In this episode, we launch our new series: Polishing Your Digital Marketing! This series is aimed at helping business owners overcome digital marketing related challenges and identify opportunities.

You’ll join Steffen and Shawn in a casual discussion about digital marketing topics you’re always wondering about— and leave feeling informed and empowered to make marketing decisions in your business.

Today, we’re going to talk about what attribution solution is best for a company. Specifically, we’ll chat about…

  • Available attribution models
  • Building brand awareness
  • Hand-holding buyers to speed up the buying process
  • How trying different ad platforms can benefit your business
  • Deciding which attribution model to use
  • And more

Listen now…


Steffen Horst: Welcome to Performance Delivered Insider Secrets For Digital Marketing Success Podcast. Today, we’re launching a new series called Polishing Your Digital Marketing. This series is aimed at helping business owners overcome digital marketing related challenges and identify opportunities.

Here with me is Shawn Walker. Shawn is the VP of strategy at Symphony Digital. He has worked for global agencies such as Initiative, Media Brands and Mediacom in senior positions. Shawn has developed digital marketing strategies for regional, national and global brands and managed multimillion-dollar digital marketing campaigns for companies like Kaiser, Kia, PNG, BMC, and Salesforce just to mention a few. He will be a regular contributor to this series. Shawn, I’m really happy we’re doing this together.

Shawn Walker: Yeah, great. This is gonna be great.

Steffen: Shawn, leading up to this first recording, we obviously had a conversation about our first topic, something that we discuss very often with our clients but that we also hear as being a challenge in the businesses talked about when we talk to prospects. So what we want to talk about in our first episode here is what attribution solution is the best for a company, if there is one that works across all companies, or maybe, you know, depends on what the goal is and what a company is trying to achieve. So Shawn, before we go towards what is the best for a company, why don’t we kind of set the scene and talk about what is attribution after all?

What Is Attribution?

Shawn: Yeah, absolutely. So people like to throw around attribution as a word but really what it means is attributing success to the correct channel or tactic, just to make sure that if something’s flowing through like a digital ad or going through to the website organically, that you actually give credit either to the thing that started the awareness or ended the conversion. So it just depends how you want to look at it. But it’s really when we say attribution we mean at attributing success.

Steffen: Yeah, and this is not a new topic, right? I mean, I remember back in the days 2005 6, 7 must have been, we’re talking about one channel in particular, which was paid search. And then we talked about can paid search be only used, for example, for dimension ratio, can it be used for brand awareness? And if it can be used for brand awareness, you know, how are we going to measure the success from kind of an upper-funnel activity to a lower-funnel activity.

And then, you know, how do we attribute the value of a keyword that is more upper-funnel compared to a keyword that is lower funnel and that will most likely initiate a sale, a lead or whatever is being measured? What attribution models are available? As I just mentioned, one thing, obviously, is last click. What other models are there to be considered or at least available?

Shawn: Yeah, so the sky’s the limit in Google Analytics. That’s usually what we use because it’s free, it’s accurate, and they have a good attribution model comparison tool. So there’s about eight different ones. So the basic ones, which is really seven, you have last interaction, or last click, you have last non-direct click, which is pretty much any position before first and last, you have your first interaction, so your first click.

You also have linear which means you’re getting the same weight, like the same credit to every position, whether it’s first or last, or somewhere in the middle. And then we also have position-based, which gives credit to the first and the last click over the middle. You could also create custom models.

So whatever you feel, or as a company, whatever is going to make sense to you, you can actually create where you want to give credit. So say you want to give credit to the second click, you want to give like 80% to the second click for whatever reason, you can actually build that model out. But typically, we just function with the ones that I listed. And as a default, Google Analytics uses last click or last interaction, which is pretty standard for analytics, even outside of Google Analytics.

Steffen: Yeah. Why is last click, although it has been used for as long as probably online advertising existed, why is last click not the ideal attribution model to use?

Why Last Click Might Not Be the Best Model To Use

Shawn: Yeah, so I mean, it really depends. Traditionally people chose last click as the default because it’s great for direct campaigns, right? So if it’s just a quick sale, like, I’m selling this thing, click here and then buy something. I think back in the day, that’s how things worked, but now, you know, our funnel is like a twisted spaghetti noodle, if you will. And people click an ad, they go to the website, click another ad, they get retargeted.

