The Flaws in Digital Marketing Attribution Models and What to Do About Them

by Andrew Fuchs | November 4, 2020

What route did someone take before they finally settled on your product? Which platforms helped them get there? How do you give each step of their journey the proper credit? What is the actual return on marketing investment?

Using data to figure out answers to these questions is an essential part of digital marketing in 2020, sure. But actually tracing customers back to the thing that brought them to your website? That’s a bit more complicated than even your analytics platform probably wants to admit.

Here, we’ll break down the most common digital marketing attribution models in 2020, why they miss a crucial bit of information and what you can do about it. 

What is digital marketing attribution and why is it so important?

Let’s do a quick review first, because it never hurts to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Digital marketing attribution is the process of connecting the actions users take online with their purchasing behavior. Marketers need this data to know where their customers find their product, what works and what doesn’t. This data can tell us where someone was before they came to our site and what they did once they arrived. Digital marketing attribution models help marketers make sense of that data.

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Digital marketing attribution is how marketers figure out whether the strategies they use are actually working. That’s important because there’s no one-size-fits-all digital marketing strategy.  Different businesses will need different approaches.

How digital marketing attribution works in practice: A hypothetical

Here’s an example of how the buyer’s journey for your product might work: 

Step 1. A prospect notices your company’s Facebook post after a friend comments on it.

Step 2: A week later, they view your company’s update on LinkedIn and click through to your website, but they leave without filling out any forms.

Step 3: A day after that, the prospect searches for your product on Google after thinking more about their visit to your site. Your website is one of the first results they see, thanks to Google Ads. They read one of your blog posts.

Step 4: Two weeks later, they remember you while facing a problem. They head to your website and fill out a form.

That’s…not very straightforward


According to a Gartner study, B2B businesses average 24 interactions with a potential customer from inquiry to conversion. As you can see, each of those steps can play a crucial role in the journey from prospect to buyer. And figuring out how to measure and weigh each step is not something you just parachute in and do at the last minute. 

Read more: Do You Have Valuable Content? Measuring Blog ROI

So what do you do with the information you get from each of those steps? This is where digital attribution models come in.

These are the most common digital attribution models

Google Analytics offers these seven standard models:

  • Last interaction attribution: The last click prior to conversion receives all the credit.
  • First interaction attribution: The first click is assigned all credit.
  • Last non-direct click: The last click that is not direct traffic receives the credit.
  • Linear attribution: Each interaction leading up to the conversion receives equal credit.
  • Time-decay attribution: The closer the interaction is to the time of the conversion, the more credit it gets.
  • Position-based (U-shape) attribution: More credit is split between the first and last interaction, with less credit spread among any interactions in between.
  • Algorithmic/data-driven attribution: Credit for interactions is weighted using machine learning instead of human input. 
  • Custom attribution models: Customize your own rules for credit assigned to different types of interactions and channels, and specify lookback windows.

Relying on out-of-the-box models can get you in trouble. Here’s why

As we examine in our white paper,The Executive Guide to Return on Marketing Investment, these models can be overhyped, particularly when applied to small- and medium-sized businesses. The standard models track what your prospects do, but they don’t give enough insight into why they do it. Plus, new privacy regulations could make them less reliable.

Some of these models only measure one interaction. Others parse credit out at multiple steps, but still don’t give marketers the full picture of what their prospects and customers are up to. In an economic environment where every dollar counts and many companies are increasing the amount of their business that takes place online, measuring the ROI of your marketing investment is crucial.

So what is a digital marketer to do?

On their own, platforms like Google Ads, Facebook Ads and LinkedIn Ads optimize themselves in a vacuum. They do so very well and build momentum to scale and find more users who will convert. But some marketers must connect with buyers across many different channels and ad platforms that don’t communicate well with each other.

That’s why it’s important to know the flaws in these common digital marketing attribution models; they make it hard to account for interactions that occur off each platform. But these models can still help you determine your return on marketing investment.

Tools are available to link platforms together, but they can be expensive and rely on third-party cookies, which could be a precarious strategy as privacy regulations increase.

Without using one of those tools, you still have options. Each ad platform you’re using, be it Facebook, Google, LinkedIn or Twitter, still gives you data that can be turned into insight. 

Let’s imagine a scenario: You can set up a non-brand search ad, which someone finds when they search for the keywords you’re targeting. Then they might see your brand again when you target them with a display remarketing ad. After that, they could click on a branded search ad when they look for your company.

That sequence itself may not give us a full enough picture of the user journey because it only includes interactions prospects had on Google’s platforms. But we can use data from Google Analytics, Facebook and LinkedIn to tie it all together. This can be done with data visualization programs like Google Data Studio or Tableau. It can also be done manually in a spreadsheet.  It can even be done with more advanced cross-platform remarketing strategies, building audiences based on traffic from one platform, then using those audiences to layer or target on another.  This can help measure the uplift different channels are having as well as offer some insights into the “cross-over” effect your efforts are having.

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It’ll require some work because advertising platforms don’t all use the same attribution metrics or conversion tracking methods. On Facebook, your goal could be to register a certain number of clicks. A Google Ads goal would be based on conversions, but would also analyze the number of users who visited your site through a Facebook campaign who then clicked one of your search ads.

Marketers must be careful, however, to make sure tracking is set up properly. Otherwise you risk a single website visitor being counted twice by different platforms, skewing your analytics. Deciphering these tracking methods enables marketers to properly attribute leads and pinpoint each platform’s role in the customer journey. This exercise brings clarity to where marketing dollars should be invested.

Make the most of your marketing investment with Silverback Strategies

It’s never been more crucial to be sure you’re making the most of your marketing budget. At Silverback Strategies, we utilize the full suite of Google Analytics tools, auditing and implementing measurement programs for our clients’ digital projects at an expert level.

Based on specific client needs, we also provide campaign tagging, custom dimensions and metrics, custom segments and custom dashboards and reports for our clients’ teams.

As part of our integrated team team of experts and practitioners across Analytics, Content, Creative, Paid Media, Research and SEO, our dedicated account managers work side-by-side with you to maximize your marketing efforts, coordinate across resources, and get value out of every dollar you spend. 

We’re in this together. Contact us today to learn more.

Andrew Fuchs

Andrew is a technically curious digital marketer with a background in both Paid Media + Analytics. He loves integrating data sources to connect digital KPIs with measurable business outcomes.

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