What is Marketing Attribution? The Definitive Guide Plus Which Attribution Model to Use

Laura Caveney
8th April 2021
Click Attribution

Do you struggle to track your marketing activity? No, we’re not talking about your likes, your clicks or impressions. We’re talking about how your marketing impacts your bottom line. That’s right, its impact on revenue.

There are plenty of barriers between marketers and definitive data on their ROI. From offline conversions to long sales cycles and huge amounts of touchpoint data, it’s hard to definitively prove how your marketing is driving revenue. But that’s where marketing attribution comes in.

Here, we share the ultimate guide to marketing attribution. You’ll learn what it is, how it can help your business, all the model types plus advice on how to choose the right attribution model for your business.

So, let’s get stuck in.


What is Marketing Attribution?

What Even is Marketing Attribution?

Marketing attribution is the analytical process of understanding which marketing channels and campaigns are working to drive new sales.

That’s the short snappy definition anyway.

Marketing attribution is the science behind analysing marketing touchpoints a user interacts with that influences their path to purchase. The goal of marketing attribution is to simply understand which channels, campaigns and keywords are driving the most leads and sales so that you can better optimise your marketing.

By using an attribution model, you can better understand how and when website visitors are engaging with your content. You can use this insight to tailor your marketing campaigns to the specific needs of your customers, which in turn helps you to increase your ROI.


Why do you need marketing attribution?

Think about your monthly reports. What do you tend to report back on? Most likely you look at your marketing channel by channel. Your metrics might include the usual vanity metrics like:

You could be taking it one step further and looking at your lead generation. These metrics could include:

Both vanity metrics and lead generation metrics are great to have in your reports. But something is missing.


Are you proving how much revenue your marketing campaigns are bringing in? While you might be able to partially prove impact, there’s simply too much data to do it completely.

This is where marketing attribution comes in.

P.S. Sorry to interrupt. But if you’re looking to find marketing attribution software options, skip to our guide on the 15 best tools for 2021.

Marketing attribution allows you to assess every channel and campaign. Tools like Ruler will aggregate all of your data and fire it to where you need it most.

You’ll get a true understanding of how your content works together to form buyer journeys. And from there, you can create data-driven decisions to allow you to optimise your campaigns.


Understanding the Buyer’s Journey

The buyer’s journey is used by marketers to better understand how consumers interact with content and how content can influence their purchase decisions.

Generally speaking, the buyer’s journey is made up of three distinct stages:


understanding the buyers journey in attribution

Awareness Stage

The awareness stage is the first stage of the buyer’s journey. Here, a user is looking for a solution to a problem.

awareness stage customer journey

The user will generally use channels like organic search and social media to try and find an answer. Their search intent will generally be long-tail keywords as they’re asking questions and looking for something specific.

Let’s use an example.

Anna is searching online as she is looking to book a trip abroad. She’s interested in visiting Italy but she doesn’t know how much budget she would need for a two-week trip.

As such, she Googles, “how much budget do I need for a two week trip to Italy?”

Now, if you’re a travel agency selling Italy tours, then you would want to be found by Anna. For this search intent, you might write a detailed blog on costs associated with a two-week trip both on and off-tour.

Anna reads your blog on costs for the trip and learns that it could be cheaper to do a tour. She’s now considering your product and so Anna has moved from the awareness stage into the consideration stage.


Consideration Stage

In the consideration stage, Anna knows now what she wants but she has to consider different brands all offering the same product.

consideration stage buyers journey


Now, the difficulty with the consideration stage is prioritising what matters most to Anna. Is she looking for the cheapest tour? Is she looking for a tour that includes specific destinations? Creating content clusters around your content topic allows you to reach Anna no matter what she’s searching for.

When she’s searching in the consideration stage, you want her to consider your company above the others. But how can you do that?

In this example, a detailed itinerary page, a comparison grid or customer reviews could be a great way to highlight your product to the front of mind.


Decision Stage

So now you’ve done the hard work and got Anna to consider your product above your competitors. But now it’s time to get her to take action.

This is the decision stage.


We know that she’s aware of your brand and your product. So, you could take out a remarketing advert to target her with a unique offer for her chosen destination.

And there you have it, the buyer’s journey.


Content for the Buyer’s Journey

There are plenty of types of content and channels you can use to be seen within each of these stages.

We generally suggest the following:

buyers journey content


Of course, the buyer’s journey in our example is very simplified.

We all know it’s not quite that easy.

According to Google, buyer journeys for low-cost products like chocolate bars can take as many as 20 touchpoints on average nowadays. And for high-cost products like flights, it could be as many as 500. That’s 500 times a user interacts with your content, so how do you even begin to track all of those? Especially if your user is using offline channels like store visits, email or phone calls to interact with your business?



Benefits of Marketing Attribution

Ok, so we’ve got the gist of how attribution works, but what’s the point of it?