So it’s just changed to the point where you can’t really give credit in certain positions to that last click because there’s going to be so many other channels and tactics that happened before. And another thing to keep in mind too is we’re talking digital attribution, not to mention, you know, social sharing, or word of mouth, or just kind of growing up even in a house where people have mentioned that let’s say like a Coca Cola. Everyone knows what Coca Cola is.

You know, if I go online and search Coca Cola and you give me credit for that search, it’s really not the search that should get the credit. It should be you know, whoever told me In the first place. So it gets pretty messy. So when we’re talking about attribution models, it’s just, it’s kind of good to use the correct one for your business, which varies per vertical and what you’re going for. So I know that’s a long answer, but typically, it’s not the last ad that should get all the credit.

Steffen: Yeah. Obviously, you know, we’re selecting the last click as kind of the part that gets all the value. That means that any media activity prior to the last click doesn’t get any value as it relates to the sale. Which means, you know, if you look at your entire digital media plan, or the digital media activities that you run to generate a certain business outcome, whether that is a sale, a lead, or whatever you are after, it looks like as if that one channel was usually is a lower-funnel channel, which usually is you know, paid search or retargeting or remarketing.

That’s all the heavy lifting. And you do not know which of the display activity, Facebook activity, native activity and what else is on your plan is actually helping you bring people into the funnel. So helping you to build brand awareness. And then also taking them by the hand and leading them down the funnel as they get more familiar with the brand, and therefore getting closer to making a buying decision.

Shawn: Right. Yeah, and you know, it differs even within each channel. So you can have attribution between, let’s say, paid search and display and social but you could also have attribution within the channel. I think you said something like this before, but essentially, someone could come in through a generic non-branded term, right? They don’t know your brand, they search something and then what they do is they’re not ready to make a decision but when they go search your company again, they’re not searching the non-branded term because they know of you now.

They searched the branded term. So if you’re on a last click model, then that brand term is going to get the success, right? But that first non-brand click should get some credit. And, you know, a lot of the times, and you and I have seen this in analytics, but clients will actually cut spend on non-brand because they think it’s not working. But technically, it did work. It just was ignored because of the default last click model.

Steffen: And obviously Google, over the years, and now I don’t see that really as an issue anymore, but over the years, Google made some strides in their own platform to show which keywords attributed to a final action. Let’s call it that way. I think they call it assisted and it might still call it assisted, assisted conversion, basically. So that gave you an idea within the Google platform on which terms had an impact on the final result, or were part of an, you know, sales journey or a lead generation journey.

Shawn: Yeah, yeah. I was just gonna say, you know, adding to that, they have built out and you can now look at single paths, two paths, or three paths, etc. So you can see how many channels people touch, how many, you know, keywords people searched. And that gives you a better idea of how much work you need to put in to convert people, right? Because let’s say you’re selling something simple, like a spice, right?

I want to buy some salt and pepper, right? You just go on, it’s a quick decision to make, versus I want to buy a car, right? Big-ticket item, I’m probably going to research competitors, I’m probably going to go to the lot, maybe change my mind, there’s a million things that happen. So it’s really important to understand how many channels people touch and how many ads people touch. So looking at that path report, it’s kind of nice, right? Because then you sit there and say we actually have to make sure we hit people with five or six ads before they convert, you know, and not throw all your money into one channel or one tactic.

Steffen: You know, some of the standard or preset attribution models that you mentioned earlier, among that was first click. And I know from our conversation here at Symphonic Digital when we talk about clients, we talk a lot about first click. I only has to say, I always feel that first click also is not the solution just because it gives credit to probably more upper funnel activities, right? But then you don’t get any credit to the mid part and even to the lower part. So you still don’t have a full-funnel visibility, if that makes sense.

Shawn: Yeah, you know, it just depends. I think it depends how big of a company you’re working with, right? Because if you’re a smaller company, say nobody knows your brand and it’s a simple purchase, right? But you have to, let’s say you have to hit people with two ads, let’s say. And one might exist on Facebook, one might be searched.

