Closing Time

Bouncing Back After the Death of Marketing Attribution

“What are we getting for our ad spend?” “Why can’t we just put more money into Google?”

Questions like these are getting even more challenging for marketing leaders to answer since the death of marketing attribution as we know it is looming.

GDPR and CPAA have killed third-party cookies, and almost all privacy laws are getting even more strict.

Will it be a return to the ‘vanity’ metrics of impressions, views, and engagement? How can marketers educate C-suite and board directors on these changes?

In this episode of Closing Time, Rand Fishkin talks about what marketers need to do to prepare their teams and board rooms for a reporting shift and how to surface metrics that contribute to an overall lift.

Watch the video:
Key Moments:
History of marketing attribution: How did we get here?

Think back to the late 20th century – remember those iconic ad agency pros, the Don Draper-esque marketers? They mourned the shift from the tried-and-true formula of creative + right audience + precise targeting = marketing success. Back then, they questioned the need to trace every sale and wondered if a lack of traceability meant zero investment. This perspective held its ground till around 2010-2012.

That’s when the tech giants – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple – entered the scene. They sold the idea that attribution was the key – the ultimate solution. They convinced corporations and media buyers that tying every campaign to attribution was the Holy Grail of marketing. It was all about showing that each dollar spent on their platforms resulted in a return of 1.5x, 1.7x, etc.

As a result, the classic marketing style of the 20th century and its measurement techniques started fading away. But now, merely a decade later, things have taken a different turn.

Rand diagram

First, the big tech players realized they could monetize attribution and started excluding organic efforts from it. Second, the evolving browser landscape – think Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome – has added complexity by enhancing their hold on advertising, possibly stretching antitrust boundaries. Lastly, privacy regulations, mainly from the EU, along with bits from Canada and California, have thrown another curveball into the mix.

Marketing attribution has changed and will continue to change in the coming years. What can marketers do about it? Read on to find out.

Hard-to-Measure Marketing

Marketing attribution has always been more of a myth than a method. The notion of neatly connecting wins to specific campaigns or channels usually disappoints rather than enlightens.

Think about the ripple effect of word-of-mouth, the anonymous viewer on YouTube who later graces your website or the person who was exposed to your brand via a podcast or event. These elusive touchpoints defy the traditional attribution playbook, which Rand refers to as “hard-to-measure” marketing. 

Measuring untrackable marketing

At SparkToro, Rand decided to take a different route: rather than obsessing over attribution, they’ve shifted the focus. After identifying where their audience is, they focus on creating engaging content that appeals to their ICP in those areas and building brand awareness slowly over time. Since most of these places can’t be attributed, they go back to reporting on vanity metrics – impressions, followers, views, etc. – when possible, in addition to monitoring corresponding spikes in daily sign-ups. (See graphic from SparkToro’s blog above).

The SparkToro approach takes a step back from the attribution rat race. Instead, they focus on resonance – on kindling interest rather than forcefully demanding attribution.

Attribution Warps Investment

Consider this: You post a podcast episode on your company’s LinkedIn page. Five people engage with your post; three share the link to it in their corporate Slack channel with their team. Ten people from that Slack channel go and listen to the podcast episode on Spotify. Two visit your company website.

The good news is that your podcast episode resonated with fifteen people! The bad news: you have no way of attributing those podcast views to that LinkedIn post or those website visits to your podcast episode.

That’s the power of dark social – or the traffic that comes from social media platforms but cannot be accurately tracked or attributed to specific sources using traditional analytics tools. It’s just one of the many challenges marketers have to face when producing hard-to-measure content like podcasts. 

Attribution woes also intersect with financial pressure. Private equity firms and C-suite executives see the positive (but inaccurate) results coming Google Search and demand a simple solution—dump everything into Google for immediate returns. The catch? Reality doesn’t always align with the data presented. Tech giants like Google and Facebook have reasons to make attribution more challenging for marketers – the more activity attributed to them, the more money they make. There is no longer an incentive for them to support accurate and reliable attribution. 

For example, the recent Google Analytics iteration, GA4, comes with its own set of pitfalls. Pre-packaged models in GA4 tend to disproportionately attribute success in hard-to-measure channels to paid search, further distorting the attribution landscape.

Tips for Reliable Reporting

It’s clear that nailing down reliable data can be a puzzle for marketers. So, are we all doomed to have to accept this new reality? Not quite.

New funnel metrics

Rand suggests (whenever possible) tracking top-of-funnel social engagement metrics – things like views, impressions, comments, and shares on 3rd party-networks like FB, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Top-of-funnel activities spill over to middle and bottom stages, shaping the customer’s perception and decision-making process.

