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Guest Opinion: Plant, Water, and Harvest: The Keys to Valid Attribution

1 Dec, 2015 By: Doug Garnett Response

The idea of highly accurate attribution is all the rage. And it should be. Data science today makes it possible to understand, more than ever, about sophisticated media mixes and their impact on sales channels.

But attribution also remains severely limited. Advertising, including direct response TV, does far more than merely close sales. Advertising must introduce consumers to the product or service, move them from mere awareness to wanting the product, and then finally move them to action. Let’s call this the “plant, water, harvest model”.

With this foundation in mind, consider these seven rules for thriving in the era of attribution:

  1. Successful attribution requires a plant, water, and harvest model. If you stop planting, you’ll end up without a harvest. And if you stop watering, your plants die. In marketing, this means paying attention to the entire journey that leads someone to buy your product or service — not just that point where they take action. Demand that attribution helps you understand the entire journey.
  2. Never rely only on “last-touch” attribution. Many attribution models only consider the media that drove the final contact. That’s because last touch is far easier to calculate and track than more important steps. But usually the most effective last-touch media is also exceptionally poor at either planting or watering.
  3. Avoid black boxes. Vendors and agencies will claim they have black boxes that reveal everything you need to know. They don’t. Even worse, black boxes make huge hidden assumptions that can damage your business.
  4. Statistics underestimate the importance of planting and watering. In major retail attribution work about 15 years ago, my agency found shocking contradictions in the data. Statistical analysis estimated one retail sale for each direct sale. But consumer surveys and sales data showed as many as 14-15 sold at retail per direct sale. Why the difference? In this typically noisy market, statistics couldn’t detect the bulk of the media’s impact — planting and watering.
  5. Statistical models are developed for ideal situations — but markets aren’t ideal. Markets are very noisy. And in a noisy market, statistics tend to overestimate the most obvious things — like impact from high-profile media airings. That means they miss the impact of important smaller actions, like buying highly efficient, low-cost DR airings.
  6. Don’t ask consumers to do your attribution for you. Many companies build attribution around asking consumers to enter promo codes. Except, no matter how hard you try, 70-80 percent of your consumers won’t use the codes. Why? Attribution is not their job — it’s our job.
  7. Avoid separate attribution silos. Separating silos can be as misleading as black boxes. For example, on a certain campaign, the phone MER might drop, leading the client to panic. But if, during the preceding three months, the client’s product had rolled out in 2,000 new retail stores, it’s likely that the MER drop matched the retail expansion. In this example, the increased retail profit likely would be higher than the client’s loss through lower MER. Unfortunately, a silo mentality might lead this client to believe this success actually indicated failure.

Go forth and build attribution models. But remember, there’s no magic bullet. The most successful companies use attribution to complement traditional research and analysis.

After all, business success requires human judgment and instinct — that’s what makes it such fun. And when smart attribution is combined with more traditional work, we’re able to make amazing things happen.

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of Atomic Direct, a Portland, Ore.-based advertising agency specializing in brands, consumer strategy, infomercials, and driving retail with television. He can be reached via e-mail at or on Twitter at @DRTVGuru.

About the Author: Doug Garnett

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