Avoiding Marketing Attribution Bias

January 13, 2021 Chris Baird

Marketing attribution is incredibly helpful for determining the success of different aspects of your marketing campaigns. But with that being said, marketing attribution is not foolproof. Misattributed touchpoints can lead to incorrect adjustments to a campaign. This wastes your time and marketing budget and limits your marketing team’s ability to connect with your audience properly.

But how can you make sure your marketing attribution is working correctly? By looking out for marketing attribution bias and knowing how to avoid it.

What Is Attribution Bias?

Attribution bias, also known in psychology as the fundamental attribution error, is a false assumption about the relationship between two variables.

It is often used to describe how people justify their own actions and behavior versus how they justify another person’s. For example, if someone is late to work, you might be quick to assume that person lacks discipline. But, if you are late to work, you are quick to reference all of the uncontrollable, situational factors that lead to your delay, like an alarm clock not going off, traffic on the highway, or losing your favorite pair of work shoes.

Attribution Bias in Marketing

The same logic used in psychology can be applied to the cognitive bias in market research. For example, certain touchpoints may be given a disproportionate amount of credit; we may be ignoring the situational factors that lead to a customer completing a desired action.

Although the type of bias you’ll observe completely depends on the attribution model you use, four common types of marketing attribution bias include:

  • Correlation-Based Bias: One event is assumed to cause another, when in reality it doesn’t. This is often the case with single-touch attribution models, which assign all credit for an action to a single touchpoint.
  • In-Market Bias: Consumers would have converted without seeing the ad, but the ad still gets credit for the conversion. For example, a customer sees an Instagram ad for a product, which reminded them that they meant to buy it earlier.
  • Cheap Inventory Bias: The low price of a product means it is accessible to a wider range of income levels. This leads to higher sales, rather than the ad the sales were attributed to.
  • Digital Signal Bias: Marketers fail to factor in the relationship between online activity and offline sales. This may lead marketers to disproportionately prioritize online sales, since those metrics are easy to measure.

Example of Marketing Attribution Bias

To give an example of bias in market research, consider the following:

A customer is in the market for a new tennis racquet. You run a sports gear retailer. The customer gets a promotional email from your store and clicks on the link to browse your racquet options. They don’t buy anything. Then, a few days later, the customer gets retargeted with an ad on Facebook, which inspires them to drive to your store location. They talk about different tennis racquets with one of your store associates, but don’t end up buying anything. A week later, they are retargeted again, and they drive back to your store and buy the racquet your associate recommended.

Does this sound complicated? Many customer journeys are.

So, what touchpoint gets attributed credit for this sale? With a strictly digital-tracking attribution software, it would appear that the promotional email and the two retargeted ads had no effect. From an offline perspective, it would seem like the customer service during those two store visits were all the customer needed.

What Problems Can Attribution Bias Cause?

Dissonance Between Attributed ROI and Actual ROI

One of the main purposes of marketing attribution is to get an accurate picture of where your company should allocate more of its budget. So, if a certain touchpoint appears to be getting a higher return on investment (ROI), it would make sense to spend more money to aid that touchpoint’s performance.

However, if a touchpoint’s attributed ROI is higher than the actual ROI, reallocating the budget towards that touchpoint will lead to wasted advertising dollars.

This brings up the concept of “incremental ROI.” This idea suggests that the digital marketing touchpoints that lead to the sale really only have an incremental impact. Other factors, such as your brand’s equity or the price of the product or service, might have a greater influence on the customer.

Lack of Attribution Towards External Factors

There are a countless number of possible external factors that influence a customer to convert or perform an action. Just to name a few:

  • Previous consumer interest
  • Pricing
  • Seasonality of the product/service
  • Current state of the economy
  • A company’s market position
  • Personalization options of a product/service

In a way, marketing attribution is like looking at your marketing efforts through a distorted view of reality. It is entirely focused on what you are producing on digital channels, and takes nothing else into account.

How to Avoid Bias in Data Reporting

Even though these biases are common in marketing attribution, you shouldn’t concede to gathering data that has a margin of error. Bias correction in market research will take a little effort on your part, but it’s worth it for the success of your marketing campaign.

  • Adopt an offline and online measurement system. You want attribution software that lets you find the relationship between offline and online influences. This might include implementing telephone call tracking or using online generated codes for offline purchases.
  • Rely on identities, not cookies. Many marketers will solely use cookie-based measurements to understand when and where a customer may have been influenced. But when those customers clear their online cookies, all of that data is lost. That’s why many marketers are shifting their strategy towards privacy-friendly, online-identity tracking. That way, you’ll have the most accurate information about where your customers are online and what touchpoints they interact with.
  • Cross-reference customer journeys. A touchpoint that may seem inconsequential for one group of customers might be instrumental for another. Observing common customer journeys and finding similarities can keep you from taking the budget out of something that is actually working.

So Why Choose Marketing Attribution?

Even though there are no perfect or “bias-free” attribution models, using marketing attribution is still absolutely for your benefit. If it weren’t for marketing attribution, your marketing team would have zero information about how your campaigns and targeted ads are succeeding.

Plus, attribution methods are only improving. Many software developers, like Observepoint, are aware of the problems listed above, and are working hard to solve them.

What’s important now is to be accountable for your data. Don’t take your first results as absolute truth. Take the time to test and compare customer journeys to get the most out of your attribution software.

About the Author

Chris Baird

As Chief Marketing Officer, Chris Baird is responsible for providing strategic marketing direction for ObservePoint products, solutions, and services, and for presenting the ObservePoint brand worldwide. He previously held various marketing positions at Mrs. Fields Brands, Omniture, and Adobe.

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