Continue following the customer’s journey through the middle funnel by measuring branded search terms and website visits. Tracking increases or decreases in branded search volume can provide insights into the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, product launches, or changes in brand perception. To help marketers create a reliable reporting spreadsheet, Rand built a template (pictured below) in Google Sheets and encourages others to use it as a starting point for their reporting. 

Once you’ve created a plan for tracking these hard-to-measure channels, it’s time to build buy-in from your leaders and investors. You are the professional, and it’s up to YOU to communicate these changes to your leaders. Without buy-in from executives and board directors, you’ll be fighting a losing game in terms of budget approval and investment allocation into the “dark” channels that are equally, if not more, important as the easily attributable channels, such as Google search and paid ads. In his blog post, Rand shares tips for convincing attribution-metrics-addicted leaders to adopt this new way of measuring attribution.

Challenge the status quo, reclaim the power of measurement, and embrace the evolving landscape of marketing attribution. You can do it!


Multi-touch attribution is dying, but did it ever really live?
Let’s explore multi-touch attribution on this episode of Closing Time.
Hi, welcome to Closing Time, the show for. Go to Market Leaders.
I’m Val Riley, head of Content. Digital Marketing at Insightly CRM.
Today, I am delighted to be joined by a Rand Fishkin.
He is CEO of SparkToro, an audience research firm.
Welcome to the show, Rand.
Thanks for having me, Val.. Good to be here.
So I’m so glad we’re having this conversation
because I feel like people aren’t talking about it enough.
It became a hot topic
and then we sort of got hit with this pandemic, this COVID 19,
and it faded into the background a little bit.
And I feel like we’re just in this mode of like sadness and acceptance
of where attribution is heading.
Yeah,. I almost wonder, you know, there was this
at the end of the 20th century, right?
Do you remember all the ad agency professionals and sort of your
like classic whatever Don Draper marketer types
who bemoaned the loss of the classic, you know, creative
plus right audience plus right targeting equals marketing success.
Why do we have to attribute every sale?
Why does it have to be true
that if you can’t track anything, no one’s going to put any budget toward it?
And I think that viewpoint actually held firm
until probably 2010, 2012.
And then slowly but surely. Right.
Facebook and Google and Amazon and Apple, the big,
big tech companies sort of convinced everyone, every corporation,
every media buyer that in fact, attribution
was the Holy Grail and that’s what you should aim for.
And they were going to optimize all your campaigns around attribution
so you could prove that every dollar you spent with Apple ads or Amazon
ads or Google ads had a return of 1.5,
1.7, 2X, you know, whatever it was.
And so this era of
20th century style marketing, 20th century style measurement went away.
And now here we are, not many years later,
it’s only a decade.
And because of,. I think the combination of three things
like one thing is the big tech companies realized, wait a minute,
we shouldn’t provide attribution for anything organic.
That’s free marketing.
Let’s only provide attribution when they pay us for it.
And then the second, of course, is the changes that the browsers are making,
which you could argue that Apple and Google with Chrome and
Safari are actually just,
let’s see, reinforcing
their nefarious stranglehold on the advertising market
through their domination of other monopolies that they hold,
which technically is against antitrust law in the United States.
But it doesn’t matter.
They fund lots of Congress. People’s campaign.
So what are you going to do about it?
And then the third thing is actual
privacy laws and regulations, mostly from the EU
with a little bit of Canada and the state of California thrown in there, too.
I mean, and I appreciate that.
I just feel like true
multitouch attribution, like really it was aspirational at best.
You know, the idea that you could say, oh, this win was attributed
to these three, five or eight campaigns or channels
like it really just it really just never worked the way we wanted it to.
Yeah, I could not agree more, I think.
Let’s see.
Aspirational, mythical thinking.
That’s certainly applies here.
And I’m as guilty as anyone.
So my my previous company. Right.
For folks who might not know, is Moz
and it scaled up to $50 million in software revenue.
And we did what we thought was superb multitouch attribution.
We thought we could say, oh, if someone watches this many videos
on our website or they visit this many times, we know how much
their lifetime value is as a customer.
And we can see which channels influence them.
And oh, LinkedIn is not that great a channel.
Let’s really focus on sort of Twitter and in retrospect,
almost certainly a half truth at best.
And that is because to your point, right, that attribution that you thought you had
almost always ignored hard to measure or impossible to measure channels, things
like word of mouth, things like did someone watch a YouTube video of you?
You would never know the identity of that person, right?
And then they they come later to your site.
They went to an event where you were speaking at.
They watched a live stream, right?
They listen to a podcast.
No way can you provide attribution for those types of investments.
And yet my suspicion is those were probably some of our best
marketing investments.
At SparkToro, we invest in
virtually no attribution at all
and very little measurement because frankly,
we don’t think that juice is worth the squeeze anymore.
