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Will Google's new attribution service shed more light on customer journeys?

24th May 2017
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Attribution is one of the key challenges for today’s marketers. Marketing budgets continue to be wasted due to ineffective timing and targeting - research from Nielsen suggests that 40% of display ads are not actually seen by target audiences and stats from Augusta Consulting estimate that only 1 in 5 ads are considered an efficient use of budget.

But with customer journeys becoming increasingly complex,  unless marketers get a better understanding of how all channels assist in final conversion, marketing will continue to be ‘hit and hope’. Indeed, research by Forrester suggests that only one in nine marketers use advanced attribution methods, while over a quarter (28%) still rely on single-click attribution. Part of the reason for this is the cost associated with the more sophisticated tools. However, this could be all about to change.

At the Google Marketing Next event in San Francisco, the tech giant announced the launch of ‘Google Attribution’, a free service designed to allow every marketer to measure the impact of their campaigns across devices and channels.

In a blog post, Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s senior vice president of ads & commerce, explained:

“With today’s complex customer journey, your business might have a dozen interactions with a single person - across display, video, search, social, and on your site or app. And all these moments take place on multiple devices, making them even harder to measure. Marketers have been trying to make attribution work for years, but existing solutions just don't cut it. Most attribution tools: are hard to set up; lose track of the customer journey when people move between devices; aren’t integrated with ad tools, making it difficult to take action.

“As a result, many marketers are stuck using last-click attribution, which misses the impact of most marketing touchpoints. With Google Attribution, we’ll help you understand how all of your marketing efforts work together and deliver the insights you need to make them work better.”

By integrating with AdWords, Google Analytics and DoubleClick Search, Google Attribution pulls data from all marketing channels to provide a holistic view of performance. It then applies machine learning to determine how much credit to assign to each step in the consumer journey, “from the first time they engage with your brand for early research down to the final click before purchase”. This is what Google calls “data-driven attribution”.

Finally, because Attribution is integrated with AdWords and DoubleClick Search, users can quickly optimise ads and move budget between channels, based on the reports.


Smart move

While much of the functionality has been available before, the news that Attribution will provide these tools to businesses for free has been warmly welcomed by much of the digital community.

“This is a properly useful tool for anyone that needs to understand their audience,” says Holly Hayman, lead digital strategist at full-service digital agency Fat Media. “Google Analytics is used by at least 89% of website owners, and unless you’re an analyst or marketer, finding all your conversion data is a bit of a headache. We all hear the “social doesn’t convert” soundbite, but it is a crucial part of a lot of upper funnel activity.

"Having a more concise, easy to use alternative to the limited attribution modelling provided in Google Analytics would be a god send, and save considerable time for agencies. No more arguing if a channel is a touch-point or the be-all-and-end-all. It’s a smart move by Google; they know their audience is getting smarter and more demanding by the day, and tools like Adobe Analytics are on the rise.”

For users who cannot afford enterprise level attribution platforms, this offers a leap forward.

“There is huge value in making the weighting for attributing each channel correctly,” suggests Jane McConnell. "I think what's really exciting is how this will change the way marketing is measured globally, and how it's understood top-down for e-commerce - and how much we can truly understand as a touchpoint from each of our channels from our audience's point of view.”

David Lloyd, data analyst at Brilliant Noise, adds: “It is surprising they are offering a service such as attribution for free, as competitors are pricey. It will be interesting to find out if the service is up to the standards set by competitors, despite the freemium model.

“For users who cannot afford enterprise level attribution platforms, this offers a leap forward. Additionally, combining data from AdWords, Double Click and Google Analytics could be a really powerful tool for advertisers. Understanding more about how the different touchpoints in a user journey influence conversion will be powerful, even if it’s a beta/basic platform.”

But there are other reasons why Google’s latest initiative is expected to be a success.

Rick Tobin, MD of PPC specialist Circus PPC, explains: “There are plenty of 3rd party attribution tools but Google is a product most people will be signed into already. Many, if not all, companies looking at attribution data will have some level of exposure to this already through Analytics or AdWords, so this actually gives them something more with much friendlier visibility. With the success already on Analytics 360, the beta test on the select group of people on there was already a success so there should be no reason why it shouldn’t be a success moving forward.”

Luke Barlow, ecommerce director at Tufferman, adds: “I’d hazard a guess that Google loses a phenomenal amount of revenue from people prematurely pulling the plug on ad spend due to clunky last click attribution. Last click attribution was fine ten years ago when it was all desktop users and social media was in its infancy but with the amount of consumer touch points these days, accurate attribution is crucial to a successful campaign. I think the tool will gain momentum quickly within the industry, being able to justify ad spend is sometimes difficult if you don’t have visibility of the whole journey. It’s difficult to ignore just how useful the new Attribution tool could be.”

Vested interest

However, not all commentators are convinced by the service. 

Mike Campbell, head of international effectiveness at Ebiquity, explains: "Google’s solution describes a digital only world and takes no account of the impact of communications and media on offline sales. And it also takes no account of offline media and its impact on business. A complete solution should take into account all marketing touchpoints and all sales channels, both offline and online. The way to do this is to have an online digital attribution model (which is what Google is describing) to provide the detail of a top down attribution model using econometric techniques.

"Digital media in totality usually accounts for a relatively small proportion of sales. It sounds like the Google model will assign all online sales to digital media. This approach will deliver flawed results as it will not attribute sales to other key marketing touchpoints. These include the base sales of a brand, promotions, distribution changes and price and offline media. The model will also not take into account of effects such as traditional broadcast media impact search volumes. Google’s solution will simply attribute this effect to more efficient search.

Whilst the approach is a clear advancement on last touch attribution, it is far from the perfect solution.

"Whilst the approach is a clear advancement on last touch attribution, it is far from the perfect solution to assigning the correct allocation of communication budgets."

Campbell also warns that organisations must bear in mind that Google has a vested interest in the outcome. 

"Its service description explains that the output is feeding into taking action that will naturally imply buying more Google search," he notes. "My view is that it is essential to have an attribution service in place that is independent and totally free from any vested interest. This one of the key reasons why services for the market must have independence and transparency at the heart of the solution."

Indeed, despite the value that Attribution could provide to organisations, Google could ultimately be the organisation that benefits most from the new service.

As Tobin notes: “Like with the existing attribution data on Analytics, most people find that AdWords is one of the biggest contributors if not the biggest contributor to their conversions. Which in turn leads to an increase in AdWords budget. This will ultimately help clients understand the true value of AdWords and will make them more willing to invest more. So by giving the data for free, Google will in turn see their revenues increase."

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