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Why Social Media Marketing Attribution Models Are Non-Negotiable

By Christine Warner on August 2, 2018

True or false: Social media marketing is best used for brand awareness.

If you said true, your social media strategy may be stuck in 2004. Today, the assumption that social success is mainly measured in reach is actually false.

Back in the early 2000s, the advent of social media, algorithms were much less sophisticated and treated brand pages and individual users alike, but this is no longer the case. In recent years, sites like Facebook began changing the way their algorithm displays posts in users' News Feeds in order to prioritize posts from family and friends and devalue posts from branded pages and publishers. With increasingly sophisticated algorithms and users, it's becoming harder and harder for brands to break through and get exposure on social media, even among their own followers.

The unpredictable nature of social media and the widespread adoption of standards that de-prioritize brand content and elevate individual users' posts has some marketers questioning the value of their social media strategy. Is it still worth the investment? Brand reach is dipping, but what does that mean for social media ROI?

Marketers recognize that organic social media promotion isn't enough to drive strong ROI, and their budget allocation proves it. Deloitte's February 2018 CMO Survey found that social media spend is up 243 percent since 2009 and is predicted to increase by 71 percent in the next five years. While social media budgets expand as marketers invest more in paid reach, social media platforms continue to place more value on prioritizing content that contributes to meaningful conversions and accounts for the specific ways users are likely to interact with that content. With so much weight on user experience and the intricacies of the conversion process, paying attention to your conversion attribution is now non-negotiable.

Social Media Is No Longer Just an Awareness Play

Social media has largely been considered an awareness play, used to contribute to top-of-the-funnel reach metrics like impressions, views, and visits with the objective of broad audience exposure. And for a while, this approach worked. Then the brand-punishing algorithm updates came along. These changes brought the good will of users by reconnecting with the real mission of social media: connecting people digitally to enhance real-life relationships. But bit by bit, it has become harder for brands to organically appear in feeds.

So social media strategies can no longer lead with reach. To get results, brands must invest in paid promotions and focus on primarily building engagement as the pathway to reach. This requires social media marketing to get more creative, relevant, and targeted than in the past. It also means more monetary investment, in addition to effort. Social media networks only display brand content based on user engagement and relevance. Did a user or her friend engage with this brand's content? Did she search for or interact with similar content? A user's interaction history is the main criteria for what shows up in her feed from both brands and friends alike.

Engagement Now Comes Before Social Media Reach

Social media has traditionally aligned with the awareness phase of the marketing funnel. As a result, marketers set social media goals and KPIs based on reach and traffic. Let's be honest-it was just easier to position social media this way, as one less marketing channel that needs to be tied to conversion metrics. When we define social media success by soft metrics, there's less pressure to prove ROI and it feels like less effort to explain its impact to stakeholders as "a pure awareness play."

But in today's landscape, success can't be defined by these top-of-funnel metrics. If you rely on them to meaningfully understand your brand's social performance, you'll be disappointed. Marketers everywhere are alarmed by decreases in their social media reach due to algorithm changes-especially on Facebook. While this doesn't exactly bode well for brands, it makes marketers work harder for results and brings more qualified engagement. It also gives more power to social media since users know that their feeds are tailored to their interests and aren't just a chronological stream of posts. And with analytics enhancements, it's now easier to attribute conversions to social media.

taking a photo on a mobile phone

Image attribution: Josh Rose

Accurate ROI Measurement Is More Important Than Ever

As social media moves down the marketing funnel, marketers need to figure out how to accurately and effectively report its results. Alongside algorithm updates over the years, analytics improvements have also come-through both native and third-party platforms. In the Deloitte survey, CMOs reported that social media marketing is getting easier to measure, and 23 percent of respondents expressed confidence in their ability to prove its impact quantitatively. It's essential to establish measurement tools, strategies, and processes to make this possible and give the right amount of credit to your social media strategy.

Attribution Models Are the Best Way to Prove Success

Despite these improvements, marketers continue to struggle with aligning technology and budget needs. According to OnBrand and Bynder's 2018 State of Branding Report, the top two concerns for marketing in 2018 are choosing the right marketing technology and getting enough budget to support their efforts. How do marketers overcome these challenges? Through conversion attribution. Not every organization can afford a robust CRM system for detailed attribution reporting throughout the customer life cycle, but any marketer can use available resources to create-or hack-a working attribution model.

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to marketing attribution. Whether you're just starting out or want to revisit your current model, these are the most common methods with varying levels of complexity and customization.

Single-Touch Models

First-Touch Model: A single-touch model, first-touch attribution gives total credit to the first channel a lead interacted with. This means that if a lead first interacted with your brand through a social media ad, the conversion action would be attributed to that social media campaign and ad unit-ignoring any other interactions after. There are clear downsides to this approach since it doesn't take any other interactions or channels into consideration that may have followed the first interaction-and could even have had more influence on the decision. Moreover, in the current multi-device and multi-channel digital landscape, it is unlikely that the first touchpoint was the only one. However, if you're just starting to dive into your awareness metrics, the first-touch attribution model is easy to implement and can work as a starting point before optimizing your strategy for more advanced attribution models.

Last-Touch Model: As its name implies, the last-touch attribution model assigns all conversion credit to the last interaction in a lead's journey. If a lead converts after downloading an e-book from a blog post, the e-book would receive full credit for the sale. This is also an easy metric to measure since it only considers the final interaction before the conversion. Yet, similar to the cons of the first-touch model, it doesn't take into account any previous brand encounters like website visits, online searches, or any offline exposure or interactions.

Multi-Touch Models

Linear Model: The simplest type of multi-touch attribution, the linear model gives equal revenue credit to all interactions in a lead's journey leading up to the conversion. A step up from single-touch attribution, this model lets marketers assign value to all channels and assets involved in a lead's conversion process-closer to the true value.

Position-Based Model: In the position-based model, the first and last interaction get 40 percent of the conversion credit and the remaining 20 percent is distributed across each of the channel interactions that come in between. This approach assumes that the first and last interactions had the most influence in the lead's conversion path and that everything else was less influential.

Time Decay Model: This model is particularly relevant for organizations with long sales cycles in which the marketing interactions have bigger time gaps. It gives the majority of the conversion credit to the touchpoints that happen closest to the sale-as the earliest interactions are presumed to have had less impact.

Custom Model: An advanced attribution strategy, a custom model assigns a percentage of the revenue credit to a specific brand's touchpoints based on weighting determined by internal marketers and stakeholders. This lets marketers allocate the conversion credit based on internal priorities and marketing strategy.

desk device

Image attribution: Brooke Lark

Whichever model your brand adopts or iterates on, make sure it is based on data you can consistently access and rely on for accuracy. Including social media in your current attribution model or developing one specific to your social media strategy is the foundation of proving the ROI of your efforts. As social media networks continue to mature, marketers must grow with them.

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Featured image attribution: Nathan Dumlao


Christine Warner

Christine Warner is a freelance writer and digital marketer with agency, brand, and non-profit experience developing integrated campaigns and content platforms for diverse brands such as Uber, Samsung, Walgreens, Victoria’s Secret, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Dignity Health. Her digital marketing specialties include content marketing strategy, customer relationship management, brand product marketing, digital media planning, social media marketing, and search engine optimization. Currently, she is the Senior Manager of Digital for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where she oversees the digital marketing efforts for the various non-profit communities and ministries throughout Southern California. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to various lifestyle and marketing publications. You can check out her writing portfolio to browse all her work.