Long Live Content

Attribution is Dead, Long Live Content

By Andrew Oziemblo, Founder & CEO of Chicago SEO Geeks, the digital marketing & Chicago SEO agency helping businesses achieve long-term growth goals. 

People who have been in the digital marketing industry a while will attest to this: “it used to be much simpler”. There was a time where you had a paid search expert, an SEO expert and perhaps even some affiliate experts to embody the totality of your digital marketing efforts. Even more so, these three experts would work in complete isolation from each other, and that worked just fine.

If outsourced, the SEO agency never had to meet the PPC agency, ever. The occasional cross-agency meeting usually resulted in a nice meeting, but never really in actual beneficial synergies. An SEO company would do some PPC on the side and vice versa, but it would be a secondary focus. There would be the occasional discussion on how PPC would cannibalize SEO, especially on “branded” terms, but as far as the regular SEO consultant was concerned, PPC activity did not overlap with SEO services. PPC did their thing, and so did SEO, and the world was alright.

Photo by Merakist on Unsplash

A Mess Of Our Own Doing

If we look at the current digital marketing landscape, this has completely changed. The online media landscape has become an extremely complex ecosystem with an almost impenetrable layer of confusion of what works and what doesn’t.

As digital marketing budgets are reaching considerable sizes (but nowhere near traditional media budgets for now) so has scrutiny. Digital marketing is no longer the pet project of that junior digital marketing executive you hired; it’s become a topic for the C-suite. With all that, money and attention come different opinions and attitudes.

Direct-Response Rules The Roost

First of all, you have the direct-response types, the ones that embrace digital marketing for the idea that everything can be measured. Every single marketing dollar can be traced back to an outcome. If this outcome is unfavourable, the investment goes down. If the result is nett positive, the investment goes up. It’s probably no surprise that CFOs can be found in this group.

This group has very much grown the digital marketing industry in the last ten years. Every digital marketing expenditure starts with a business case and ends with a rigorous settlement of the final balance. In this world, PPC was the clear winner (alongside email and affiliate marketing), notable losers were display, video and SEO (although local SEO did have a small resurrection a few years ago).

All the social platforms also had a hard time breaking through the barrier that the direct-response types represent(ed). The common challenge that this group was confronted with was: growing through digital means. Even with last-click number crunching and razor-sharp return-on-investment (or even returns-on-ad-spend), the strict performance-based approach lacked the ability to bring new customers through the (digital) door.

Two Schools of Thought on Digital Growth

This presented marketers with two schools of thought:

1) you can’t grow the business through digital means and therefore need to rely on traditional (and usually costly) media such as TV, radio and out-of-home billboards; or

2) we can grow the business through digital means, we just can’t measure it.

Some companies would have gone down route 1, with predictable success, but at high (and familiar) costs that come along with traditional media. The companies going down route 2 (in most cases) bet the farm on a form of attribution.

The Attribution Challenge

Attribution, in some form or shape, has been a hot topic in digital marketing for the last few years. The idea is that a user can be tracked throughout the whole journey and therefore we can redistribute conversion value over the touchpoints. By reassigning value, you can now see the actual value of your investment in “higher funnel” digital marketing channels, i.e. video, display banners and social ads.

The idea was that you would have a large part of actual data (deterministic), which is you knowing exactly where your customers have been all logged via a persistent ID, slightly supplemented with modelled data, so-called probabilistic data. Combine both types of data and unleash a fair amount of machine learning, and you can build complete probability models. I.e. a real-time calculation of expected returns (or revenue or profits if you will) at the time the video or display or social ad was shown, effectively influencing the maximum bid the advertiser was willing to put through.

And it’s exactly like it sounds, a tremendous amount of math and statistics, relying on massive amounts of data, uncharted machine learning capabilities and, safe to say, future tech capability. Here’s the kicker though: it’s most likely a dead-end street. If attribution is a chair, then here are already three legs that are gone (or soon going).

The Three Lost Legs of Attribution

1) Attribution in most cases relies on information being sent or collected by a central server, almost exclusively relying on user action such as clicking an ad. This means that views or impressions are not included in the data streams attribution relies on. Traditional marketing 101 teaches us that part of the value lies in “seeing” the ad and becoming part of the consideration set. Virtually all attribution systems don’t account for views.

2) One of the more popular marketing platforms is Facebook, which essentially is a walled garden. Say you have a marketing mix of Google Ads, some programmatically bought videos and banners, and some paid social ads on Facebook, you will, at the very minimum have two ecosystems of tracking. Google Ads and bought ads on the Google Marketing Platform will provide you consistent data, but Facebook won’t plug into it. This effectively disqualifies sensible attribution whenever Facebook (or any other walled garden system) is used in the mix.

3) The world seems to be moving towards giving less and less information away. You most likely will have heard of Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) baked into Safari browsers which are the default for iPhones. In a world that is increasingly mobile (and using iPhones) this effectively means that deterministic data is on the exit.

Long Live the Content King

All this gives way to the counterpart of the direct-response types, which are the marketers who believe in content marketing. It’s not exclusively the output you are looking at (although still important), it’s the input you are steering on. This mainly gives social media the right perspective to have a chance to prove itself. This benefits Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok.

This also means that companies realise that SEO needs to be at the forefront of digital marketing efforts. And that’s not just theory. One only needs to look at an online brand that has taken the world by storm, Gymshark, to see the power of inspired content used on the right channels. It’s time to let go (not completely) of seeing the digital world in a direct-response last-click wins way and embrace that “content is still king” and that companies and brands aren’t made by counting beads, they are made by providing relevance and meaning to people.