What is Marketing Attribution? A Guide to Models, Tools and Best Practices

Katie Holmes
10th January 2024

Marketing attribution is an absolute must for marketers looking to get more out of their efforts. We wrote an all-encompassing guide to marketing attribution to help you get started and uncover the true impact of your campaigns.

So, you’re struggling to connect the dots between your hundreds of marketing touchpoints and revenue?

Welcome to the world of marketing attribution, the science of understanding how various touchpoints work together to influence conversions and profitable outcomes.

This comprehensive guide demystifies attribution models, equips you with powerful tools, and reveals best practices to ensure your marketing attribution strategy gets off the ground.

You’ll learn:

💡 Pro Tip

Ruler unlocks a deeper understanding of your marketing with advanced multi-touch attribution compared to GA4 and Ads. It goes beyond conversions, analysing the influence on your entire sales funnel, from opportunities to closed-won deals. This granular data empowers you to fine-tune your marketing for peak return on investment.

Get a snapshot of Ruler’s multi-touch attribution comparison feature, or book a demo for a deeper dive.

What is marketing attribution?

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

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 budgets and 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.

💡 Pro tip: Learn even more about attribution with our complete guide. It breaks down exactly how it works and what it means so you can better understand how it supports your business goals. 

Why is marketing attribution important?

Marketers have a hard time proving their worth. Think about your monthly reports. You likely get asked what your return on investment is.

We’re not surprised. ROI is the one of the best metrics to understand how your marketing impacts your business. 

But it’s not always easy to obtain. 

Related: How to track your marketing ROI

Generally, your reporting metrics might include: 

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

The simple truth with both sets of metrics is that they’re vanity metrics. On their own, they mean very little.

Related: Vanity metrics vs actionable metrics 

What really matters to leaders is – revenue. Just having a lot of online engagement doesn’t necessarily translate into business success. To make these metrics meaningful, you need to connect their online presence to actual sales and profits.

This is where marketing attribution comes in. Marketing attribution allows you to assess every channel and campaign. You’ll get a true understanding of how your content works together to form buyer journeys. From there, you can:

What are the different types of marketing attribution models?

So now we know more about marketing attribution and how it works, but how do you actually use it? Well, there are a bunch of different marketing attribution model types to consider. 

Related: What is attribution modelling and how to get started

An attribution model is a rule (or set of rules) that determines how credit for sales and 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 categories:

Let’s explore the various attribution models, including common ones like first and last-click, as well as more advanced custom models.

First-click attribution: Credit for a conversion is assigned to the very first touchpoint a user had that led them to your website. So, if a user sees a Google Ad for your company and clicks on it, all of the credit would be assigned to that PPC campaign, even if an email caused the user to convert. 

Last-click attribution: Credit for a conversion is assigned to the final touchpoint experienced by the user before making a purchase. So, in the same example as before, all of the credit would go to the email that converted the user. But again, the Google 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.

Linear attribution: Distributes equal credit to all touchpoints in the customer journey, regardless of their position. Let’s use our example to help simplify it. A user clicks a Google Ad to explore your website but leaves shortly after. Few days later, they search for your brand on Google, browse around, and subscribe to your newsletter. They return to your site through a direct search to check pricing. Afterward, they visit your website again, prompted by a LinkedIn ad, ultimately converting through an email. Applying a linear attribution model, each touchpoint would receive equal credit of 20%.

U-shaped attribution: Also known as Position-based attribution, this model credits the first touchpoint and the one where the user becomes a qualified lead. In our example, both the Google Ad and email get 40% credit, while the rest is divided among other touchpoints.

W-shaped attribution model: Similar to the U-shaped model, the W-shaped attribution model allocates 30% credit to the first touchpoint, 30% to the touchpoint in the middle, and 30% to the final touchpoint. The remaining 10% is evenly distributed among other touchpoints. In our example, the Google Ad, direct search, and email each receive 30% credit. The organic search and LinkedIn ad share the remaining credit.

