Why First and Last Touch Attribution Aren’t Enough (and What to Do About It)

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Why First and Last Touch Attribution Aren’t Enough (and What to Do About It)

If your client asked you today, “How many leads did your SEO/social media/PPC strategy land for us this month?,” what would you say?Would you say something about Twitter engagement, long-term brand marketing, and “staying top-of-mind”?Or would you be able to confidently say, “Last month, we drove 12,000 quality traffic hits to your blog and converted at least 2% of that into leads”?Attribution modeling, when done right, helps you respond with the latter (quantitatively) and do it in a visual way.The problem is, while any VP of marketing wants the agency they hire to own the content marketing channel and to be held accountable for conversions, most agencies don’t do it. If anything, they play up the importance of vanity metrics like impressions, likes, and shares. Even traffic is a weak metric since a high volume of the wrong kind of traffic won’t result in meaningful revenue.When we asked Devesh Khanal, co-founder of content marketing agency Grow & Convert, why most agencies don’t do content marketing attribution, he mentioned two problems:

  • Actually increasing business metrics (such as leads, trial signups, or sales) is hard.
  • Reporting on and communicating those results is also hard (at least when it comes to blog content).

Marketing attribution is challenging for a number of reasons, including:

  • There are so many metrics to choose from. Do you track impressions? Social engagement? Views?
  • You can only observe what happens on one device. If a customer sees a post on their phone, then makes a purchase on their desktop, you won’t know that’s what happened.
  • You can only see what happens online. This means you can’t quantify all the touchpoints a customer goes through, including how many conversions are a result of word of mouth.
  • Different attribution models show notably different results — and again, there are many to choose from.

In this post, we’ll dive into the three touch attribution models Grow & Convert uses to track conversions from content, which can be useful for any company doing inbound marketing.Specifically, we’ll cover:

  • first-touch attribution
  • last-touch attribution
  • any-touch attribution.

We’ll also talk about the problems with relying only on attribution methods and cover the “any-touch” attribution model (which provides more context to the results you drive), along with showing you how to set that up in Google Analytics (GA) for free.One caveat though: Devesh admitted that if you’re working for a huge (typically, consumer) brand like Nike with massive brand presence and recognition, then you should be tracking impressions over conversions. For brands like these, there are often so many large, overlapping traffic sources, a bunch of offline advertising, and offline sales, so sifting through marketing campaigns and attributing what was responsible for what becomes infinitely more difficult. That said, most brands aren’t Coca-Cola or Nike, so it makes sense to track and report on conversions from the content you produce for clients.Bonus action list: [sg_popup id="232" event="click"] Get our PDF checklist[/sg_popup] for how to impress your clients with conversion results.

First & Last-Touch Attribution: Start with These Models First

First and last-touch are two of the most common attribution models around. While we won’t get into the nitty-gritty details of how to use them, there’s a reason these are the “bread and butter” models Grow & Convert uses in reporting results.

First-Touch Attribution Model

First touch attribution credits the conversion to the first interaction the lead has with your site, whether that’s a landing page from a Facebook ad, or a clickthrough to your site from organic search results. First touch attribution is useful for learning which pieces of content are converting brand new leads.

What It’s Missing

If you only track first-touch attribution, your results will only show one piece of the puzzle: which piece brought in a lead who hasn’t been to your website before — at least, not within the last 90 days, which is the time window Google tracks.Knowing which pieces are bringing in new leads helps you understand what message resonates with people who have not previously been exposed to your clients’ brand. But on the reporting side, it’s missing all the articles that influenced customers to provide their email address, sign up for that free trial, or buy the product (i.e., whatever action you’re tracking as the “goal” for your engagement).For that, you need another attribution model.

Last-Touch Attribution Model

Last touch attribution gives conversion credit to the last step the user who converted took. “So for content, a typical way to measure this is using the Landing Page report in GA, which gives credit to the landing page the user entered the site on in the session in which they converted. This is, by definition, the last landing page they had, because they converted in that session,” Devesh said.“Said another way, they could have entered the site 40 times in the past month, but 100% of the credit of the conversion will go to the last and final landing page they entered with when they converted,” he explained.Now that we’re done with that technical definition, let’s discuss what last-touch attribution is good for. It’s good at showing you which pieces of content tend to lead immediately to a conversion. This typically means the topic is one that brings in bottom-of-funnel traffic — i.e., people who are ready to buy.For example, for software companies, bottom-of-the-funnel pieces might rank for comparison terms like this:

A "Quickbooks vs" Google search

Or direct-product-related queries like this:

A "small business accounting software" Google search.

Covering topics like these is part of a good marketing strategy because they tend to bring in lots of last click conversions.If you set up last-touch attribution, you’ll be able to put a finger exactly on which piece of content — if it is a piece of content — is the last touchpoint that leads to a free trial or a consultation call.

What It’s Missing

The last-touch model doesn’t take into account all the previous touchpoints the customer had to go through before they landed on the piece that made them convert.This means if your content helped with the awareness, intent, and desire stages of the conversion funnel, but your leads ultimately converted at a webinar, then you won’t get credit for doing 75% of the work to get them there! (More on how to track this in a moment).For example, in contrast to the last-click Google queries we mentioned above, Devesh said their firm has noticed that pages and topics that are more in the middle or top of the funnel, such as general how-to queries, usually have a lower last-click conversion rate:

A "How to analyze a P&L" Google search.

