Avatar photo Alex Thompson
May 13, 2024

Marketing attribution is how marketers determine which customer journey touchpoints were responsible for achieving a goal (requesting a quote, making a sale, etc.). These touchpoints could be online ads, email newsletters, or any other marketing interaction. 

With attribution data, marketers can understand what's working, optimize campaigns, and earn a greater ROI for their clients. 

This article covers the basics of this foundational marketing principle:

  • What is attribution in marketing?
  • Why is attribution important?
  • Pros, cons, and use cases for different marketing attribution models
  • Comparing attribution models

What Is Attribution in Marketing?

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    Marketing attribution is simply giving specific marketing interactions credit for reaching a goal.

    Was it your Google ad that led to a sale? The weekly newsletter? Or was it an especially informative blog post?

    Attribution data lets you see which touchpoints are driving action and which aren't.

    A few ways you can quantify marketing attribution are:

    • Revenue (Ad #1 is worth $5,000 in sales)
    • Quote value (Ad #1 is worth $20,000 in quoted value)
    • Total conversions (Ad #1 generated 50 conversions)
    • Specific conversion actions (Ad #1 generated 25 phone calls, 15 estimate requests, and 10 emails)

    The best way for marketing agencies to show value is by putting their attribution in terms of revenue or quote value. However, the main focus should be on your data speaking your client's language of success.

    That said, it isn't always clear which marketing deserves the attribution credit. Should it be where a lead first interacted with your marketing? Or where they actually converted? What about all the touchpoints in between?

    For example, if you look in the WhatConverts Lead Manager, you'll see that many leads have customer journeys with tons of touchpoints spanning a long timeline.

    Like this:

    So which of these 30 touchpoints should get credit? This is where things can get tricky.

    That's why marketers use different models to apply attribution credit:

    • First-Click Attribution
    • Last-Click Attribution
    • Linear Attribution
    • Time Decay Attribution
    • Last Non-Direct Attribution
    • Positions Based Attribution

    More on the pros and cons of these models in a bit.

    Why Is Marketing Attribution Important?

    To be effective at their jobs, marketers need to understand who leads are, where they came from, and what they want. Marketing attribution lets you see the "where".

    Beyond just the "where" though, proper marketing attribution is a must for a few other reasons.

    • Proves Value – One of the biggest challenges for marketers is proving the value of their efforts to clients. Attribution data lets you point to a specific piece of marketing (an ad, a landing page, a campaign) and say "this is what this piece of marketing is worth". And that means you can show your client that their investment is producing tangible results.
    • Optimizes Budget – Since attribution data lets you see what marketing is best at achieving a goal, you can then use that data to weed out the low performers, double down on what's working, and make smarter use of the budget you have.
    • Provides Strategic Insights – Marketing attribution gives you greater visibility into the mind of your audience. What topics are bringing leads into your funnel? Which pages are converting higher than others? Marketers can use this attribution data to fine-tune their strategy to turn visitors into leads faster and more effectively.

    Types of Marketing Attribution Models

    How do you measure marketing attribution?

    With a single touchpoint (e.g., a Google Ad that leads directly to a sale), attribution is simple—any sale should be attributed to that touchpoint.

    But things get a little trickier when the customer journey is more complex.

    For example, if a lead…

    1. Learns about your brand from a PPC ad
    2. Browses through your blog content
    3. Views your feature pages
    4. Converts from a marketing email

    …which of these touchpoints should get credit for the conversion?

    That's where attribution models come in.

    Let's look at some of the most popular, along with pros/cons and use cases for each.

    First Click

    Also known as "first touch" or "first interaction attribution," first click attribution gives full credit to the first piece of marketing a visitor touches before becoming a lead.

    So take the customer journey of the lead below shown inside WhatConverts.

    You can see:

    1. Where the lead first came to our site (Google CPC)
    2. Other pages the lead then visited
    3. Where the lead converted to a trial signup

    In this situation, the Google ad would get credit for the conversion since it was the first interaction the lead had with our marketing.

    Pros & Cons

    Great for showing value of your marketing (this piece started the customer journey)Doesn't provide insights on full customer journey (just the first step)

    When to Use the First Click Attribution Model

    When you want to see which marketing is best at bringing new visitors into your pipeline.\

    Last Click

    With last click, the last piece of marketing a visitor touches before converting gets all the credit.

    So in the instance below…

    The "/pricing" page would get full attribution for the lead because it was the last page a visitor was on before converting to a lead.

    Pros & Cons

    Useful for getting conversion insightsAlso ignores the full customer journey (leads could have interacted with 15 different pages before converting)

    When to Use the Last Click Attribution Model

    When you want to see which marketing is best at converting visitors to leads. 