Time decay attribution model: Next, we have the time decay model. Time-decay 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 email than it will to the Google Ad. 

Full path attribution model: Credit is given to every touchpoint in the customer journey, starting from the first interaction to the final conversion. It emphasises the importance of the first and last touchpoints, as well as those during lead and opportunity creation stages.

💡 Pro tip: Ruler is a tool that could help with full-path attribution. It tracks each and every anonymous visitor to your website over multiple sessions, traffic sources, keywords and more. When a visitor converts via form, call or live chat on your website, their data is captured. Ruler then matches the lead with their marketing touchpoints to create a picture of their customer journey. We have plenty more on how Ruler tracks full customer journeys if you want to learn more.

Data-driven attribution: Uses machine learning to analyse data from every customer touchpoint, identifying the most influential contributors to a conversion. This differs from rule-based attribution models that assign credit to touchpoints using predefined rules, such as the first touchpoint, last touchpoint, or linear attribution.

Custom attribution model: As you would expect, custom attribution allows you to 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.

How to choose the right marketing attribution model?

Now that you know about each model type, choosing the right one is crucial for your marketing strategy. Don’t feel pressured to conform to a specific model just because some marketers prefer it. 

Ask yourself: What do I want to achieve with my campaigns, and which model makes measuring success easier? 

The table below simplifies the best and worst scenarios for each model to help you decide.

ModelWhen to use:When NOT to use:
First-clickWhen prioritising the importance of the first interaction and dealing with brief and straightforward customer journeys.When you have a complicated customer journey or long buying cycle with many touchpoints along the way.
Last-clickWhen prioritising the importance of the last interaction and dealing with brief and straightforward customer journeys.When you have a complicated customer journey or long buying cycle with many touchpoints along the way.
LinearWhen customer journeys are short and simple, or when all marketing channels are equally important.When customer journeys are complex or involve a variety of channels with varying levels of influence.
Time-decayWhen campaigns are time-bound, such as seasonal promotions, or when it is critical to track interactions that occur closer to the conversion.When measuring the effectiveness of awareness campaigns and need to identify the early touchpoints that lead to conversions.
U-shapedWhen highlighting the assisting and converting touchpoints in the customer journey.When differentiating between various middle touchpoints’ roles and contributions in the conversion process.
W-shapedWhen considering the first interaction with your brand, the point at which someone becomes a lead, and the point at which a lead becomes a qualified opportunity, with clearly defined stages for each.When lead creation and opportunity stages aren’t clearly defined or mapped out.
Full-pathWhen you want to understand the complete user experience, from the first-touch point to close.When you have limited data or incomplete user journey tracking.
Data-drivenWhen you have a large amount of high-quality data and want machine learning to develop an optimal credit scoring model.When you need transparency and interpretability in attribution. 

When you have limited data or low data quality.
CustomWhen you want to reflect the unique characteristics of your industry or marketing strategy.When you lack the expertise to define custom rules.

💡 Pro tip: With a marketing attribution tool like Ruler, you can easily compare different attribution models using the drop-down menu. This flexibility helps you understand how various models impact your marketing data, allowing for informed decisions to optimise your strategies for better results.

Best practices for marketing attribution 

Now that you understand marketing attribution and the available models, let’s explore some best practices for effectively implementing and optimising your strategy.

1. Educate your stakeholders

Start by explaining to your stakeholder how marketing attribution can benefit the company. Clearly articulate how attribution can lead to better decision-making, improved resource allocation, and a more cohesive understanding of the customer journey.

Securing early buy-in from stakeholders ensures a smoother setup process and minimises confusion down the line.

2. Define your goals

Before jumping into the realm of marketing attribution, it helps to define clear objectives. Understand what success looks like for your business and align attribution efforts accordingly.

For example, are you interested in identifying the source driving the most conversions or understanding the role your content plays in the customer journey?

Clear goals form the basis for an effective attribution strategy. 

