How Attribution Works in the Real World


Primary Research Report

Eight hours. That is the average amount of time each day spent interacting with digital media by an adult in the United States.[1]

This means, for many of us, around one-third of our lives is spent interacting with content.

Compare that to a hundred years ago, that number was zero.

Yet most marketing professionals still hold onto the old concept of a funnel when considering how to find and nurture leads, and how to attribute performance to our marketing activities.

The concept of a funnel provides a nice, neat progression of a large group of prospects dwindling in size until you are left with a smaller group of clients/sales. The funnel is an orderly and predictive progression from the first touch to the final touch (sale). But this does not always apply perfectly in practice.

The truth about how leads are nurtured and how sales are made in the real world is not always as orderly and predictive as we’d like.

As Marketing Week’s Tom Roach put it in a recent article[2]:

“It’s become less about individuals being taken on a journey and more about nudging large pools of different people forward stage by stage.”

We’ll go a step further here and say it’s about educating and building trust with your buyer and then offering a great digital experience when they are ready to buy.

But what exactly has changed? And where should you re-calibrate for 2022 (and beyond)?

Reenvisioning the Marketing and Sales Process

A simple search for ‘marketing funnel’ on Google yields millions of results, pretty much all the same:

That’s because marketing funnels have typically been just that – funnels. We are trained to move through a set series of steps and then watch as fewer and fewer people move through the funnel.

The reality is more complicated than a funnel. A recent research study by Google’s Consumer Insights team in Great Britain describes how people decide what to buy as the “messy middle” of the purchase journey. The research team describes the messy middle as a “complex space between triggers and purchase where customers are won and lost.”

Would you describe your process as a funnel or the “messy middle” where a lot of activity happens and the ability to attribute performance is flawed?

As marketers, we’ve known that a referral-driven click is far more likely to either share again or buy. This is what has spawned an explosion of the Influencer market, for example. Suddenly people’s sphere of influence is truly valuable. “I loved this product” is a valid and powerful marketing lever.

But that’s not the whole picture. We also wander around a lot online and through mixed media in our lives (the messy middle). From an attribution perspective, what if we could shift our focus from last-click attribution to what is causing the click in the first place? 

Without getting too scientific – today’s marketing funnel probably looks less like this:

And more like this:

A series of touches, over time, that ultimately result in a consumer forming an opinion about your product or brand – and one day hopefully buying. As a marketer, insight about what caused the first click is extremely important in determining the quality of the lead.

The Promise of Attribution is Flawed

The promise of attribution software is cracking like cheap glass. Why? Because the current state of marketing measurement is simply inadequate and is not representative of how the modern B2B buying process actually happens.

Because what customers are telling us about their buying journey is completely different than what attribution software is reporting.

For the case study below, we added a required field on our website form that reads – “How did you hear about SharpSpring?” This type of form is where much of our revenue comes through.

The research question for this study was: What if you could reposition the focus from last-click attribution to what is causing the click in the first place? 

Here is the background of the study and the findings.


Case Study: How Did You Hear About Us?

A group of 1,190 past customers was asked where they heard about SharpSpring, and we compared that data to where the software attributed them coming from.

Figure 1: Customers were asked where they heard about SharpSpring (BLUE) versus where they actually originated from (Last Click – ORANGE). The data varied in every category except Social Media.

Look at leads that were a result of a referral. Referrals were dramatically undervalued in the attribution model. Referrals were the most valuable group but you would not know that by the traditional attribution model. Yes, turns out the glass is cracked!

We also organized the data in more general categories to show the overall motion of the customer/approach. The categories compare as follows:

Figure 2

Figure 2: By grouping Social, Webinars, Conferences and Research into Demand Gen and then Internal/External Referrals, Paid and Organic Search, it is very clear that people hear about SharpSpring one or many times and then likely search for it to make a purchase. Social Media, which is a search and discovery + referral engine, seems to drive more direct purchases. Demand Gen, content, branding, social media, etc., all likely drive core search volume.

The data can be summarized as follows:

·   Attribution software is telling you what “captured” the demand.

·   Self-reporting by the customer is usually telling you what “created” the demand.

·   As a marketer, you need both of these measurement points to effectively drive strategy.

How to Recalibrate for 2022 and Beyond

There are 3 truths to understanding the modern marketing process:

1. We can’t solve this without automation and intelligence.

2. We can both positively and negatively impact a sale with our marketing.

3. Even though a certain ad channel may indicate it is responsible for a sale (Last Click), it was likely a combination of channels. Referrals of your product/service may be the most undervalued channel for marketers.

As a leader in Marketing Automation, SharpSpring’s end-to-end tracking, unified database, and rules-based workflows are designed to help businesses nurture and educate potential customers with just the right amount of automation. We know that ultimately each online sale is a result of multiple touches. Marketers can manually adjust attribution settings within the platform to better understand which efforts actually influence demand:

The Truth About Attribution: The Life of a Lead

The truth about leads is that every customer journey is unique. True attribution looks at all engagement (referrals, website visits, ads clicked, etc.) to determine what is driving your sales. SharpSpring’s Life of a Lead provides; a timeline of interactions between the lead, your website, your marketing communications, and any events to help marketers determine the truth about attribution. The Life of the Lead will display up to 300 events at a time, to help clarify what is driving sales activity.

Here are examples of activities that are tracked in Life of a Lead:

·   Website visits

·   Marketing email clicks

·   Outbound sales call

·   Chat conversation

·   Form submission

·   “Liked” a LinkedIn post

·   Twitter mention

·   And more

Each is individually listed as a specific Life of a Lead view (see the example below).

SharpSpring’s Life of a Lead provides a visual representation of which campaigns, touchpoints, and activities are attributed to each sale. You can trigger touchpoints based on lead activities to never miss an opportunity to engage buyers when they are actively looking for buyer information.

Each buyer’s journey is unique, and it’s important to see each journey so you can engage people with what they want, when they want it.

Attribution models that have been used in the past are flawed, but when marketing professionals look at each buyer as having a unique journey, the truth about what works and what doesn’t work is revealed.


[2] Why the sales funnel is the cockroach of marketing

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