Is it really worth investing in a new tool?

We would say yes. So we’ve listed exactly why marketing attribution could be beneficial to your business:


Optimise Your Marketing Spend

Not sure you’re spending your budget where you need to? It can be a lot of pressure to dictate where you’re going to put your budget.

If you don’t get a suitable return, it could hinder your ability to get a budget in the future. But, with marketing attribution, you can get a real insight into how best to spend your marketing dollars. You’ll be able to see which channels and campaigns have worked best to drive sales, but also which have worked well to drive users down the buyer’s journey.


Increase Your ROI

With real insight into your budget, comes increased ROI (and ROAS).

You’ll be able to see, in real-time, which ads and campaigns are working best. You can then just turn them on, off, or add more budget. Attribution will allow you to reach the right person, at the right time, with the right message.

Want to skip to learn how attribution can help you prove your ROI? Read our blog on how to use revenue attribution to help you do exactly that.


Evidence What’s Working

Evidencing what works in marketing isn’t easy. There are long customer journeys, multiple touchpoints, and multiple conversion types to consider. But with marketing attribution, you can definitively show your campaigns are generating quality leads and revenue.

This means your marketing department will be taken more seriously within the business as you start to talk about the metrics that matter in the boardroom.


Track Offline Conversions

Do you use any offline marketing channels, like TV or print? These can be hard to track success. And, it’s even harder to understand how they impact customer journeys.

With marketing attribution, you can better measure your offline marketing campaigns and you can attribute revenue back to them.


Find Micro-Conversions

With marketing attribution, you can start to interpret your customer journey data to find micro conversions.

This could be that you find those who view a blog and are then retargeted are most likely to convert. Using attribution data against your customer journey is a great way to optimise your marketing and get your team working smarter, not harder.


Marketing Attribution Models

So now we know more about what marketing attribution is and how it works, but how do you actually use it?

Well, there are a bunch of different marketing attribution model types to consider. From the popular first and last-click to the more advanced custom attribution model types.

We’ll walk you through each type and how to use them.


How do you measure marketing attribution?

Marketers generally measure metrics like clicks, impressions, likes etc. The issue with these metrics is that they only highlight the potential of your marketing. To measure your marketing attribution, you need to measure your leads, conversions and most importantly, your revenue.


By tracking metrics like revenue you can see just how your marketing helps to generate more for your bottom line. Implementing a marketing attribution model will help you evidence that.


What is a marketing attribution model?

An attribution model is a rule (or set of rules) that determines how credit for sales and closed revenue is assigned back to touchpoints in the buyer’s journey.

The first distinction to make when it comes to marketing attribution models is that there are two main types. Single-touch and multi-touch. Let’s go through them one by one.


Single-Touch Attribution Models

First up is single-touch attribution models. It’s pretty much what it sounds like, but we’ll explain anyway.

With these attribution model types, 100% of the credit of a sale is credited to one touchpoint only. There are two single-touch attribution model types.


First-click Attribution

Again, it’s what it says on the tin. In this attribution model type, all of the credit of a sale is credited to the very first touchpoint a user had that led them to your website.

first click marketing attribution model


So, if a user sees a PPC ad for your company and clicks on it, all of the credit would be assigned to that PPC campaign. Even if you later took out a social ad which caused the user to convert. From a ROAS perspective, this is great, but what about the touchpoints that led that user through their customer journey? And what about the social ad which drove the user to convert? With first-click attribution, these steps aren’t counted.


Last-click Attribution

Last-click attribution is another popular form of marketing attribution in which all of the credit is assigned to the very last touchpoint a user has before becoming a customer.

last click marketing attribution model

So, in the same example as before, all of the credit would go to the social ad that converted the user. But again, the PPC ad would be missed, along with the other steps that drove the user through their customer journey. As you can see, there are some issues with single-touch attribution alone.


The Problem with Single-Touch Attribution

If we think back to flights needing an average of 500 touch points to convert a user to a customer, then first-click only gives a very small part of the data.

However, if you’re looking to see what content and campaigns are driving awareness, then first-click is a great model. And, if you’re looking to find out what content and campaigns are helping to convert users, then last-click is very effective.

Now that we know about single-touch attribution models, let’s look into the different multi-touch attribution models.


Multi-Touch Models

Conversely to single-touch attribution model types, multi-touch attribution models split credit between multiple touchpoints in your buyer’s journey based on predetermined rules.

The split given to credit is decided by the attribution model type you choose. So, let’s look at each of them in a bit more detail.


Linear Attribution Model

First up, we have the linear attribution model. This model type assigns an equal split of credit to every touchpoint a lead has engaged with within their buyer’s journey.

Let’s use an example journey.

A user clicks a Google ad visits your site for the first time. They then search your brand 3 days later and sign up to your newsletter. They revisit via an email campaign a few days later. Finally, they convert into a sale via a direct search.

