How Marketing Attribution Can Create Unintended Consequences

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A version of this article was originally published on MarTech Today.

B2B marketers must measure to understand what’s working and what’s not, where and how to improve, and, most importantly, how to run marketing like a business. Without this capability woven into the fabric of the team, B2B marketing organizations will languish.

But, somehow, we’re being sidetracked from strong measurement and analytics to chase full-blown attribution – the ability to attribute every action and activity to an outcome. The “attribution obsession” that’s creeping into some B2B marketing teams is creating unintended consequences.

Thinking about all the places you’ve worked, I’m sure you can visualize that “know it all” person who shows up to the QBR (quarterly business review), locked and loaded with data. But rather than present meaningful, actionable insights that can help the organization, they highlight their findings in the context of one or several of the below traits:

  • “C.Y.A.”: Shows everyone why they personally matter to the organization, but the data behind their self-validation often isn’t actionable
  • “Look-at-me Johnny”: Claims credit for everything, so again, the data has little value
  • “Spit-ball thrower”: Tells everything you’re missing/doing wrong and no solution on how to fix it
  • “See the leaf, miss the forest”: So obsessed with micro-measurement, misses the bigger business opportunity

While not solely resulting from attribution, these negative characteristics can gradually appear when marketers become too obsessed with attaching performance to specific efforts. Obviously, these traits then hinder the potential of B2B organizations and, in short order, will result in lost credibility with key stakeholders.

Before I go any further and get lambasted, I want to be on the record that I highly value and respect marketing organizations that can measure critical key performance indicators (KPIs): marketing investment performance, sales pipeline impact, revenue contribution, customer renewal and churn rates and the holy grail – all touches along the customer journey. It’s also essential for marketers to be accountable and to understand performance for specific areas of marketing channels – blogs, events, website, digital spend, etc. An analytics and insights mindset is a success-driver that leads to better outcomes. I benefit from this as a CMO.

The rub comes in regarding what’s behind attribution. Many marketing organizations are wasting precious resources, cycles and budget obsessing on attribution for the wrong reasons. First-touch, last touch, who gets credit for sourcing a new customer, etc. There’s a balance and every organization needs to find it.

Here are some practical things I’ve see working for leading B2B teams when it comes to measurement and business impact.

Measure to improve your team’s efforts rather than prove your individual value

Starting out with a “justification” mindset provides lots of data proof-points, but little insights. You’re trying to stack the cards in your favor. This happens when marketers are overzealous to show marketing’s impact on the business versus capturing the reality. Or, getting so focused on showing their work’s contribution that the data gets skewed. Good intentions, bad consequences.

This “constantly trying to prove your value” is a defensive posture that hurts your credibility. It’s also very distracting, taking your eye off understanding what’s working and what’s not, so that you lose the ability to quickly put your resources and energy into the initiatives with the highest business impact.  

Attribution is for intelligence and insights, not for getting credit

Sales, marketing, customer success, product and ops all use data, not only to measure and report outcomes, but to look for areas of improvement across the customer journey and business process. 

This is especially true when you’re selling to mid-market and enterprise customers. There are hundreds of touches required to influence, win and delight a customer. And, there are multiple people involved in identifying, evaluating, procuring and selecting your solution. Therefore, seeking to claim credit for first touch, last touch, who sourced x deal isn’t only disingenuous, but destructive to the collaborative effort it takes to win business.

At Integrate (where I’m on the marketing team), our mantra has become “We’re all in this together, failure is NOT an option.” We also show full-revenue-funnel metrics and influences as a team (sales + marketing + customer success), versus by individual department. Of course, this data is captured and analyzed to help inform each group of what leads to success, just not to claim credit.

Data and attribution without the right narrative is useless

Dashboards are essential tools, but it’s “the story behind the story” that moves businesses forward and brings together the singular, integrated focus to win bigger.

One of the smartest ways to do this is to use the dashboard as a summary and bring to life what’s happening in your business, market and pipeline. The best way I’ve seen this done is showing “an anatomy of a deal” or “a customer journey” during your monthly or quarterly review, where a sales and marketing leader walk through the end-to-end process and the data behind it. They can share what they learned, what changes they’re making, and where they’re applying these learnings next. Applying too much singular focus on attribution can reduce the impact of the full story.

There’s more to marketing than generating revenue

There, I said it. While modern B2B marketing has shifted to revenue and growth marketing, the best companies use data to manage their business and combine it with savvy market and customer intelligence to drive their business.

Marketing needs to serve as the lead storytellers, arming all in their organization, partner network and customer base to advocate and amplify their brand. Moreover, if you don’t have the talent and focus on the right markets, ideal customer profiles, unique positioning and relevant messaging, all the data in the world won’t help.

Sophisticated analytics and aiming to measure critical initiatives and investments is smart and required. But, becoming obsessed with measuring everything for the sake of attribution is a losing strategy. Stay after the holy grail of attribution, but don’t let it derail you from the real mission – building a relevant, high-growth company that your customers will vote for with their loyalty and purchase order!

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