Marketing Attribution: The Complete Guide

As your brand grows, the number of marketing channels you use tends to increase, too. But between email, advertising, social media, search engine optimization, retail partners, marketplaces, outbound sales, and other touchpoints, it gets tricky to pinpoint which efforts are moving the needle.

Was your holiday marketing campaign successful?

What channels should get the lion’s share of your marketing resources?

Who gets credit for that spike in sales last month?

What are the biggest opportunities you’re missing out on?

These are questions that marketing attribution aims to answer. It’s the process of determining which channels, touchpoints, campaigns, and teams contribute to sales—as well as how much they contribute. It requires an intimate understanding of your customer journey, as well as visibility into the complete shopping experience.

In this guide, we’ll explore:

  • What marketing attribution is
  • How it works
  • The benefits of effective marketing attribution
  • Marketing attribution challenges
  • Models organizations use for marketing attribution
  • How to do it well

Let’s start by digging into what this process is.

What is marketing attribution?

Marketing attribution is the process of associating sales (or another conversion) with the marketing assets that influenced them. It’s how marketing departments prove things like, “This campaign produced X dollars in revenue,” or “Our blog has created 3,000 new leads this quarter.”

This attribution can be extremely granular, narrowing in on specific ads, emails, and other assets, or it can look at how successful a particular channel, marketing team, or touchpoint was. While there are numerous popular models for marketing attribution, there’s no set way that it has to happen—your goals and your organization ultimately determine how the process looks.

How marketing attribution works

Marketing attribution depends on your ability to track sales or other conversions from end to end. When a sale comes in, you need tools to see where it happened, where it came from, and what interactions the customer had with your brand along the way.

For example, you might use Google link tagging or other custom URL systems to see which channel, campaign, and individual assets someone clicked before they converted.

Most marketing attribution models account for more than one touchpoint. If you poured all your marketing budget into one touchpoint, you’d probably leave significant holes in your customer journey. 

Part of marketing attribution is deciding how much weight a particular touchpoint has on your conversions. This is the key difference between different marketing attribution models, and it depends on what your customer journey looks like. 

Depending on your sales cycle and what you’re selling, that initial ad that captures someone’s attention may not actually do much to persuade your audience to make a purchase—it just gets your foot in the door, and then your marketing funnel does all the heavy lifting. Or maybe you’re more interested in learning which seller particular audiences prefer, so you can make your marketing more efficient by prioritizing them.

Some organizations only use marketing attribution at the end of a campaign, or to periodically assess their various channels’ health and effectiveness. But it’s best used as an ongoing process. Then you can refine your tactics, pivot strategies, and prioritize your marketing efforts around the activities that are producing the most desired results.

Benefits of marketing attribution

When done correctly and with the right information, marketing attribution provides several major benefits to your organization, namely:

  • Smarter budgets
  • Increased return on investment (ROI)
  • Greater familiarity with your customer journey

This process is meant to help you make the right adjustments to your marketing, so you can reap the most rewards and make the best decisions for your organization.

Data-driven marketing budgets

Most marketing departments simply don’t have the resources to fully invest in every channel available to them. And even if you can afford to dedicate teams and individuals to every conceivable channel, that doesn’t mean it’s wise. You want to invest in the areas that have the greatest impact on your bottom line. 

But that’s only possible if you know how much each channel is already moving the needle. You don’t want to make significant business decisions based on assumptions. And just because a channel has a large audience doesn’t mean it’s generating engagement and contributing to sales.

Marketing attribution can give you a bird’s eye view of your brand’s channels, showing you the percentage of sales they influence and the degree to which you believe they influence them. And while your marketing attribution model is based on theories about how much each touchpoint contributes to a given sale, you still ultimately rely on actual sales data.

For example, your model might give 40 percent of the credit to the first touchpoint, 40 percent to the last touchpoint, with the remainder split among less significant touchpoints. In this scenario, if your data shows that paid search ads were the first touchpoint for $100,000 in sales, then you would attribute $40,000 to Google Ads.

When you trace every sale back to the touchpoints that influenced it, you get a clear picture of which channels you should allocate more (or less) resources toward.

Optimized ROI

Similarly, marketing attribution helps you calculate your return on investment for each channel and campaign, so you can redirect resources toward the activities that result in the greatest ROI.