But that first interaction is going to be really important for smaller brands because it’s not going to be like a Coca Cola where I can just search Coca Cola and go buy a case of coke if I want, you know, and get, easily give brand the credit, but really, it’s everything else that delivered that. But if you’re an unknown brand and people aren’t really searching your brand terms, first interaction or first click is really important because that’s getting people in the door, right? That’s your non-brand, that’s your prospecting on Facebook, that’s your display.

So I think it depends how big your business is. And then also, what kind of vertical you’re in, right? If it’s an appointment-based business, like a hair salon, or you know, getting a tattoo or something like that, then really, there’s going to be a lot of people who call, right? Maybe there’s not a big booking system online, maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But if you’re calling, then all of a sudden that first interaction is quite important where something like let’s say vertical like entertainment, like movies, you’re going to see a banner online, right?

You might, you know, maybe you’re not clicking on it, but you’re seeing it and maybe you search movie times later, but it’s not out yet. Maybe you just want to watch the trailer. Then you start getting into all those middle interactions are the things that really count, right? It’s one thing seeing an ad, it’s another thing actually interacting, saying, you know, movie tickets, things like that, that are a little bit more qualified. So just depends really what vertical you’re in I think is the short story, is there’s no perfect model.

And you’re not stuck with one, right? You can look at multiple and compare and say, Hey, you know, when I look at last interaction versus first and versus linear, I see XYZ, right? And that might inform some business decisions. But I think the best thing is, we can see this all at the same time so you don’t have to pick one and stick with it, right? I think you pick one when you’re counting conversions, but when you need to look in analytics and get an idea of what’s going to be most important to optimize to, you compare all those three models for your vertical and your business and discover which one is the best.

Steffen: I mean, you just said obviously for smaller businesses, it’s a little bit, it might be a little bit easier than for bigger businesses because I remember when we, you know, when we worked on accounts like MasterCard, and we had a team that would do modeling and they would basically put a program out or develop a model that will be able to say, Hey, you know what, if you lower your spend on TV by X percent, and you increase it on print by this and then you put more into digital in this channel, then you get a greater general output.

That obviously was a model that kind of had some life in itself because it kind of constantly pulled information from sealed sources, etc and then compared it with where money was invested from a channel perspective. For small and medium-sized businesses, they obviously can’t afford having a whole team sitting there and doing something like that. And even some of the systems that are out there might be too expensive for them. How can they determine which is the best model for them? Which model allows them to generate the greatest return on investment with their available median budget?

Best Model for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses

Shawn: Right. So, you know, if it’s a smaller one, smaller business, if that’s what we’re going with, I would recommend first interaction. You know, import that into your Google ads, or if you’re using Facebook, you can actually look at different models. You don’t have to be stuck in one. But the whole idea is this, right? I think sometimes when you’re looking at different models, it’s to make some decisions.

So if you sit there and go, we’re investing in a lot of upper-funnel, you know, awareness-based activity like display and non-brand search and some prospecting ads on social. And you could say none of this is working, right? Maybe you see there’s no conversions in analytics. And somebody might raise their hand and say, we need to stop all this activity at the top, because it’s not working, right?

They might be seeing that people are just coming to our website. That’s what’s working, our website is working. But then you have to ask the question, how, you know, how the heck did they get there? And why is it not converting on these first interactions? Usually, it’s because you’re looking at a last click, right? So if we compare, you might be able to make that decision and say, hey, look, these aren’t the last step in converting. In fact, it’s not actually converting anyone as a last step.

But if you look at the first interaction, it’s the first thing people touched and that might be giving you a ton of credit, right? To where you might spend all your money on boosting website and all your money on brand terms and remarketing but that might have been delivered from that first ad. So that’s why it’s important when you’re making decisions to cut channels or cut tactics, looking at these different model comparisons before pulling the trigger on something, right?

You could actually look at this and say, you know, on last interaction and first interaction, it’s not producing anything. There’s no conversions. Then you might have a bigger problem, like conversion tracking is messed up, or you might need to change your ad copy or your targeting things like that. But before you put the tactic and channel in the grave, it’s just best to look at these different interactions. But I would, I’d probably recommend that companies start on a first click if you’re a smaller company.