    Linear Attribution

    Linear attribution gives equal weight to all touchpoints on the customer journey.

    So if a visitor…

    1. Clicks through an ad to your site
    2. Visits your Services page
    3. Reads your About Us page
    4. Then converts on your Pricing page

    …each of those marketing steps will receive 25% of the attribution credit.

    Linear attribution is a type of multi-touch attribution model, which gives weight to more than one touchpoint.

    Pros & Cons

     An easy-to-use model that accounts for the full customer journey Since all touchpoints are valued the same, offers little optimization opportunities for specific outcomes (e.g., conversion, lead gen, etc.)

    When to Use the Linear Attribution Model

    When you want to give credit to multiple marketing touchpoints on the customer journey (a.k.a. multi-touch attribution) in a simple, easy-to-understand way. 

    Time Decay

    Another type of multi-touch attribution, time-decay gives more credit to touchpoints closer to the conversion.

    In the example above, the breakdown of attribution credit might look like this:

    1. Clicks through an ad to your site (10% credit)
    2. Visits your Services page (20% credit)
    3. Reads your About Us page (30% credit)
    4. Then converts on your Pricing page (40% credit)

    So whereas linear attribution gives equal credit to every marketing touchpoint, time decay favors touchpoints that are further down the funnel.

    Pros & Cons

     May be the best model for conversion optimization Minimizes the importance of the first marketing touchpoint

    When to Use the Time Decay Model

    When you want multi-touch attribution that favors high-converting marketing over marketing that brings in new leads. 

    Last Non-Direct

    This model is similar to the last click model, but ignores direct traffic.

    For example, say a picture-perfect potential customer clicks on your ad, browses through your Pricing page, and then clicks off your site.

    A week later, she types in your site URL and converts right on your homepage.

    With last click attribution, your homepage would get the attribution credit because that's where the visitor converted.

    But without the pricing page, she never would have returned to your site in the first place.

    In this scenario, the last non-direct attribution model would give your Pricing page credit, not the homepage.

    You can see the difference in the WhatConverts Lead Manager.

    Last Click Attribution

    See all those "(direct)" and "(none)" instances under Source and Medium?

    Now let's look at when we change the attribution model.

    Last Non-Direct Attribution

    Pros & Cons

     Lets you see which marketing led to conversions without being distracted by direct traffic Still overlooks the importance of multiple touchpoints in the customer journey

    When to Use the Last Non-Direct Model

    When you want to identify which marketing influences conversion for visitors but want to exclude direct traffic.

    Position Based

    Also known as "U-shaped attribution," position based attribution strikes a happy medium between first click, last click, and multi-touch attribution models.

    It values the first and last click equally (usually 40% each) and splits the remaining 20% among the in-between touchpoints.

    This highlights marketing that brought leads in, drove conversions, and nurtured prospects along the way.

    So with the earlier example, a position based model would assign credit like this:

    1. Clicks through an ad to your site (40% credit)
    2. Visits your Services page (10% credit)
    3. Reads your About Us page (10% credit)
    4. Then converts on your Pricing page (40% credit)

    Pros & Cons

     Multi-touch attribution; favors both the top and bottom of the funnel May undervalue critical touchpoints between the first and last click (e.g., remarketing campaigns, email nurture cycles, etc.)

    When to Use the First Click Model

    When you want a multi-touch model that favors both top and bottom funnel marketing.

    Comparing Results from Different Attribution Models

    As you can see, there are pros and cons to every marketing attribution model. And the insights you can get from each will vary.

    So, why not use multiple models instead?

    In WhatConverts, you can compare results from different models in both the Lead Manager and in your reporting.

    Lead Manager


    Doing so in reporting is especially useful because you can see different attribution models side by side.

    So if I wanted to see which lead source was the best at bringing in leads (first click attribution) versus which was the best at converting those leads (last click attribution), I could compare the two models and see something like this:

    With a report like this, you could get insights like:

    • Google CPC is the most effective first touchpoint
    • GMB listings are better for converting than bringing visitors into the pipeline
    • Google organic is equally effective at converting and bringing in visitors

    Don't feel tied down by any one marketing attribution model. Instead, use them together to get the insights you need to make better marketing decisions.

    Wrapping Up

    Having accurate attribution data is essential for marketers.

    Without it, you can't:

    • Prove your value
    • Optimize your budget
    • Get strategic insights

    And while there are many different models to choose from, the best approach is using multiple alongside one another—not sticking with only one.

    Ready to get more from your first-party data? Try WhatConverts for free for 14 days!


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    Avatar photo
    Alex Thompson

    Alex Thompson is a professional copywriter and content writer with a passion for turning complex ideas into digestible, educational content that keeps readers engaged. He specializes in content marketing, SEO, and B2B marketing.

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