3. Research and choose the right tool

While many marketers often turn to free tools like Google Analytics, it may not be the optimal choice for marketing attribution.

GA4 has obvious limitations, including handling anonymous and aggregated data. While it provides insights into conversions on your website, the challenge lies in identifying the individuals behind those conversions.

Related: 6 limitations of GA4 and how to overcome them

Without granular data, establishing connections between website visitors, leads, and post-conversion journeys becomes nearly impossible.

Furthermore, as of 2023, GA4 streamlined its attribution models, leaving only last-click and data-driven attribution, posing a challenge for those looking to identify sources crucial to the awareness stage.

On that note, consider investing in dedicated marketing attribution tools that provide more sophisticated features, enabling granular analysis of user behaviour, insights into the entire customer journey, and more accurate attribution modelling. You can start with our list of the best marketing attribution tools.

4. Combine attribution with your CRM tool

The customer journey extends beyond the initial conversion, involving steps like lead qualification, opportunity creation, and final closure.

To measure the complete impact of marketing efforts on pipeline and revenue, integrate your attribution tool with your CRM tool and other relevant platforms. This will allow you to assess how marketing contributes to pipeline growth and revenue generation, providing valuable insights for tracking ROI and ROAS.

5. Consider alternative measurement techniques

The efficiency of traditional marketing attribution is under scrutiny due to factors like the decline of third-party cookies and increased privacy regulations.

Related: How to prepare for the death of third-party cookies

To keep track of your marketing performance, consider exploring alternative measurement techniques.

A hybrid approach, combining attribution, qualitative data, and machine learning models like marketing mix modelling, helps you adapt to evolving data privacy while still gaining valuable insights into your marketing effectiveness.

Marketing attribution tools to help you get started

Choosing the right tools is essential when establishing your attribution strategy. Here are some recommendations to help you get started:

1. Ruler Analytics: Forgive us for putting ourselves on top of the list, but there are valid reasons for doing so. Ruler tracks each visitor from their first interaction to conversion. When a visitor converts, their marketing source and conversion details are sent to your CRM. After closing a lead, Ruler uses different models to attribute revenue to various touchpoints. Learn more about our marketing attribution here.

2. Adinton: Comprehensive marketing attribution platform that offers multi-touch attribution models to analyse the impact of various touchpoints on conversions. By providing real-time data on the performance of each marketing channel, Adinton empowers marketers to allocate budgets effectively, optimise campaigns, and enhance overall ROI. 

3. Adjust: Mobile-focused marketing attribution platform that excels in tracking and attributing app installs and user engagement to specific ad campaigns. Leveraging its advanced analytics, Adjust allows marketers to understand the entire user journey, from ad impression to in-app activity, enabling them to make informed decisions on user acquisition and retention strategies.

4. Google Analytics: Widely used web analytics tool that provides robust attribution capabilities for digital marketers. With features like multi-channel funnels and attribution modeling, Google Analytics helps businesses analyse the effectiveness of various marketing channels in driving conversions. 

5. HubSpot Attribution: Part of the HubSpot Marketing Hub that allows businesses to track and measure the performance of their marketing campaigns across different channels. With features like revenue attribution and campaign reporting, HubSpot Attribution enables marketers to understand the impact of their efforts on the bottom line. 

Do you need help with your marketing attribution?

As budget constraints intensify and monitoring the customer journey becomes more challenging with the decline of third-party cookies, digital marketing attribution emerges as a key tool for tracking patterns and behaviours.

It enables you to acquire insights and make informed decisions when navigating through these challenges.

Ruler places attribution at the core of its operations. Through our advanced attribution tool, you can seamlessly track and analyse the complete customer journey, spanning from the initial touchpoint to the ultimate conversion. This enables you to make informed decisions, allocate budgets strategically, and optimise campaigns for more revenue.

If you’d like to learn more about what we do, this blog showcases everything you can discover with Ruler. Alternatively, book a demo to see how our tool can simplify your approach to marketing attribution.