If you’re a bigger company, I’m just using Coke as an example, you might want to use the last click, right? Because you know a ton of people are going to know of you already. And you’re not going to be perfect with how many people have, you know, shared word of mouth. So it really depends. Or ecommerce as well might be a, if you know it’s a simple decision, last click might work. If it’s buying a car, like I said before, I think position-based might work or linear, where you’re giving credit to each different step, right? And if you take one step out, maybe you won’t have the sale. So everything’s just as important.

Steffen: I mean, my challenge always with last click is, especially when you are, you know, let’s talk about more ecommerce businesses, is that a lot of conversions usually happen through brand new terms

Shawn: And remarketing too.

Steffen: Yeah. That kind of seems to skew everything quite a bit, which I find really challenging. And does Google Analytics allow for kind of a model that identifies what the best split is? In their basic form, I mean, their 360 platform might allow to test for that, you know, to measure different variations and then show you Okay, it’s 20 percent goes to first click, 30% goes to the click in between and 10% to the last click. Is this something like that available currently in the standard Google Analytics platform?

Shawn: You know, so the standard area really we’re talking about under conversions, there’s the model comparison tool. You know, they don’t have an auto recommender, you know, making this up, but they don’t have something like that. They do have documentation online that gives you basically what I’m talking about right now gives you some examples of, you know, when to use last click, when to use linear, when to use time decay.

So it’s never perfect, but they do give you some decent examples. But I don’t know if something that’s just an automated, definitely use this, right? And sometimes different Google reps actually recommend different things. So sometimes it’s a bit subjective.

Steffen: Yeah. So how would you go about it? I mean, obviously, you said, between small and large businesses, there might be ways to try a certain attribution model first. But what I also heard is that you shouldn’t probably just look at one you should probably also compare the different models on how they in general perform and what the overall picture looks like. And but if we get a new client, what is your approach to determining which attribution model to use?

Shawn: Right? So I’d say typically, if it’s a smaller client, then I’ll default to first click. If it’s a bigger client, I’ll default to last click. If I know it’s a client that, you know, it’s like buying a car like a big-ticket item, I’ll use position-based or linear. And then what I do from there, and that’s just as my like day to day, you know, I’m looking at budget, comparing spend things like that. That’s my day to day. When we start assessing after a month, right?

And we have this monthly report, What I like to do is then compare models and get some ideas. You know, we might say, hey, remarketing is working great. But the question is, how many people came to the website before we started doing all this advertising, right? Because a lot of the times, the first ads that come through are actually building your remarketing pools. So in looking at this model, you can see that, right?

You’ll be able to see over time, hey, when we spend five k 10 k, on display, we see that you know, X amount of people go to the website and all of a sudden our remarketing ads are really contributing, right? So these different model comparisons will open up the door to say what’s working at each stage. And then you can make a decision to say, hey, it’s actually really important to give credit to this first click and last click, right?

Because remarketing is working great and this awareness tactic is working great. So why don’t we give, you know 50% to the first click and 50% to the last click, which would be your position-based, right? So you start making decisions like that after you see the data, you’re only guessing in the beginning, you know, making an educated guess based off of experience on what model to start with. But, you know, one thing Google Analytics makes easy is they default to last interaction.

So whatever you’re looking at in the acquisition section, let’s say, and like all traffic, then it’s just going to show you last interaction. And that’s typically what any like client or anyone in house client side is going to be looking at, right? They typically don’t get into these crazy conversion reports and things like that, but it’s important to know. But if you don’t touch anything, it’s going to default to last interaction, which is, you know, whenever we take over something, it’s 99% the last click.

Steffen: Yeah. So what I hear you saying basically is that even if you pick one model at some point based on the data that you have on hand, you should revisit that decision frequently. Probably on a monthly basis because things might change, right? I mean, you could be a newcomer in the market, have no brand awareness whatsoever. So you probably will be more geared towards first click.

You know, it starts with a branding part and as people get to know you and they go through the funnel, down towards the bottom they will start to converge more on as I mentioned earlier, potentially on brand new terms, product terms. When they are more established to have brand awareness, you will need a different attribution model because then other things might impact the final action greater.