Let’s say you’re trying to calculate the ROI for a lead-generation campaign. The initial advertisement deserves some of the credit for capturing leads. So does the asset you offer in exchange for people’s email addresses. And the emails that comprise your drip campaign. But when you break down how much each component contributes to the customer journey, you might find that you’re spending too much time and money producing case studies because they don’t contribute much to your actual sales.


The insights you glean from marketing attribution on a specific campaign could impact what future campaigns involve, what messaging or audiences you pursue, or whether you even do that type of campaign again.

Or maybe you’ll examine your channels. You might discover that your email list—which uses simple plain text emails—gets the most engagement and influences the most sales, despite taking far fewer resources than video production or social media advertising. Rather than stretching your resources across less effective channels, it might be worth exploring what it would look like to scale up your highest ROI channels or bring them into more stages of the customer journey.

A better understanding of your customer journey

Consumers rarely take a straightforward path to purchase products. Before they become customers, they may encounter numerous ads, read a handful of emails, explore pages on your website, and compare a few sellers.

When you track the entire conversion from end-to-end, you can see patterns in the customer journey—touchpoints that consistently feed into each other, messaging that leads to sales more frequently, and channels that expose people to your brand.

Marketing attribution challenges

It sounds pretty straightforward, but you can’t just flip a switch and start doing marketing attribution. Most brands run into some problems when they begin exploring what marketing attribution looks like for their situation. Here are some of the challenges you’ll need to overcome.

Lack of visibility

Without the right tools, you won’t have the information you need to see where sales are coming from. And if you don’t have that data, marketing attribution is impossible. 

This is where most ecommerce brands get hung up. They can only track sales that happen on their own website. So when a customer finds your messaging compelling and leaves your site to buy from their favorite retailer, they’re gone. You’ve lost the data. Your sellers report sales, but you can’t tell if any of them came from your marketing efforts—unless you have a third-party tool that collects that data, like PriceSpider’s Where to Buy. 

We collect in-cart data from major retailers, which gives us the ability to track your campaigns from start to finish. We can show you how an ad brought someone to your product page, which led them to a retailer, where they bought the product you advertised, and an add-on the retailer showed them.

Without visibility into conversions that happen through your sellers, you’ll never know how effective your channels and campaigns are. You’ll always be working from incomplete data—and that’s not a whole lot better than guessing. 

Multiple touchpoints

Another common challenge with marketing attribution is the fact that customers typically have more than one touchpoint with your brand. So which touchpoint gets the credit for the conversion?

Marketing attribution models let brands decide how important each touchpoint is, so you can measure how each of them affects your bottom line. And while the models are each suited to different goals, niches, and organizations, they’re still rooted in theory. Marketing attribution can help you estimate how various touchpoints contribute to sales, but it won’t show you if a touchpoint is redundant, unhelpful, or merely a hoop people have to jump through on their customer journey.

The more touchpoints that contribute to sales, the less reliable your marketing attribution is. But it’s still a helpful process that forces you to think about the entire customer journey, rather than simply attributing all of your sales to specific campaigns and channels.

Offline sales

Digital touchpoints can easily lead to offline sales. In fact, they often do. There’s even a term for it: webrooming. It’s the practice of researching products online before buying them somewhere in person.

You can’t assume every sale through a brick and mortar store involves digital touchpoints, but anytime your product pages lead someone to find a local curbside pickup option or a place they can buy-online, pickup-in-store, you want that engagement attributed to the proper campaign.

Where to Buy lets you present your customers with a menu of buying options, so each person can select their ideal path to purchase. Right within the Where to Buy solution, your customers can use a store locator to find a local pickup option.

Targeting

If one channel or campaign outperforms another, it’s not always an indicator that one campaign flopped or one channel is simply better. Sometimes it’s a matter of who your content targeted. 

The most relevant audience will be the most receptive to your marketing. And if one audience is further along on their customer journey or more familiar with your brand, anything targeted to them will be more effective.

It’s also possible for assets or messaging to be highly effective with one audience and ineffective with another. Sometimes, the lack of success isn’t a signal that the assets or messaging were off, but rather that the targeting was too broad or too varied.

Marketing attribution models

There are limitless possibilities when it comes to deciding how you’ll attribute conversions to channels, campaigns, and touchpoints. That’s not an exaggeration. Some brands create custom attribution models that are unique to their situation. 