Using linear attribution, each touchpoint would receive 25% of the credit.

linear marketing attribution model type


This is a great choice if you want to measure your campaigns holistically and get more data on which channels are appearing more frequently in the customer journey.


U-shaped Attribution Model

Next up is the U-shaped attribution model.

U-shaped or Position-based attribution gives the majority of credit to the first touchpoint and the touchpoint where the user became a qualified lead. In our example, the Google Ad and direct search would both receive 40% of the credit, while the rest of the credit would be split between the remaining touchpoints.

u shaped marketing attribution model

This attribution model will tell you which marketing channels are best for acquiring an audience and which are best for converting that audience.


W-shaped Attribution Model

Very similar to the U-shaped model is the W-shaped attribution model

This model type gives 30% to the first touchpoint. Another 30% is assigned to the touchpoint where a user becomes a qualified lead. A final 30% is assigned to the final touchpoint where the lead becomes a customer.

The remaining 10% is assigned evenly to remaining touchpoints. In our example, the Google Ad, the organic search and the direct search would each receive 30% of the credit. The final 10% would be assigned to the email campaign.

w shaped marketing attribution model


Time decay Attribution Model

Next, we have the time decay model.

Time-based attribution assigns more weight to interactions that happen near the final conversion event. Using the same example as before, this model type will assign more credit to the direct search than it will to the Google Ad search.

time decay attribution model


This attribution model is great for determining which channels regularly drive conversions and which are primarily top-of-funnel channels. Once you have that insight, you can spend more time and resources into using each channel to be it’s most effective.

One thing to bear in mind with this attribution model is that if you have a long sales cycle, then earlier touchpoints that were crucial in getting a user to consider your solution will be given very little credit.


Full Path Attribution Model

In this model type, 22.5% of the credit is given to four touchpoints:

full path attribution model


The remaining 10% is then assigned evenly to the rest of the touchpoints in the buyer journey. Our example is a short journey so it looks identical to linear attribution.


Custom Attribution Model

Last but not least is the custom attribution model

The custom model is exactly what you would expect. You assign a chosen weighting to each touchpoint yourself depending on how important it is to your business.
If you have the resources, this is arguably the most effective way to attribute conversions to your entire marketing funnel, as you can tailor it to your exact needs.
And there you have it. All of the attribution models available to you with marketing attribution.

But, how do you decide which attribution model type to choose?


How to Pick the Right Attribution Model Type

When you’re using so many different channels, online and offline conversions and running different campaigns, you have access to a huge amount of data.

Correlating and interpreting that data is a huge task though. That’s where attribution comes in and hopefully, makes your job ten times easier.

Now you know each of the model types, what each one is good for and how to use each to maximise your marketing strategy. But that’s only half the battle, isn’t it?

Choosing the right one is the crux of the issue. But remember, you’re not tied in. Play with different attribution model types and see which one works best for you.

While some marketers will swear by a particular model type, that doesn’t mean you should alter how you work to make that model type work for you. Ask yourself this. What is the end goal of my marketing campaigns? And, which attribution model will help me to measure them more easily?


Single-Touch Attribution

Plenty of marketers use single-touch attribution. There’s nothing wrong with using first or last-click attribution to measure your marketing effectiveness.

If you want to understand which channels are helping to begin or end customer journeys then they’re the perfect choice for marketing attribution.


Multi-Touch Attribution

If you want to go beyond single-touch attribution, then it can be hard to know which multi-touch attribution model to choose.

Custom, if feasible, is a dream as you can plot it how you want. But, it’s difficult to set up and it relies on you already having good insight into your average customer journeys.

Some things to consider are:

Answering these questions will help to illustrate which model type will work best for your business.

Remember, it can be difficult to track and correlate lots of offline marketing activities. Read our guide on marketing mix modelling to understand how this can help you better understand your marketing activity.


Choosing the right attribution model for you

Here’s our summary of each attribution model type and what it’s best used for:

First-click: Understand which channels are driving traffic of converting users

Last-click: Understand which channels are working best to convert users in your customer journey

Linear: Gather data on which channels are most commonly found in your customer journeys

U-shaped: Learn which channels are driving new converting customers and which channels are driving conversions

W-shaped: Learn which channels are driving new converting customers, which help drive leads and which then drive final conversions. Not suited for those in B2C.

Time Decay: Determine which channels regularly drive conversions and which are primarily top-of-funnel channels

Full Path: Understand which channels are encouraging key actions


Marketing Attribution Software

So now you know which attribution model type you want to use, but where do you get started with implementing it?

There is a whole range of marketing attribution software options out there. We shared the 15 best marketing attribution software and tools you need for 2021.

Ruler Analytics is number one on that list. Find out how to get started with attributing your revenue with Ruler. Or, book a demo to see the data in action.


Book a demo Ruler Analytics