The Last-Click Attribution Dilemma

When digital media execs are asked to list the top barriers to more spending flowing from brands, they inevitably come to attribution. The fact is it remains hard to fairly credit the various contributors to a transaction down the line.

Last-click attribution is the favorite whipping boy for those looking to draw brand dollars to the Web, which has been mostly a direct-response medium. Last click is a lowest-common denominator, brute force approach. It’s almost universally derided and yet it remains a dominant model.

Every marketer has heard of A.I.D.A., right? This little formula is explained in every marketing textbook, mentioned in thousands of blog posts, and pretty much drilled into every marketer’s head. So when it comes to investing millions of dollars into digital marketing campaigns, we wouldn’t forget about something so basic, logical and elemental as a sales cycle? We wouldn’t forget that strangers typically become customers through five basic stages: Awareness, Interest, Desire and Decision, and then finally Action?

Until recently, we as digital marketers really have been blinded by “last-click attribution.” It’s a fancy way of saying that digital marketers tend to give most, or all the credit, to the last marketing touch-point. In other words, to focus and invest heavily in the last stages of the buying cycle.

Last-click attribution is why SEO and PPC campaigns have retained the lion’s share of digital ad spend over the last 10 years. Let’s face it, everyone heads to Google once they become aware of and interested in a brand, product or service. And this awareness and interest usually arrives from another ad source such as a banner ad. And, let’s say this user converts eventually. But the last page they happened to be on before converting had an ad for the product they converted on, but they never actually saw the ad on that page? They may have seen it a week earlier, or even one page/click earlier; however, that last page gets the attribution credit.

And, if you’re anything like 95 percent of digital marketers out there, you’re probably using analytics to measure your campaign conversion and those conversions are inherently tied to the last click generated before the desired action (sale, lead, download, etc.) was completed. Clicks sell products. Clicks create leads. Impressions? Wasted brand awareness, right? Think again.

Clearly not all clicks/impressions are equal and on their own, do not provide us with enough information to form robust attribution models. What is required is more information. Impressions need to be augmented not with anachronistic metrics from the print industry like above or below-the-fold but with ad in-view and engagement data, time and position on page and page context and quality. Clicks need to be supplanted by interactions and page landings.

With these enhanced metrics, we can begin to understand whether our ads were indeed seen and how they engaged our target audience. The latest technology available can verify if and for how long a user saw an ad. It can even predict the probability of a user seeing an ad on a given page in the case of the RTB process. Speaking of predictions, I’d say this data will become a key metric in attribution analysis in the very near future.

Recent ad-engagement research we conducted showed that nearly 40 percent of ads are never even seen by the user due to page-load times, varying browser sizes, disruptions, etc. This number also varies widely based on the content category of the page (i.e., news, sports, etc). All of this leads us to believe that ad-viewability measurements married to contextual information will have to become required metrics for judging attribution in 2012.

As Google puts it, “When a customer buys or converts on your site, most conversion tracking tools credit the most recent link or ad clicked. In reality though, customers research, compare and make purchase decisions via multiple touch points across multiple channels. So marketers that measure return solely on the last channel that a customer touches before conversion are getting an incomplete picture, and potentially missing out on important opportunities to reach their customers.”

Successful digital advertising isn’t solely about using a cookie to reach the right person anymore — it’s about being in the right place, at the right time. It’s about knowing that your user actually viewed the ad and engaged with it in an ideal contextual environment. For marketers, the challenge becomes how to move beyond inaccurate “last click” attribution to technology that better addresses the issue of viewability — especially within RTB.

David Hahn is svp of product management at AdSafe Media, a content rating and brand safety company. Reach him at

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