If you had content ranking for queries like this, there’s a chance your target customer would land on your article at some point. But they don’t necessarily need software now — they just have a question related to this topic. If you only measure conversions via last-click attribution and don’t see many conversions for an article on this topic, you may think it’s not doing anything for the business, when in fact it may actually be exposing your brand to many ideal customer types.This is why either model taken alone gives you a limited view of your conversion sources.

The Value of Using First-Touch vs Last-Touch Attribution

You can’t just use first-touch or last-touch attribution on their own. You need to use both models to bookend your customer’s conversion path. Together, these models reveal:

  1. Which pieces of content are your new lead generation superstars
  2. Which pieces of content are (probably) your most persuasive closers.

This is already more information than if you didn’t do conversion attribution at all. You can now have a data-backed client results meeting… And maybe make the case for your next rate increase.Now, we won’t go into how to set those two models up in this article because there are already good resources out there. Instead, we’re going to walk you through a lesser-known attribution model that shows you how to give credit to content that influenced a customer’s journey in between the first and last-touch pages.

Any-Touch Attribution: How to See More of the Customer Journey

It’s worth reiterating before we continue: Any attribution model will underestimate the leads you bring in. Analytics software such as Google Analytics doesn't capture all conversions.GA only keeps track up to 90 days in the past. So if one person learned about your brand a year ago but didn’t convert, then came back and converted after six months, you won’t know what drew them to you in the first place.GA can’t track cross-device use. If someone started exploring your website from their mobile device but converted on desktop, GA will attribute both first and last click to your sign-up page. And you’ll never know which other pages or pieces of content convinced them to give you their information.GA is only tracking a single user. Continuing on the cross-device theme, for B2B companies, if one person was exposed to the brand through a specific channel (content, an ad, etc.), then told their coworker, and that coworker later signed up, you wouldn’t be able to measure that.This means that no matter how good your first-touch and last-touch attribution numbers are, they’re still not giving you all the credit you’re due. Every marketing attribution model has this flaw.That doesn’t mean the information isn’t helpful, or that it can’t be used to “prove” your value. This is where segmentation or “any-touch” attribution comes in.The any-touch model tracks how many conversions happened where the user was exposed to your content marketing effort at any point on their journey. It doesn’t have to be first; it doesn’t have to be last; if they landed on your content at any point, it gets credit.(This is different from linear attribution or multi-touch attribution, which split up the credit between all of the pieces of content that led to that conversion.)This means that instead of just telling your clients, “Our blog posts converted 100 new leads this month and drove 10,000 monthly unique pageviews to your site,” you can say,“Your sales team talked to 500 new leads this month. Those leads came from different channels, and some of them converted directly from our blog posts. But 200 of them interacted with at least one of our blog posts at some point in their customer journey.”Sound like something you’d want to say? Here’s how to set that up in Google Analytics.

How to Set Up Any-Touch Attribution in Google Analytics

Google Data Studio view of "Converted after seeing a blog post at some point".

1. On the Landing Pages Tab, Click ‘Add Segment.’

Google Analytics: "Add Segment"

2. Click ‘New Segment.’

Google Analytics: "New Segment"

3. Choose the ‘Sequence’ Filter.

Google Analytics: "Sequences"

This lets you know about anyone who lands on a set of pages that you created for the client.

4. Enter the Regex.

Google Analytics: "Matching Regex"

A regex should consist of all the URLs you’ve created for the client, separated by the “;” symbol. You can learn more about regular expressions (regex) and how to format them here.

5. Pick the Goal You Want to Track.

Google Analytics: Pick the Goal You Want to Track

Make sure the picker is set to “per session >= 1”

6. Choose ‘Sequence start’ to Be Either ‘First user interaction’ or ‘Any user interaction.’

If you choose “Sequence start” to be “First user interaction,” you’ll see how many sessions and how many users started their session on one of the pages you created for the client before converting at the end of the session.

Google Analytics: "First user interaction"

On the other hand, if you choose “Any user interaction,” you’ll see how many users landed on any one of your pages before they converted in that session. (This results in the data for any-touch attribution).

Google Analytics: "Any user interaction"

Devesh says that Grow & Convert uses the any-touch model in client conversations because "This lets you tell your client, ‘Here's the effect of our SEO work, that unique content that we created.’"And honestly? This just makes you look really good.

How to Talk to Clients About Marketing Attribution

Google Data Studio Conversions

Once you have the first, last, and any-touch attribution set up, here are some ways you can help your client understand all the data:

  • Use a dashboard tool like Google Data Studio or ReportGarden to help your client visualize this info.
  • Explain the buyer’s journey to them
  • Show them how your content strategy ties into that journey, even if a lead didn’t convert directly from one of your posts.

“Most content agencies and SEO agencies will just be like, ‘Watch your organic traffic rise!’ And that's fine. Many people have built up decent agencies doing that,” Devesh said. “But we’ve found that clients have a next-level appreciation if you can get really granular and say, ‘Here's how we're attributing conversions on a keyword-by-keyword or piece-by-piece level.’ It just makes it a lot easier to manage your client, make them feel happy about you, and distinguish yourself from other SEO agencies that are only reporting on organic traffic."It’s important to set expectations as soon as you begin reporting on conversions. Usually, a general upward trend is enough to impress. But if you know your client has concrete monetary goals, it’s worth using those results to show how you’re contributing to their goals.That said, marketing attribution isn’t just for your clients. In fact, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t track conversions. That information lets you anchor your agency rates and client conversations around real business value like sales, leads, and revenue growth.Bonus: [sg_popup id="231" event="click"] Get our PDF checklist[/sg_popup] for how to impress your clients with conversion results.

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