Marketing Attribution: What It Is, How It Works—And What It Can Do For You

Man working on a laptop and writing on a notepad
James T Fletcher
CEO, Principal Consultant


Marketing attribution is a way of discovering which touchpoints your customers interact with before purchasing. Each interaction is a tap on a touchpoint—if you know exactly where these taps happen, you´ll see a better picture of how customers get to know you (and get to buy from you). Because of this, marketing attribution is a key factor in helping you calculate your marketing strategy´s ROI – and they are one of the main reasons why marketing teams adopt marketing automation.

In other words, marketing attribution can help you find out what is working for you so that you can do more of it.

And yet, with all the lead interaction information that is at your marketing team´s fingertips, how can you know which particular touch point made your customer buy from you? How can you assign credit where credit is due?

This is where marketing attribution models come in handy

Marketing attribution models are a set of rules that enable you to give credit to each touch point in your campaign, letting you see which channels are most influential in pushing your customer to buy from you. Marketing automation platforms make it easy to see where customer interaction takes place so you can create a user journey map across all your omnichannel campaigns (and that’s why they’re critical in establishing lead nurturing campaigns, lead scoring, and lead qualification … but those are topics for another day!)

These models each have a different way of assigning credit for the lead’s conversion and can be split roughly into single-touch or multi-touch, with single-touch models consistently tracking specific conversion points to revenue and multi-touch models splitting the credit for lead conversion across multiple touch points along the buying journey. All have pros and cons (no surprises here!) which we will explore.

There are three main types of single-touch attribution:

  • First touch: all the credit for a customer purchase goes to the touch point that first pulls the visitor to your website. This model emphasises the first part of the customer journey and works best for optimising demand generation. However, it does not gather information on what makes your customer actually BUY–and it gives credit to the first touch point even when the customer does not buy at all! So this model isn´t the best for optimising leads along the sales funnel.
  • Last touch: all the credit goes to the final touch point the customer interacts with before buying. Because it can be easy to track this point, this conversion-focused model tends to be the default attribution model. However, this model won´t account for the touch points a lead interacted with before the point that led to conversion. Therefore, it cannot help you optimise non-converting touch points or better allocate time, people, and resources across all touch points.
  • Lead conversion: all credit goes to the touch point that generated the lead. It can help you pinpoint which touchpoints are generating high-level leads—but it omits other, often crucial, parts of the buying journey.

Some of the most common multi-touch attribution models include:

  • Linear: all touchpoints are tracked and credit is split evenly across the buying journey. While it gives a whole picture of touch point interaction and allows marketers to develop an integrated strategy, it isn’t always optimal for understanding which points are working best (your high-performing touch points may get less credit than they deserve and vice versa).
  • Time decay: the further from the conversion a touch point is, the less credit it gets. This model helps marketers see which touchpoints generate the conversion, but it does not show what led the customer to interact with you in the first place, nor does it properly differentiate the credit given to touch points that propel the customer to buy.
  • U-shaped (or position-based): credit lands heavily on the first and last touch points (40% each to beginning and end points), with the 20% remaining credit split evenly among the middle touch points. While this model optimises the beginning and ends touch points, it can underestimate the importance of touch points in the middle.
  • Custom (or algorithmic): an entirely customised model is created and built to match your business’s customer journey and its clients. This model is the most customisation (and can give the best feedback), but it is also the least practical: it requires high expertise to set up, troubleshoot, and replicate.

The model you choose can influence your results to show you what seems to work best, so make sure you have time to review and understand these models AND that you can allocate time and resources to making changes in your model to suit your customer´s needs and your organisation´s needs.

While the choice of the model may not be so clear, the benefits of clear marketing attribution most definitely are! Marketing attribution can help you:

  • Focus your efforts: optimise high-performing touch points and tweak your strategy to bring your other touch points more into play.
  • See which customers respond to certain techniques (emails, Facebook ads, social media content) at specific points of the buying journey.
  • Help you direct your budgets to maximise ROI across the buying journey.

Clear marketing attribution will help you improve lead generation.  You’ll understand how you influence your leads to develop better customer relationships, which campaigns work best, and how that work impacts revenue. We’ll show you how to make attribution modelling easy with marketing automation tools.