The number of touchpoints between prospect and brand before conversion or sale can vary from anything between 5-50. With so many touchpoints, mapping journeys of consumers who constantly bounce between channels and devices, online and offline, is more complicated than ever.
The difficulty understanding this complex path to conversion makes attribution ever more difficult for marketers. In fact, according to research by eMarketer, cross-device attribution is the second biggest (42%) challenge for media professionals in 2021.
How then can you, the marketer, know which touchpoints and journeys deliver the best performance so you can make informed budget allocation decisions?
Enter multi-touch attribution or MTA.
MTA assigns credit across touchpoints according to their impact. Makes total sense right? So why is it that MTA has been, for years now, such a pain point for marketers and suffers from relatively low adoption rates?
In this blog, we’ll answer these questions plus examine the various MTA models, their merits and their limitations. We will also look into how multi-touch can deliver insights to help shape your marketing strategy, and how to choose the model that’s right for your business.
Let’s get started.
What is multi-touch attribution?
MTA is a marketing measurement method that takes multiple online and offline touchpoints along the customer journey into account, and then assigns credit to each based on varying logic per business.
Offline touchpoints include television (excluding smart TV), radio, print (e.g. billboards, coupons, and direct mail), in-store, call centers, and sales calls.
Online touchpoints are divided into paid, owned, and earned media across digital properties.
Paid media includes search, display, social etc, while owned media refers to websites, emails, demos, content marketing such as blogs, and your brand’s social media accounts. 3rd party social media and blog mentions are examples of earned media, as is press coverage.
In multi-touch attribution, touchpoints can be weighted equally or proportionally, depending on the model used (more on this below).
Single-touch vs. Multi-touch attribution
Single-touch can refer to both first or last-touch attribution.
First-touch assigns full credit to the first known point of contact with your brand in the consumer journey, whereas last-touch gives all the credit to the last known touchpoint.
Of course neither attribute across the entire user journey, so why would a marketer choose to use them?
First-touch for branding
If you are focused on introducing your brand and widening the top of your funnel then you may opt for a first-touch attribution model. That is because it’s relatively easy to implement and delivers insights on how customers discover your brand.
Last-touch for conversions
Conversely, last-touch attribution focuses on the bottom of the funnel and what factors helped convert the user, which is after all, the essence of performance marketing.
Multi-touch for a complete view
Multi-touch takes a more holistic view and covers the entire funnel, delivering insights across the user journey. Let’s explore this in more detail.
Benefits of multi-touch attribution
Clearly, both first and last-touch attribution ignore the reality of a modern consumer journey (5-20 touchpoints on average, remember?); That’s where multi-touch attribution comes in. It takes a more sophisticated approach to mapping the journey, and offers a number of other benefits.
MTA addresses the complexities of the actual customer journey
We mentioned above that the customer journey is complicated by multiple devices, channels, and touchpoints. MTA helps to overcome some of these complexities by reflecting, more accurately, the actual user journey.
The better the representation of reality, the better the understanding of where influence lies and which combination of touchpoints are performing the best.
Having a more accurate picture of the user journey and the touchpoints along the way will help you better customize your messaging, meeting consumers on the right channel(s) at the right time.
MTA eliminates biases
Allocating credit along the length and breadth of user journey means you are not placing undue importance on the first or the last touchpoint. Instead you are able to allocate credit using data to support any argument over the influence of a touchpoint in the path to conversion.
For example: let’s say a consumer first sees one of your paid ads on Facebook, searches for your brand on Google, you remarket them on a news site, and then they go back to Google to search for your specific product and purchase.
Who’s to say that the paid touchpoint (the first) should get credit over search (the last touchpoint)? Or vice versa? That’s where an MTA model can save the day by making sure each channel gets its fair share of the success.
MTA enables agility
Multi-touch places all of the data in one model so there is no need to jump between reports trying to identify the value of a touchpoint. The result of having increased agility is the ability to adapt and pivot your strategy according to the insights gained.
For example, say a large chunk of your marketing budget was dedicated to a bottom-of-the-funnel promotional email campaign. However, your MTA model showed that a social media campaign towards the top of the funnel is proving to be very successful at getting prospective customers to click through to your mobile site and purchase.
With these insights you were able to see the impact of the social media campaign at increasing conversions. As a result you pivot your strategy and place more emphasis and spend on the social media channel, and less on the email campaign, to maximize your Return on Investment (ROI).
