Secrets of a B2B Marketer: Attribution and the Legend of ROI

By Cara Garretson

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” -John Wanamaker

ROI is on the agenda of every marketing meeting around the country. But what if calculating a true ROI is not possible? In a world where copious amounts of marketing data are available to us in nearly real-time, this can be quite frustrating.

It’s widely understood that people need to be exposed to a message multiple times for it to have any sort of impact. These days we need to be exposed to something many, many times and through multiple channels. The world moves faster than ever, and our days are more jam-packed with marketing messages than in any time in history. Because of this, most marketing teams, and marketing firms like ours, recommend that brands utilize a multi-channel approach when developing their media strategy. For example, your marketing plan may be comprised of print and digital media. In addition to your paid media plan, there are likely many other components to your marketing efforts from sales all the way to word of mouth. Herein lies the problem.

In a multi-channel marketing world, proving accurate sequential attribution and in-turn ROI by media tactic is unattainable. In other words, there is simply no way to prove which exposures the audience had to a message impacted a conversion, in what order and to what capacity. There are some services that track the sequential exposure to various ad units in the digital space, and through complicated algorithms, assign a percentage of credit to each digital ad that the target was exposed to leading up to conversion. While I’d argue that even this can’t be 100% accurate, it could be a useful guide if you have the budget to implement the technology. Once non-digital media channels get added into the mix, such as print media, things go from shaky to impossibly sticky.

Let’s assume your marketing plan contains online video ads, trade magazine ads and a social media communications plan. Furthermore, your sales team is constantly working on outreach, and of course, word of mouth is invaluable to your brand. Now, let’s play out a possible scenario relating to your marketing efforts:

  • Your target audience regularly reads the leading trade magazine in your industry and while flipping through it, notices your ad. Great!
  • Later on that week, he’s researching some supply options and is served a pre-roll video unit prior to a video tutorial he wanted to watch. Maybe he clicks on it, but likely he won’t, because he’s busy researching something else right now.
  • One afternoon a couple weeks later, he Googles your company name and lands on your website. He’ll be in the market to make a purchase soon and is finally doing some serious research into your company.
  • Down the road he’ll pick up the phone, talk to your sales team, and they will close the deal. Success!

In the above scenario, can the sales team take credit for the sale? Yes, but not completely. All components of the marketing plan helped to catch the target’s attention and raise brand awareness, so you were top of mind when the target was ready to make a purchase. It would be incorrect to assume that the print ads didn’t have an impact, because he didn’t call immediately after seeing them. We can’t assume that the online video was ineffective, because he didn’t even click on it. On the flip side, we can’t really prove that the tactics were individually effective either. You can change the tactics and their order in the scenario above, and the same would hold true. It has long been our philosophy that no single tactic in a marketing plan can be responsible for the plan’s success. Rather, a marketing plan is like a machine requiring all parts to work together to be truly effective.

So how do we know when something seems to be working? We look at indicators. A robust suite of media metrics are available to us in the digital space. Print media can carry unique URLs that can be tracked through website analytics. What feedback are your salespeople hearing from their prospects? Is the phone ringing? Each of these measurements carries its own flaws, but generally speaking, if the key performance indicators are strong, it can be assumed that conversions will follow.

On occasion, we run into the situation where all media metrics and key performance indicators would define a media plan as a wonderful success, but the client didn’t hit sales goals. In these cases it is generally assumed that there wasn’t an acceptable return on the investment of the marketing dollars spent. It always feels like a bit of a dichotomy; if the media plan is working, why aren’t the phones ringing? There are so many forces at play in a marketing plan that the answer to this is often difficult to identify. Is the user experience on your website strong? Is your sales team converting the leads that come their way with a high percentage of success? What are the current economic conditions? You can see how quickly the ROI of the individual marketing efforts becomes insurmountably complicated to get to.

So what’s a marketer to do? We recommend watching the metrics you can track in each media carefully. Make sure that they are strong and continue to indicate success. If they aren’t, optimize. If sales goals aren’t being hit, closely examine all facets of your marketing efforts, and identify what components might be weak. Can you calculate ROI? Yes, but we’d recommend looking at it from a broad-based perspective rather than a tactic-based perspective. Your marketing plan is a machine. Treat it as such.

It’s quite possible that a solution that allows accurate tactic-based attribution and ROI calculations will come our way with ever-evolving developments in tracking technology. For now though, we feel your pain, Mr. Wanamaker.

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