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Can a 1985 Marketing Playbook Fix Measurement Problems in 2024?

Marketers should stop using attribution models and return to a 1985-like measurement model if they want their brands to succeed in 2024 and beyond.

“Attribution is fully broken these days, but we’re still using it like we used to,” says Rand Fishkin, co-founder of SparkToro.

He recently shared that message during his visit to CMI Live for the episode Can We Really ‘Measure’ Marketing Anymore?

Read on (or watch the video) to learn what Rand had to say about how marketers got to this point and how you can pivot to more meaningful measurement in 2024.

Take a trip back in time

What does a 1985 model look like in 2024?

Before we get to that, let’s start in 1985.

A Coca-Cola marketer tells its ad agency it wants to run a new campaign in Ohio to drive same-store sales of New Coke. The agency outlines the deliverables but makes no promises on results — and Coca-Cola’s marketers and C-suite don’t expect them to.

The agency puts up a New Coke billboard in Cincinnati and a different version in Cleveland. Whichever one lifts same-store sales more will be run statewide.

By 2005, marketers and agencies had changed the story. They made promises to get their bosses and clients to invest in digital marketing. Search engine optimization, pay-per-click, display ads, retargeting, content marketing, etc., could now deliver the once-impossible — measurement of the buyer’s journey from start to finish.

In this new attribution model, they could quantify the value of each customer’s engagement with the brand.

A buyer could see a YouTube pre-roll ad, watch the video, and then visit the brand’s website to consume a piece of content. Three months later, they signed up for the email newsletter. Then, they saw an ad in the newsletter, clicked it, and made their purchase.

Marketing assigned a fractional value for each touchpoint based on the total sale. Now, the company can accurately calculate the true worth and impact of each marketing tactic.

Measuring marketing in the early 2020s

However, events in the past five years or so mean marketers and agencies can no longer fulfill the promise of an attribution model.

Third-party cookies are dying. Apple further developed a private ecosystem. New regulations and laws in California, Canada, the European Union, and in parts of Europe decimated a marketers’ ability to track the buyer.

And those aren’t the only complications. Almost one-third of all internet users enable ad blockers, which block tracking as well as ads. Plus, people use incognito browsing and multiple devices along their journey, making it still harder to track their activity.

Building a sophisticated attribution channel may still work for large-scale digital advertising, Rand says. But forget it if you want to attribute a journey that includes stops on Slack channels and social media platforms that lead buyers to watch a video or read an article before they buy.

Modeling for 2024 and beyond

Instead, marketers should return to the 1985 model. Rand and host Amanda Subler discussed this scenario: Someone sees an influencer mention a brand’s product on Instagram. Later, they do a Google search for it and buy it.

Now, under the attribution model, Google would get all the credit for the purchase because the brand didn’t know the buyer had seen the influencer’s video. Marketers who relied on that misattribution would make erroneous decisions about investing their budget in Google going forward.

Rand says when he looks at his favorite marketing campaigns and the things they convinced him to buy, none of the touchpoints would be attributable.

Take the recent Visit Oslo campaign — Is It Even a City?

The tongue-in-cheek video netted 181,000 views in four days, garnered major media coverage, and created viral posts across the internet.

But Visit Oslo can’t track the journey of those viewers and readers over the next two years and attribute a percentage of increasing flights and hotel sales to the video. However, Visit Oslo will see an increase in demand, and the tourism board will assume the campaign was effective in building brand awareness.

“That’s how almost all marketing investments are going to have to go in the future,” Rand says.

To measure impact, you should follow in the footsteps of the 1980s marketer. Evaluate the before-and-after metrics overall, and don’t assign a value to each component’s contributions.

Think about it. If Visit Oslo had stuck with an attribution model to determine the success of its quirky video, it would likely have been disappointed in the results.

“Attribution destroys creativity. It destroys imagination. It destroys the things that are human and awesome,” Rand says.

Don’t give up on rankings completely

This modern measurement strategy is even more important in a zero-click marketing world as platforms and humans favor one-stop content, and marketers lose traffic to their owned channels. “We’ve really become trained as internet users not to click, to stay on the platform,” Rand says.

Still, your brand can’t ignore search rankings as they play a role in those zero-click results and some humans still see Google, other search engines, and even generative AI tools as their go-to research sources.

Rand relates how SparkToro faced that challenge. It creates a self-contained or zero-click newsletter. The 50,000–plus recipients don’t have to click on a link to read more about a subject. Yet, that also means that Google can’t see and recognize that content’s value and show it in search engine results. So, SparkToro ponders how to use the newsletter content in a way that also gets its attention from Google.

“That’s the tension that exists in a lot of these systems,” Rand says.

But your metrics can help you see how big the tension really is.

Rand tells of a recent presentation from Wil Reynolds, founder of Seer Interactive, who relayed that his agency site’s organic traffic dropped 41% in 18 months as Google changed its algorithm and favored zero-click results.

A drop like that sounds catastrophic, but Wil looked at other metrics and found that new client leads and revenue had inched up slightly in that same time.

TIP: The most valuable traffic from Google search for marketers is branded traffic — people who search for the brand (Adidas) and not the product (running shoes).

What’s a marketer to do?

Every marketer must have a difficult conversation about the failure of attribution modeling with the marketing, finance, and executive leadership teams of their employers or clients.

“They have to understand when you provide attribution, you miss almost every organic channel, every word-of-mouth-channel, almost every social engagement channel that’s organic, and almost every channel that doesn’t directly drive a link that passes a referral string,” Rand says.

Instead, they must recognize that measurement is the preferred method and it requires a long-range assessment of brand strength and recognition. “You’re going to look at lift, not attribution,” Rand says. “They have to buy into this new method of operating.”

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute