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The thorny question of marketing attribution: Does it apply to B2B?

Have you noticed how marketers are focusing on attribution these days?  Which media channel is really driving the sale, they ask.  What touch sequence is most productive?  Where should we assign credit?  There is much confusion and gnashing of teeth on this subject, but I say that in B2B, these are the junior questions, and just a building block to the bigger issues.  Sure, we business marketers want to know where to invest our precious dollars.  But what we really want to know is: 1) How do my prospects buy, and how can I make their journey easier, faster, and more likely to result in a sale for my company?   2) What’s the ROI on the sale, meaning how much sales and marketing investment do I need to close the piece of business? 

I’ve been looking into this attribution discussion recently, and find it pretty frustrating.  In the purely digital marketing world, marketing attribution analysis actually makes a lot of sense, and the various methods that are being talked about are worth looking at.  To summarize, they boil down to 4 general techniques:

    Money Bag In White
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  1. First touch, last touch.  This means all credit for the sale (or whatever is the desired outcome, like becoming a qualified lead) goes to the media channel that acquired the prospect (the first touch) OR the channel immediately before the outcome (the last touch).  While many consumer marketers find last touch to make sense for attribution, in B2B, it’s more likely that marketers will be keeping close track of the first touch, since that is so useful for analyzing cold prospecting investment decisions.
  2. Weighting.  All recorded touches are given some credit, and weighted equally, or according to some reasonable factor, like where they lie in the path to the sale.  In B2B, this method becomes problematic very quickly, since the sales cycle is so complex, involving a long series of touches, to multiple contacts in a target account, through multiple channels, many of them offline, and difficult to capture in a database.
  3. Modeling.  Statistical analysis of purchase patterns against touch sequences provides insight into the relative impact of each media channel, which can then be used for more reliable weighting.  According to a 2010 Lenskold Group study, only 3% of business marketers are modeling for attribution.  And even if they do, models tend to provide guidance only at a fairly high level, which doesn’t much help with granular touch-sequence decision-making.
  4. Test and control.  Hands down, the most reliable method of sorting out the impact of an isolated single variable.  But well nigh impossible to execute across a multi-channel, multi-touch relationship.

Some very good work is being done on this subject by thoughtful and experienced B2B marketers.  Have a look at the Definitive Guide to Marketing Metrics and Analytics produced by Marketo’s VP of Marketing Jon Miller, where he shares the attribution methods Marketo uses for its own marketing efforts.  And the slides from a recent talk at SES by Rob Cataford, a very smart analyst at the San Diego agency BusinessOnline.  I also appreciate the 5-step “pipeline influence” process outlined by Michael Brenner in his B2B Marketing Insider blog.   And Target Marketing wrapped up its virtual conference on Integrated Marketing with a lively discussion on attribution, where I was pleased to be a member of the panel.

My conclusion:  A successful B2B go-to-market process operates in so many media channels, with so many individual contacts, and so many touches, performed by so many sales and marketing functions—internal and external—that worrying about which touch should get the credit is a relatively minor detail in the scheme of things.   When B2B marketers seek to justify their investments and make better decisions, it’s really about optimizing the entire process from initial contact to a sale.

I would argue that B2B marketers should put aside the question of credit-for-a-touch for every single marketing initiative.  We know that a zillion touches are going to go into the selling process.  And we have access to fairly sophisticated lead management systems that allow us to track an inquiry to a sale over time.  In B2B, attribution analysis should be applied to two more important concerns:

  1. Gaining insight into the buyer’s journey.  Not for assigning credit to any particular touch.  But for understanding how better to identify prospects, engage with them, build a relationship, fend off competitors, and get the sale, faster.  And when we say “buyer,” this means an account, not an individual contact.  We need to track—as best we can through web analytics as well as our CRM systems—the progression made by all parties involved in the purchase process.
  2. Evaluating and improving the cost of selling.   Companies need to know how much investment is needed to close business, at the account level.  Tracking marketing and sales expense by account, and then analyzing the data by product type, by industry and other variables—this is where attribution analysis can really add value in B2B.

That’s my take, but you are experts, too. What do you think?

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Ruth Stevens

Ruth Stevens advises clients on customer acquisition and retention. Ruth serves on the boards of directors of the HIMMS Media Group, and the Business Information Industry Association. She is a trustee of Princeton-In-Asia, past chair of the Business-to-Business Council of the DMA, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain’s BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She serves as a mentor to fledgling companies at the business accelerator in New York City. Ruth is an author and contributor to many notable business publications. Her books include B2B Data-Driven Marketing: Sources, Uses, Results and Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, Trade Show and Event Marketing, and co-author of the white paper series “B-to-B Database Marketing.” Ruth is a sought-after speaker and trainer, and has presented to audiences and business schools in Asia, Australia, and Latin America. She has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff Davis, and IBM.

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