshell, there isn’t one – not a direct ‘problem solved’ solution anyway. There are however plenty of ways marketers can use the information they receive from their affiliate network, as well as other avenues of marketing, to contribute to a wider understanding of the market place they work in and consequently improve their marketing spend.

We're Talking About Attribution...

...but what’s far more important and will give greater reward is ensuring all marketing avenues are integrated. Affiliate campaigns often exist in a vacuum, having no communication with other elements of a marketing strategy. As well as being frustrating to affiliates and affiliate managers, this is a detrimental strategy. Marketers should work as a team, and use their affiliate programme to boost any campaigns being run. Rather than changing their attribution strategy within an affiliate programme, marketers should concentrate on working with their affiliate channel to develop an effective strategy.

The second option would be to stop focusing on saving money, I know that sounds strange but it’s not always the cheapest option that’s the best option. If you have your heart set on attribution and feel it’s the best model, don’t turn to a ‘one size fits all’ supplier as it isn’t necessarily going to fit. The best thing to do, and something we recommend, is to monitor a network over a particular time period, say one week, and implement any changes in commission based on trends you notice from this. This can then be monitored and changed on a monthly basis based on clear trends. That way you can know that people are spending a lot of time reading the review site – for that bike, remember – and attribute a percentage of the commission accordingly. If after a week nobody is reading the same review site, you know it’s not as influential as you initially thought.

Despite this, and all the discussions around attribution, you’re probably thinking ‘so, that’s it’, but the issue has been discussed for so long, and is continually being discussed because there is no clear solution. It’s a matter of opinion, of analysing data, and who has the right to play God and decide who gets how much?

By Daniel Powel, solutions and operations director, Commission Junction

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Daniel Powel

Daniel Powel

Daniel joined Starcom Mediavest Group in 2011, having begun his affiliate career with Commission

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