You know, my prerogative, what Amanda, our VP of Marketing, does
is essentially go find places where we think our audience is paying attention.
Go talk about things and messages that will get our brand out there
that will, we hope, make people think, Oh,. I should check out SparkToro right?
They’ve got like
a free version of that software like I’ll go over and try that out.
And we look every day and we can see how many people are signing up.
So we have some sense of, oh, is this campaign that we ran last week
or these appearances that we did
or this blog post that we wrote like, is that having some traction?
But it’s all vanity metrics, right?
It’s impressions and views and visits.
It’s not attribution.
And I think that’s a great point, Rand, because so much of
what we’re doing is taking place in the dark funnel, right?
And so it really wasn’t attributable anyway.
And then you add on the fact
that what was the attribution really doing anyway?
Was it letting the content team say,. Oh, we’re justifying ourselves
and the events team, Hey, we were part of that and the digital team
and it almost creates like division within the marketing team when really
we should all be working together to generate demand.
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a lot of
leadership teams and boards of directors
and CMO’s who threw out
a lot of tactics and channels that were working but that they couldn’t
prove to their boss’ teams, you know, for agencies, clients.
They couldn’t prove that it was working like, hey, we, whatever,
we ran an event series, hey, we got a bunch of podcast appearances.
Hey, we got a ton of great PR.
Yeah, well, I can
see the, the lift right, in impressions
and views, but how do we know that any of those people converted?
What I see is, Google search is really delivering.
Wow. I mean, when we pay for search ads, that’s where we get attribution.
Poor more money into Google search stop doing PR
and that happened
Val, I don’t know
if you have this same sense, but you know, I was talking to a colleague
the other day about how so many marketing
in-person events have essentially died.
Like they’ve gone under and yet there are more people working in digital
marketing and more money being spent on digital marketing than ever before.
And this
doesn’t quite add up unless you get to
that sort of
place of, oh, well, people can’t attribute events anymore.
And so of course, whatever all the sponsorships for events
in marketing dried up.
Especially because most of those are funded by SaaS companies whose venture
capitalists are obsessed with attribution and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And so the whole ecosystem kind of falls apart, right?
Like there’s no more Search Love, Content. Marketing World is a third it’s
size, MozCon is two thirds its size search and Search
Marketing Expo is like nearly gone except a couple of places in Europe.
It’s really weird like very very odd
when you can see it happening in your own backyard.
If I had a dime for every time a private equity firm
question came to me as the head of marketing, in
Why don’t you just put it all in Google or just put more in Google?
And I’m like,. It just doesn’t work that way.
I know, but the data I am presenting to them makes it seem like it works that way.
So, so terribly frustrating.
I mean, and another thing too, even even when the models were like, quote
unquote working, which we really know they never did, like each one would report,
they would report contradictory data like, oh, we count this as a conversion,
but this other channel counts this as a conversion.
So you would just be showing these like crazy number of conversions.
But when you looked at like opportunities generated and closed by the sales
team, like nothing ever really added up anyway.
Facebook and Google
were always in this war of who assisted the conversion more.
Yeah, right.
Was it was it the Facebook ad that they viewed in their Instagram feed
or was it the Google ad that they saw on YouTube?
Because we know that later that device converted to, you know, whatever,
an email sign up or a paid subscription or whatever you want.
And it’s one of those things where I frankly, in a lot of cases,
especially in a lot of cases outside of instant
purchase e-commerce type stuff, right.
The like, oh, that necklace is really pretty on Instagram.
I’m going to buy that or like,. Oh, that skin care product looks great.
Outside of those specific realms,. I think most of the conversion
actually happens in the hard to measure channels, in brand, in PR,
in content marketing, in events, in word of mouth.
And unfortunately,
no big tech company has an incentive to make those channels look good.
And so they make them look terrible.
Even the new Google Analytics like GA4,. I’m sorry friends,
but if you are using any of the default models
that GA4 is setting up for you, I guarantee
you are overweighting
the impact of search, especially paid search
in your attribution funnels and guess what that means?
That means Google gets more money from you.
I wonder who owns Google Analytics?
There’s no way to know.
Okay, so I feel like we’re being very fatalistic
and I don’t want people to like,
stop listening and be like, Well, this is terrible news.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing.
So let’s pivot into like today’s marketer.
How can they be reporting data
that they can rely on, like you mentioned within SparkToro.
You know, you really look at what some people had
previously called vanity metrics and you’re like, these are the metrics.
You know, you can call them what you want, but
these are the ones where we do activity and we see lift.
Yes, yes, that you know what?
No one has said it better, Val.
Since 1945, we make investments,
we get metrics, we see lift.
Look, I think that there are a whole bunch of whatever CEOs and founders
