Attribution Isn’t What’s Holding Brands Back

Madison Avenue’s collision with Silicon Valley produced an explosion that left brand marketing and direct marketing tangled in an ugly Gordian knot around attribution. How do we properly credit each digital tactic for its role in getting a Facebook like or coupon redemption for an individual can of soda? There’s this notion that figuring out attribution will mean the brand dollars will flood from TV directly into the coffers of online ad sellers. Fat chance.

We are conflating attribution and accountability. “How much should I spend on mobile?” and “should I bet on social TV or Foursquare?” are marketing mix questions, not attribution questions. What we really want to know is, “which programs perform?” But since the path to purchase for a can of soda is so long, we don’t really know what happened. So everybody shrugs and gins up data that “proves” their tactic delivered.

The questions we are asking about attribution are not useful, because: a) they are not attribution questions and b) the questions do not have meaningful answers.

We won’t get better results from digital until we ask better questions. Here are a few. What do our customers need from our company? Is there something valuable mobile (or social or whatever tactic you’re considering) can do for my customers that other media cannot? What role should digital play in the overall mix?

Also, we must stop confusing direct marketing and brand marketing. The job of direct marketing is to sell now. The job of brand marketing is to persuade consumers to pay more for their brand even when an acceptable, cheaper substitute is an inch away on the shelf. When marketing works, it does so by creating an irrational attraction over time. So why are we reacting to every blip on the spreadsheet? Why do we believe real-time data matters? To paraphrase Thoreau: We are becoming the tools of our tools.

We must measure our digital efforts, but by the right yardstick: not direct marketing metrics, but brand metrics measured over time. It’s time to stop evaluating digital separately and endlessly torturing the numbers to prove its efficacy. Instead, we should evaluate our results against the same metrics we use for all of our brand efforts.

I’ll leave you with these words from Tupac Shakur: “You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could’ve, would’ve happened … or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the fuck on.”

Tupac would have made a great digital marketer.

Tom Cunniff is founder of interactive agency Brandscape and now works on the client side. His opinions expressed here are his own.