Now is the time for marketers to reevaluate multi-touch attribution

Image by iMattSmart via Unsplash

Although it’s a precarious time to make sweeping business changes, Gain Theory’s Russell Nuzzo makes the case for near-term measurement in lieu of marketers’ favourite – multi-touch attribution.

Every organization is asking the same question: if the world economy is frozen, what can I cut that will still allow me to come out of the running blocks fast? Unfortunately for many marketers, the decisions around investment cuts are being made by finance, with only the savviest of chief marketing officers having a say.

Right now, marketers need to justify every dollar by using the most accurate and relevant data possible to make fast decisions that will have a positive impact. In this climate, businesses that can, need to generate revenue now.

If return on investment was important for advertisers before the Covid-19 outbreak, it’s absolutely mission-critical now. And for marketing measurement, if anything good can come of the current crisis, it’s that brands begin a renewed focus on mastering what we call ‘near-term performance measurement.’ This approach focuses on using immediate and precise data signals to make advertising decisions.

Simply put – this crisis requires a strong, data-oriented approach for how we gauge the effectiveness of advertising. It’s time to zero-in on the data that is actually going to help you impact and protect your business immediately, rather than seek solutions through overly complex approaches with highly imperfect data.

Understandably, the temptation will be to plug the near-term ‘water leak’ by using the multi-touch attribution (MTA) ‘hammer’ that sits in the marketing measurement toolbox. But the ‘hammer’ is not the only tool you could use.

Historically, brands have tried to be as strategic as possible with their marketing spending using established approaches such as marketing mix modeling (MMM). These models help big brands figure out how best to allocate their budgets to maximize key measures such as reach and sales and evaluate tradeoffs.

However, if we recognize that the next six-12 months will look nothing like the past two to three years, the old models may no longer apply. MMM should not be thrown out; it can provide a great framing exercise. But it needs to be coupled with a strong, near-term measurement solution that can read and react based on what’s happening right now.

And if brands don’t get ‘right now’ right - their future isn’t necessarily guaranteed.

MTA is not the Swiss army knife that marketers need

Not long ago, MTA was once the darling of the marketing industry. Conceptually, it’s understandable. Who wouldn’t want to figure out exactly which ads drove which action? Even better, it promised marketers the ability to discern how different ad units across multiple media channels worked together to influence consumers and drive action. That’s essentially marketing’s holy grail: reach exactly who you want and don’t waste any money.

On paper, this is exactly the kind of tool that would be valuable right now, as chief marketing officers grapple with maddening business questions. But MTA has consistently overpromised and underdelivered.

A slew of less than satisfied customers can attest to this. I have heard of projects that take more than a year to get off the ground, significant data gaps and difficulties distilling tangible insights, not to mention the challenges of integrating MTA outputs back into clients’ adtech stacks. The continued deterioration of third-party cookies and IDs – the linchpin of MTA – will culminate in 2022 when Google, having followed Safari and Firefox, will begin blocking third-party cookies in Chrome.

Now is the perfect time to re-evaluate the right tools for near-term measurement.

The right tool for the right job

While the climate will be challenging for the foreseeable future, creating a unified, near-term measurement solution coupled with robust scenario planning, fueled by the latest available data will be essential.

There can be no garbage in and no garbage out. Not now.

To fuel near-term measurement, a tried and tested data-led alternative is to lean into what we call ‘micro-geographies’ for targeting as opposed to cookies. It is much easier to determine where an ad impression was served than who it was served to. Plus, micro-geographies are far more stable from data validation and privacy standpoints.

Additionally, most external impacts to consumer buying decisions happen geographically; local pricing, local distribution, local weather, local competition – even local Covid-19 infection patterns can affect the decision to purchase something.

We have been able to build these local features into our near-term measurement solution sensor; a micro-geography-based alternative to MTA.

For Covid-19 specifically, we’ve been able to build a set of indicators to quantify how the outbreak is positively and negatively impacting brand sales. Some of those trends are short term but others may have longer-term impacts on brand preferences and consumer habits. Some of the impacts will fundamentally change business models permanently.

Pivot to near-term measurement

Organizations need an understanding of short-, medium- and longer-term impacts of all their current investment decisions, not just marketing. Alongside longer-term scenario planning using simulation techniques such as agent-based modelling as well as established techniques such as MMM, marketers also need an immediate view on the here and now.

We think near-term measurement is the ultimate replacement for user-level MTA, and the perfect tool in the box for marketers in the Covid-19 ‘new normal’ landscape. Using near-term data can also predict consumer patterns before they happen.

Now more than ever, marketers need to make data-informed confident decisions at speed.

Using the right tools for the job, rather than reaching for a hammer, will help articulate the impact of investments ensuring brands remain relevant and robust through turbulent times, and that much better situated to lead when things get back ‘normal.’

Russell Nuzzo is managing partner of Gain Theory

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