Shawn: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, you can do some math to figure out, you know, what am I overall costs? Because let’s just take a scenario, right? Say you have your default last click Google Analytics, but then you look at the first click under model comparison and say you’re just running display and let’s say Facebook remarketing, which is fairly typical. So let’s say you look in here and you see display on last click didn’t give you any conversions but you spent $100.

I’m just making up this number. So no conversions, you spent $100. You spent $100 on Facebook remarketing as well, but that gave you, let’s say, 10 conversions, right? So what you’re going to see in your report is you’re going to have $100 divided by your 10 conversions, right? So it’s going to be $10 per conversion. That’s what you’re going to report on.

Typically, that’s what would happen, right? However, if you think holistically, what you could do is take this report and say, when I look at first click, I actually see that five of these conversions actually came from display, right? And five other ones came from we don’t know. But we just know we have 10 in total. And with last click, it’s all going to Facebook and with first click, half of its going to display. So the smart thing to do would be, let’s take this $100 from Facebook and $100 from display, add it up and then divide total conversions and split them up, right?

Because really what you’re looking at now is remarketing doesn’t have a $10 cost per conversion. It has a $20, right? Because display at the same time would have five so it’s going to be $100 divided by five for each one of those. So that’s one way of looking at it. So that makes sense. So if you’re reporting overall and you want to scrap display and give all the credit to remarketing, can’t really do that because technically, they’re both just as efficient under this experiment I just did. Or this example.

Steffen: That reminds me a lot of the portfolio approach. The bid management systems used for paid search. I think we started talking about that 2008, 2009 where it was, which combination would generate the highest number of leaks or sales at the end of the day? Shawn, so far, we only talked about obviously, about online conversions and online attribution. But let’s add another layer to this. What happens if we talk to a client that also has brick and mortar stores. And now let’s go to the next level.

Let’s go to automotive dealerships where the end conversion actually happens on the lot. So we generate leads that drive people to do the lot to see a specific car, a specific brand, but at that point, technically, we lose visibility because we don’t know what car they bought if they bought a car, after all. So how can we measure the success offline where our tracking systems then are limited?

Measuring Success Rate When Data is Limited

Shawn: Right. So I mean, there’s kind of two problems to solve here, right? So the first one is what do we have available? Like what technology can we use? Because most of the time, there’s not something in place. Like, sometimes people have a connected POS, right? Or you’ll have redemption codes, let’s say, right, where you click an ad, you get a code and if you use it again later, then you know it came from this particular ad, right? Because each ad could have a different code.

Or if you use a code for TV, even if someone’s watching TV offline, and it says use, you know, SW56 and you go to the lot and they have a computer where they say, hey, just log in and put in this, your redemption code and we’ll give you whatever break in your sales tax or something like that. That’s a way to connect it. But I will say it’s like pulling teeth trying to get this set up. So realistically, is that going to happen? Probably not for everyone. I think for a handful of people, it will work. But I think what typically can be done, because there might not be technology in place, is using specific tag lines, right?

So you have your brand but you might want to attach something to it, you know? Like, since we’re talking cars, you might have Toyota March specials, you know? Something unique enough to where, you know, someone’s not just gonna search it to search it. They have to know it before looking it up. So it’s got to be a tailored, branded keyword because typically that connects everything and you can measure that, right?

It’s not going to be perfect, but you can say 10 people who came to our website actually came through this term, which was actually from a TV ad. And a lot of the times too, is if somebody sees the ad, they might tell a friend and they tell a friend, but either way, it’s still coming from that first source and you’re using that tagline to measure things. I think the future, well, they have some things now, but I think where the future is going is everything is just gonna be on your phone, right? So as long as you have the device you first clicked the add on, if I go into a store, let’s say, say go to Home Depot.

Say I’m looking at, I don’t know, some, I’m doing a project, come buy some wood, and I put wood in my cart on my phone, and I figure out what it is, I figure out the price and then I go to Home Depot to go pick it up. What would be great is just to have, you know, this is where QR codes come in just like the same if you go to a movie theater, you could scan your ticket, right? So If you have your device on you and they can scan it into their system, then it could link back because it’s cookie-based on your phone, right? Then it can link back to that original ad, right?

