Attribution is Impossible


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The following is an excerpt taken from Sergio Maldonado’s post originally published on This post will be the first in a series explaining why Attribution is Impossible and sharing alternatives that can lead to greater results.

Attribution is impossible white paper

I have seen the Emperor walking naked for too long, and I wish I could be that naive kid in the crowd. I do not believe in marketing “attribution”. Beyond the combined power of algorithms, data, software and professional know-how, the concept is — at its foundation — flawed.

Here’s an attempt at explaining my standpoint, although it’s worth noting that more scientific avenues have already been explored with similar conclusions.

The Black Hole of Attribution

It all started with a beautiful idea. Cross-channel attribution (or “multi-touch attribution”) became a popular concept at the time when web analytics had just completed its journey from IT to the marketing department (circa 2008).

What was it about? Essentially, our ability to assign a specific value to each touchpoint or event— often a paid ad view or click — contributing to a final business outcome or conversion. This would allow us to stop giving undeserved credit to the last or first campaign or touchpoint logged in the chosen system of record.

Increasingly more sophisticated techniques for the integration of owned, paid, and earned media touchpoints within first-party analytics environments have subsequently increased our capabilities, eventually spinning off a software category of its own.

What is not to like about the whole concept? It embodies everything marketers ever wanted to get out of data!

The cross-departmental synergies it creates cannot be ignored either, starting with a translation of marketing outcomes/touchpoints/reach into dollars — a long dreamed bridge between the CMO and CFO camps — and continuing with an engineer-friendly understanding of the marketing process, which is music to the ears of CIOs and marketing technologists. Plus CMOs can now be held accountable, making CEOs happy. In other words, killer fuel for company politics.

But there is of course an ultimate promise: a mastery of the formula results in consistently getting more money out of it than the amount originally invested. Which is truly unbeatable.

Why question it, then?

Well, attribution — even when solely focused on digital channels — places a very tall order on prerequisites:

  1. It requires linearity. There is no single, common timeline sheltering all possible initiatives in the vast realm of marketing. Even less so one in which such investments and our desired business outcomes coexist. A fictional “snapshot” is required when cause and effect reside in parallel realities — one that is defined by our even more arbitrary decision-making milestones.
  2. It requires causality. Causality does not happen in aggregate, but instead at very granular level. More specifically, at customer, user, fan, visitor, lead level. This means cross-device and cross-media integration at a user level are imperative if attribution is to work. In other words, attribution requires the famous 360-degree view of a statistically significant amount of potential customers. More on that separate fiction in a minute.
  3. When pertaining to humans (always the case thus far), the understanding of attribution is limited by the understanding of the human mind. Our culture, life experiences, perceptions… affect a system (human brain) which we do not entirely comprehend. Now, can the human mind ever understand its own intricacies?

lizard in nature

Okay, this was somewhat vague and abstract — highly relevant picture of the lizard trying to understand the lizard brain aside — but the ground is now paved for a more straight-forward explanation.

So here’s a second try. Attribution will not happen because:

  1. There is no common timeline. Many campaigns, channels, or media have a longer term impact on true business outcomes that we can even measure. Are you prepared to maintain never-ending conversion funnels so as to properly take into account the long-term impact of social reach and cultural associations? Will you really be able to compute all possible conversions?
  2. There is no single customer view. People are less “digitally unique” and traceable every day. First because they choose to be. Second, because they scatter their attention and touchpoints across multiple, isolated environments. Third, because privacy standards or data protection laws prevent further integration.

Sure, I will have to explain myself much better on this latter point:

  1. Useful as it is for its primary purposes, cross-device identification is not enough to get us to a single view of even a fraction of our potential customers. And it will only get worse unless we bring supercookies back into the picture, which is highly unlikely given the next point below.
  2. We easily brush privacy compliance aside, but the EU’s upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) [PDF] will draw a red line in the sand (or the Atlantic Ocean), with the many US companies participating in the Privacy Shield program most likely dragged into a much harsher reality. Furthermore, the FTC has identified the compliance of cross-device identification activities as one of its top priorities, while the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has just introduced an opt-in approach in its own Broadband Consumer Privacy Rules.
  3. Social trends run counter to a single identity. Surely much more important than regulatory limitations, as these only follow social unrest. But society keeps finding much more effective and enforceable means of defending itself against lack of transparency.

“But what about new models combining deterministic information (truly integrated at granular level) with probabilistic data? Have we not overcome technical and legal constraints with smart algorithms?”

For starters, even though I proposed this myself as a solution at the time, probabilistic models are now facing the same legal challenge: the EU’s GDPR will label this non-PII data as “pseudonymous” (rather than anonymous) if it can be used for profiling purposes, and the collection or processing of such data will be subject to the very same limitations/burdens as of May 2018. And this month’s ruling on IP addresses by the European Court of Justice will ensure that the very concept of PII as a threshold for compliance becomes a thing of the past well before that.

Secondly, does it really matter that you put together the best sounding algorithms and weight distribution alternatives when all you ponder are touchpoints within your sphere of control? The core limitations have not changed one bit, and yet we place our faith on the more sophisticated blend. Do we simply want to believe in magic?

Now, as convinced as I am that attribution does not work in itself, I can surely appreciate that attribution efforts (i.e., investments in the pursuit of such nirvana) do in fact produce positive and tangible results.

We’ve now established that Attribution is impossible. Please look out for part 2 of this series which will assert that reporting on ROI is a much more legitimate pursuit.


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Megan Wilcock

VP of Business Development for Sweetspot. Responsible for strategic brand development, marketing and business development. BA/BComm graduate from the University of Melbourne. My passion lies in finding creative solutions and encouraging collaboration.

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