But selecting the right model for your brand doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking, either. There are several widely used marketing attribution models you can consider.

First-touch attribution

First-touch attribution is a model that focuses on identifying what leads to someone’s first encounter with your brand. It ignores everything that happens after that first touchpoint. 

This model makes sense for two situations:

  1. You want to assess which channels, campaigns, assets, or messaging leads to the most first encounters with your brand.
  2. You feel confident that the first touchpoint is the most significant contributor to sales.

In most cases, first-touch attribution is best for understanding how your customer relationships begin, or how touchpoints contribute to brand awareness. But it’s probably not going to give you much insight into conversions—because it may take many more touchpoints before someone converts.

Last-touch attribution

Just like it sounds, last-touch attribution works the opposite way: it only counts the interaction that occurs immediately before someone converts. Everything that happened before that is irrelevant because you’re really just trying to determine your highest converting channel, campaign, or assets. 

Linear attribution

Linear attribution equally weights every touchpoint on your customer journey. They all get the same amount of credit for the conversion. This helps you consider each message’s value within a campaign, or more broadly, each channel a customer engages with.

This makes sense when you have a deep understanding of your customer journey, and you know there are certain steps someone has to take or things they have to understand before they’re ready to buy. But it’s also not very realistic because some touchpoints are naturally going to contribute more to someone’s decision, and some will have little impact. By giving them all equal weight, you get a broad understanding of how someone progresses through your marketing funnel, but your ratios are probably going to be off.

Time decay attribution

With a time decay attribution model, the closer a touchpoint is to the conversion, the more you assume it contributed. This works well when your marketing takes a “slow burn” approach to converting leads, taking the time to warm them up before trying to close the sale. It treats your lead-gen ads as the touchpoint that simply got your foot in the door, rather than the primary factor that led to a sale. But unlike last-touch attribution, it will still assign some value to the lead-gen ads.

Position-based attribution

Position-based attribution is also referred to as a U-shaped attribution model, because it gives the most weight to the first and last touchpoints on your customer journey. In this model, these touchpoints each get 40 percent of the credit, and the remainder gets divided by every touchpoint in between.

This places your focus on the touchpoints that lead someone to their first encounter with your brand and their decision to buy. 

How to do effective marketing attribution

So how do you actually do marketing attribution? There’s a lot to consider, but it essentially boils down to three main steps. You need to get tools to track conversions. You need to understand what your customer journey looks like. And you need to pick a model that makes sense based on your goals and your customer journey.

Get the tools you need to track conversions end-to-end

For ecommerce brands, you simply can’t do marketing attribution until you close the gaps in your transaction data. You need to know where people convert after they encounter your marketing assets. And for that, you need Where to Buy

Where to Buy lets you create a direct path from product pages on your website to product pages on a retailer’s site, and more importantly, it tracks every transaction from end-to-end. If someone clicked through your ad and then went to a retailer, you’ll know when they buy.

You can also make adjustments as you learn about which distribution channels are most effective. If everyone is clicking through your assets and buying from Best Buy, you may as well just point your ads directly to your product pages on BestBuy.com. Remove the extra step, and you’re already using marketing attribution to optimize your conversions.

Create a customer journey map

To correctly attribute your conversions to the touchpoints that influenced them, you need to take inventory of the touchpoints your customers encounter and the ways they may experience them. As your customers progress on the path to purchase, where will they turn for help? What are the ways you might engage with and support them?

A customer journey map helps you see the whole process from your customers’ point of view. This exercise is especially useful if you’re struggling to see the value of particular touchpoints or trying to decide what deserves a place in your attribution model.

Choose a model that fits your organization

At the end of the day, the marketing attribution model you choose depends on what you’re trying to learn or optimize for. Do you want to maximize new interactions with your business? Then use a first-touch attribution model to track which channels bring the most people into your system. Want to ensure that you’re considering the contribution of every touchpoint, such as your lead magnets and nurture campaigns? Consider a linear or position-based model.

There’s no wrong answer. You just need to decide what you want to focus on.

Get equipped to track every transaction

Most brands simply don’t know the true ROI of their marketing efforts. But that doesn’t have to be you. With PriceSpider’s Where to Buy software, you’ll see where people buy, where they came from, what they bought, how much they spend, and more—even when the transaction occurs on someone else’s website.
Schedule a demo to see Where to Buy in action.

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