And no, oh, I’m getting credit even though I’m in the store. Another thing too is Google has location conversions built out. So if your store is big enough and you have different locations, when people are logged into Google Maps and most people are without realizing it, you’ll actually be tagged. And it’ll say, you know, you had whatever 20, 30 people in your store, right? And they also know this is the same person with this certain IP address. So it will happen automatically. Google doesn’t, you know, if you’re a small store, it’s not just going to show up.

But if you’re like a Costco or something like that, it will show up if I’m on my phone, searching Costco related keywords and then I go into the store, likely it’s going to automatically show up in conversions in Google ads and it’s going to say, you know, visited or look for directions and things like that. So there’s loose ways to cover what you’re talking about. It’s just not, it’s not perfect and it never will be. But we’re getting there. And this wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have mobile phones, which we do now. And that’s, you know, where we spend 90% of our time.

Steffen: Before we come to end today’s episode with Shawn we obviously talk a lot about Google Analytics. And the reason for that, obviously, is because it doesn’t cost anything, right? And it gives you a great way of tracking whatever happens with your website, it captures conversions, who comes to the site. And just the top level of information you can get from there. But are there, for businesses that have a little bit of a deeper pocket and are looking for a more robust, you know, attribution system, can you think of any system that they could look into that might provide a little bit more automatic solution to identifying the best attribution approach?

Are There Automated Methods to Identifying Your Best Attribution Approach?

Shawn: Anything like that’s pretty expensive. If someone can afford it, I mean, you have Adobe Analytics, which is, it’s, I like to say it’s almost the Android version of Analytics because it’s a little bit harder to use. The learning curve is a bit more but there’s more features. But you have to pay, right? Google Analytics also has a paid version, as well. And they have a new, it’s in beta mode. It’s rolled out. It’s been sitting here for a while, but you can actually set up attribution. They have a site where you can create a project.

It’s in Analytics and you could just go underneath conversions and hit attribution and it’s part of their package, right? It’s not technically Analytics, but it is. Outside of Google and outside of Adobe, there’s, well, this is still Google. They own everything. But the former Double Click right? Which is part of Google 360. So sometimes you want not just click attribution, but you want view-through attribution. So the former Double Click could actually have a view tag, right?

And for someone who is in entertainment where you have a new movie coming out, it’s really important because I don’t know if you do this, but I do this. I don’t necessarily click on banner ads for movies. I just see, you know, poster, I see a display banner saying, This movie’s coming out x date. And that’s it. I’m good. So that view is actually really important, even though I didn’t click on it. And Google 360 with a Double Click, or they just call it Google Search now or not Google search. What is it? I’m drawing a blank here.

Used to be called Double Click. Yeah, cuz they have like Double Click bid manager and things like that. They’ve changed the names so much. But the point is, is they have view-through, which is a whole nother layer, like I said for tracking things like, you know, movies and things like that. I’m sure there’s other systems. I don’t know anymore off the top of my head. You know, maybe something to look into. I just think what ends up happening is it’s the last thing on a client’s mind, right?

You don’t want to spend an extra $20,000 on attribution when you don’t really understand attribution. I think a first step for most people is, you know, trying to still convince your audience that branded search is important and don’t turn off your non-brand keywords or don’t kill display or don’t kill Facebook prospecting, because it is converting. And I think in Analytics, in Google Analytics, it’s the easiest way to see it. And if you need another layer, then you could start looking into some other tools out there.

Steffen: Yeah. That makes sense. Well, Shawn, this has been fun. Obviously, that’s our first episode. We’d love to hear from you guys out there on any digital marketing related challenges that you have and that you would like to discuss with us. We’re planning to do this series frequently if, as I said, people have certain challenges, certain problems they can’t find a solution for, send us an email to, describe your challenge, your problem, and then we’ll get in touch and would love to have you here with us on the podcast.

And then Shawn and myself will hopefully be able to provide you with answers and solutions to the problems that you share with us. Other than that, thanks, everyone for listening. If you liked the Performance Delivered Podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.