By Matt Pigott - August 24th, 2016

Marketing Attribution: Second in our three-part series

Data has been likened to oil, trapped beneath the ground waiting to be tapped. But tapping it alone isn’t useful. It needs to serve a purpose, to propel, to have any sort of fiscal value. Vehicles and industry have made sense of oil. Computer algorithms are making sense of data. Advanced software systems capable of machine learning can now generate accurate patterns from which marketing executives can draw clear meaning. It’s this data crunching capability that is fast making data one of the most valuable digital commodities on the planet.

Three billion smartphones make attribution a must for brands

The data eruption has happened, the output has taken shape and form, and the evolution of the new data ecosystem is well underway. In addition, for the first time in history, a generation of digital natives – those people born in the last fifteen years who have never experienced a non-digital world – now exists. Today, with around three billion smartphones on the planet, never has the need for assiduously applied marketing attribution been greater. Making sense of data inflows requires a dedicated approach to analysis, including more granular segmentation, cross-channel assessments, and in-depth behavioral investigation that provide a nuanced and multilayered picture.

Attribution is the new KPI

Managing huge volumes of information is challenging; data must be, cleaned and looked at from different angles before the real task of applying structure begins. A close relative of measuring KPIs, it’s what marketers must do well if they want to know, not only what is working and what isn’t, but also where, when, how and why. Finding the best ways to measure and interpret data means looking closely at available software systems. The next challenge is knowing what to do with that data, and working to maintain a healthy balance between the raw inputs and creative outputs. For many creatives, ‘painting by numbers’ is anathema, and data die-hards may well baulk at the idea of creatives going to town with their mathematical insights. Bringing these two distinct mindsets together to connect, communicate and collaborate is vital if brands are going to make the best use of the information they’ve successfully gathered.

Why data is key to unlocking the consumer interaction puzzle

But how is it possible to take large tracts of data from a diverse array of sources and manage it well? Many CMOs use social media management systems, often supplied by third parties, to get an overview of the type of online conversations customers are having. Positive or negative is a start (about a product or service for example), but using algorithms to pick out greater detail is essential for establishing sensible future brand strategies. Like brushing away sand from a buried artifact, it takes care, diligence, and focus, but the eventual reward is a clear overview of something intact and tangible. Revealing hidden meaning from the cryptic puzzle of consumer interactions is every marketer’s deepest desire, not least of all because it helps establish some sort of direction. This is ultimately what good marketing attribution is for.

It takes many channels to build a true end-to-end picture

Google provides analytic services and Facebook has made analytics for businesses more accessible, but is this an acceptable set-up for C-Suite execs – relying on other companies to manage information flows, according to their own in-house protocols?

And yet, because of the sheer numbers of people interacting through these foundational giants of the new digital ecosystem, their hands are tied. Whatever happens, for many marketers, managing a large social presence across multiple channels will constitute a significant portion of their role.

Nothing eccentric about customer centric!

Understanding that activity is the key to furthering engagement with target audiences. And this is where things have changed, almost beyond recognition. Today attribution isn’t about straight fiscal results. Everybody knows that the bottom line is important, but in an increasingly customer-centric industry, savvy marketers know that it’s the relationship that counts – engagement that builds trust and engenders loyalty. Digital communications and a changing mindset mean that ads are increasingly reviled. The last thing modern consumers want is to be to ‘sold’ to. Fast replacing it is native advertising, or ad journalism, as it’s also known. Content is back, and it’s more important than ever, but with a new slant – it’s written with journalistic flair and style, but is, if well executed, seeded with super-subtle brand references. And this is the stuff that needs measuring and weighting to see how well it’s performing on different platforms. And because of its revenue potential in an industry hamstrung by ad-blocking, traditional publishers are diving into the space with gusto.

Forbes makes content marketing top priority

Among many other publications, Forbes is one good example of an online publication gravitating fast toward influencer marketing. BrandVoice is Forbes effort to combine its journalistic prowess with its advertising capabilities. And the fact that around 30 percent of the online publication’s revenue is derived this way suggests that this isn’t just a fad.

The key takeaway here is, this is about engagement first. Conversions and sales come a pretty close second, but it’s an inversion of the old and long-established paradigm nonetheless. Still many chief execs have one foot trapped in the past, despite growing consumer resistance to ads. Even if companies manage to cleverly circumvent ad blocking, they’re missing the point. Which is that people don’t want ads. The good news is, the do want good quality, engaging and relevant content. And they’re getting it. From the publishers and brands who are ahead of the curve.

Is content plus marketing attribution a potential new business model?

Marketing attribution comes once again to the fore because brands want to know precisely who is engaged and when. That’s the value data market attribution can reveal. And publishers have cottoned on to the power and moneymaking possibilities of the technology that drives attribution, offering it as a service within a service. Forbes $75,000 elite package, for example, offers analytics for its clients, core data that unveils the key metrics of brands want and need to develop their strategies. No doubt, this new content-oriented ‘handshake’ with publishers will feature as a more prevalent part of brands’ marketing efforts in the future. A combination of publishers own analytics capabilities with in-house marketing attribution suggests the development of a new, standard model. And as more and more ingredients get added marketing attribution, the mix will start to thicken.

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