and investors and like a whole class of people who are
unwilling to accept the new reality, which is that
these big tech, big tech companies have realized that if they hide
attribution in a bunch of places and create zero click platforms,
search engines where you don’t have to click to get results, social networks
where there is very little or no possibility that someone can follow
a link out to the open web, algorithms that bias against them, right?
If they do these things and create these walled gardens,
then the attribution will always and only look like the money you spend
with them on advertising is the only way to get return on investment.
And the first thing that I think
any marketer has to do, if they want to break out of this cycle,
is they have to explain that reality and get their leadership,
their investors, whoever to buy it.
Because you know what?
If your private equity owners don’t believe that this is happening,
and if the CEO doesn’t believe that this is happening,
if the CMO doesn’t convince the CEO and the investors
and the board of directors that this is happening,
you’re going to be fighting a tidal wave.
There’s just too much working against you.
So your first job is storytelling.
Storytelling inside your organization, to your team, to your clients,
if you’re an agency, to your boss, that’s where it has to begin.
And then then you can build the model, which is basically saying, Hey, you know,
we have a theory, we think, based on surveys and interviews and,
you know, data from audience research tools or whatever, we think that
at the top of the funnel, the very top of the funnel,
we think that most people learn about us through sources of influence in our field
and here’s how we’re going to be present in those
and here’s how we’re going to measure that.
We’re going to measure that based on branded search terms.
If we see our branded search volume rising after we do these things
and we should see significant lift after a 90 day investment,
we are going to know it’s working.
And that branded search lift is then going to translate
into middle of funnel and bottom of funnel.
And we’re going to, that’s where we’re going to take 30% of the budget.
We’re currently throwing it paid advertising, put it into that,
and we’re going to report back to you in six months and tell you how that went.
And if you’re not willing to take that chance.
I have bad news.
Google and Facebook are going to take the 1.5x ROI that you have today
and make sure that for every dollar you spend with them, you make $1.001.
I do feel like, you know, branded search is the only place
I can put my head on the pillow at night and justify that spend these days.
So that’s really interesting perspective.
And I like how you’re saying we need to sell it to the C-suite.
We need to sell it to the boards of directors or PE firms with storytelling
and the data points that we do have, because
I don’t know that we have much of a choice for anything else at this point.
Yeah, yeah.
I mean, I would say that in almost every one of these types
of investments that you might make, there’s something you can point to.
So for example, let’s say you thought, say your B2B SaaS, right?
And so you think most of your activities happening on LinkedIn
you can use, you don’t have to just use branded search,
branded search can be like our sort of our middle of funnel metric.
Our top of funnel metric can be new followers on LinkedIn.
It can be impressions, comments, shares, essentially the activity that’s happening
on the platform, which is predictive of,. Hey, people saw us.
The first time they heard about us, the first time they saw something from us.
They’re not going to remember.
They’re not going to even remember our branding, the third time
they might, the seventh time they really will.
The 12th time they’re going to come visit the website.
And when they think about, Hey,
who do I know who does a good job at X?
If we’ve done our job in the sort of content that we’ve created,
our social strategy and all the content that we’ve put on LinkedIn,
then they’re going to associate our brand with the problem we solve.
And when they have that problem or a friend of theirs has that problem,
that’s when we win.
And so there’s no way to measure that journey.
You can’t measure it.
What you can measure is the very start and the very end.
And then you are looking for making more investments
in those starting points and seeing more return at the end.
And that’s the only thing you can measure.
So I built a here’s how to measure a bunch of hard to measure
channels and like, here’s what our funnel looks like for that.
If you want, you can take that and copy it
to your own Google account and build your own, however you like.
There’s a few good companies that are doing this too, right,
that are trying to like build
these hard to measure dashboards that I featured in the post.
So maybe, maybe that can help.
I am definitely going to check that out.
I feel like we’re starting a movement and it feels exciting to me.
I mean, we’re not going to report. MQL counts to the CMO and the CEO anymore.
I feel like there’s a seed change coming around.
Yeah, there has to be.
Well, either that or big tech just keeps getting bigger until they crush us all.
Well, well, yeah, Well, let’s end on that note, Rand.
This is a great conversation.
It’s all the time we have for today.
I really appreciate you joining us.
Like I said,. I feel like it’s a conversation
that needs to be being had more often in more spaces.
I couldn’t agree more, Val.. What a pleasure was joining you.
Thanks for having me.
All right.
Well, if attribution is over, you guys got to keep tuning in to Closing
Time to see where we’re going to go next.
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Thanks so much for joining us.
We’ll see you next week on closing time.

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