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The Weakest Link in Data Attribution

Since all channels are not equal, how do you know where to invest your ad dollars for the best ROI, especially when you have so many touch points to consider?


It is generally acknowledged that the first car print ad was in 1898. The ad, which appeared in Scientific American, promoted a Winton motor carriage available for $1,000. The headline, in large type, encouraged readers to “Dispense with a Horse” and save the expense, care and anxiety of owning such an animal.

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From that modest start, marketing has never looked back. Beginning with print ads, the effort expanded to advertising on radio, on television and finally over the Internet, which ushered in the age of digital marketing.

While selling cars over multiple channels can be a good thing, it begs the question: Since all channels are not equal, how do you know where to invest your ad dollars for the best ROI, especially when you have so many touch points to consider?

One answer is to better understand the role data attribution plays — as well as its limitations.

Data Attribution Models
Data attribution is the capability to track marketing investments through the path to purchase, from driving traffic to a closed deal. The goal is to identify which marketing programs drive the most leads, conversions and sales.


The reality of attributing a specific channel or message to a sales action is more complex, however. The auto retail industry offers no single approved method of assigning credit. Indeed, there are six data attribution models currently employed:

  • First-Click Attribution deals mostly with digital media. This model gives all credit for the conversion to the first-clicked ad and corresponding keyword.
  • Last-Click Attribution is the simplest and easiest method of attribution, and probably the most common. A consumer simply converts and buys. This model gives 100 percent of credit for the conversion to the last-clicked ad and corresponding keyword.
  • Linear Attribution assigns credit evenly to every marketing touch throughout the customer journey. If there are 10 touches, each will receive 10 percent of the credit. When there are five campaigns, each will receive 20 percent.
  • Time Decay Attribution gives more credit to clicks that happened closer in time to the conversion. The media touch point closest to conversion gets most of the credit, and the touch point prior to that will get less credit based on an algorithm.
  • Position-Based Attribution combines the best features of the linear and time decay models. Position-based will assign 40 percent of the credit to the first and last touch, with the remaining 20 percent assigned evenly to every touch in between.
  • Multi-Touch Attribution tracks and measures several factors that contribute to a consumer’s journey. It even allows the capability to connect the dots between online and offline touch points.

So, which data attribution methodology should you choose?


Flawed Marketing Measurements
The truth is, all the above-mentioned data models are helpful, in one way or another, yet still flawed.

Using a first-touch attribution model, for instance, gives you very limited insight into actual consumer behavior as a consumer moves down the sales funnel and closer to a purchase. With this model, you may never know what ultimately drove traffic or converted leads into sales.

While the last-touch methodology might be more popular with some vendors and is used by the ADF as well as by CRM reporting tools, this approach still overlooks other turning points in the sales engagement process.


In my opinion, dealerships relying on old attribution models, such as first-click or last-click, are not leveraging the best technology to reach their customers.

Is it Time for a Data Standard?
Manufacturers are made to abide by tire, fuel and emission standards for vehicles. Unfortunately, there is no similar standard for data attribution in the auto retail industry.

This means that if you’re a data marketing vendor in the auto retail industry, you don’t have to work or play well with others. This proprietary approach creates problems for data vendors and auto dealers alike, and results in what I call “vendor lock.


So, what about that print ad by Winton I mentioned earlier? Well, the ad worked. On March 24, 1898, Robert Allison of Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, became the first person to buy a Winton automobile after seeing the ad. Data attribution for that sale was easy: It came from a single channel.

Those days are long gone.

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