MTA prevents bleeding marketing budgets
The risk of misunderstanding your customer journey means that you may be blind to which combination of touchpoints are delivering the highest ROI, and equally important which are underperforming.
Multi-touch attribution offers the insights needed to know when to reduce your marketing spend on the channels that aren’t delivering, and to leave more budget for doubling-down on the ones that are.
Industry standard vs. gold standard
Despite multi-touch giving a knock-out blow against single-touch, it’s not as widely adopted as one would expect. One reason for this may be the fact that for MTA to become an industry standard it would require buy-in from across the ecosystem to agree that specific models be used in specific circumstances.
In the table below we can see that even in the US, which is the most advanced market, adoption of MTA is still only at 65% as of 2021. Furthermore, the percentage increase year-over-year is minimal, meaning that opinions on using MTA are not changing.
Last-touch attribution remains the industry standard when it comes to billing — the mechanism through which attribution companies assign credit to media companies and essentially determining which party gets paid for driving the conversion.
For example, mobile apps pay ad networks for installs based on the last-touch attribution model. The last media source to touch the user before an install gets the full payment for delivering that user.
However, for marketers looking to gain insights on the whole marketing funnel it is important to use MTA internally and in parallel. Understanding the value of each touchpoint will help allocate credit going forward.
So what’s the bottom line? Even if conversions are paid according to last-touch, they should be evaluated within an MTA prism for smarter decision-making in the future.
Multi-touch attribution models explained
There are several different MTA models, each with its own logic, and its own pros and cons.
The linear model applies credit equally to each touchpoint along the user journey. The linear model is good because it doesn’t apply bias and gives a picture of the entire funnel.
However, it fails to recognize if one touchpoint was more influential than another. For example, under the linear model, a paid first touchpoint is just as valuable as an organic search second touchpoint and a direct last touchpoint. But maybe the customer wouldn’t have ever known about your company without that first touchpoint meaning it was essential and should probably have more weight than, say, the last direct touchpoint.
The linear model oversimplifies the user journey and is considered the least sophisticated form of MTA.
When to use?
The linear model is best to use when you want to know which touchpoints exist but not necessarily the impact of each.
Time-decayThe time-decay model assumes that the closer a touchpoint is to the time of conversion, the greater the influence. The credit is therefore weighted accordingly, with the last touch receiving the highest percentage.
When to use?
Time-decay is a good model for companies focusing their strategy on the lower end of the funnel. Marketers use this model when there is a short consideration stage, such as a promotional campaign.
However, the time-decay model neglects to analyze the nature of the touchpoint. For example, in the case above there was a banner ad and an influencer video. If the banner appeared after the influencer video, according to the time-decay model it would receive more credit.
It is unlikely that a banner was more impactful in the decision-making process than an influencer talking about your product. So, to assign more credit to the banner just because it occurred after the video is often flawed.
The U-shaped model places its focus on two key touchpoints, the first and the last, and assigns 40% of the credit to each. The remaining 20% is spread across the intermediary touchpoints.
The U-shaped model is useful if you are looking to understand what kicks off and closes the customer journey. It is also good because it still acknowledges the intermediate touchpoints while assigning them less credit.
While this is a first good step at recognizing that not all touchpoints deliver the same value, it is still a relatively simplistic approach to carving up the credit.
When to use?
U-shape models are good for short sales cycles, like buying a low-cost product on an e-commerce app. The app marketer wants to place the most value on touchpoints that introduced the brand, and touchpoints that converted the user.
Taking the U-shaped model one step further is the W-shaped model. Again this credits the first touchpoint, but also the lead creation and opportunity creation touchpoints.
In the W-shaped model, each main touchpoint is assigned 30% and the remaining 10% is assigned among the intermediary touchpoints.
For example, a prospect is browsing for a holiday package. Their search offered them a number of ads relating to different destinations. They click on a booking.com ad. They like the idea of a holiday on the Mediterranean so they search the mobile website for some more information. They register to the site and add the destination to their wishlist, which is considered the “lead creation”, but don’t book the holiday.
A few days later they get an email offering a 10% discount for a holiday in Cyprus for users who install the app. They click on the link in the email, which leads them to the App tore, download the booking.com app and complete the purchase. The discount code is automatically entered through clever deep-linking technology. The email is considered the “opportunity creation”.
The W-shaped model is good because it has these identifiable stages, however it’s not always so simple to differentiate the stages and so it can over-complicate the calculation.
When to use?
The W-shaped model should be used for longer sales cycles that often have extra touchpoints that are significant to the progression of the customer journey.