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Why Is Attribution Reporting So [censored] Hard?

I read an article this week titled “Why 67 Percent of Strategic Plans Fail, Strategic planning is great, in theory, but more often than not, it fails. Here’s why.” It outlined that 74% of executives report not having faith in their company strategies, and 67% of strategic plans fail.

Data-Driven Marketers

You know, I don’t remember ever being told, “I’m an intuition-driven marketer.” I don’t remember ever meeting with a CEO who said, “I don’t really care about the data, as long as we feel like it’s working.”

I do remember meeting with a CEO and hearing, “I meet with a group of CEOs, and we all seem to want the exact same reporting, but somehow no one ever has it. It’s like everyone knows exactly what we need, but no one can get it.”

I laughed. “Yeah man, what you’re asking for isn’t easy. Fortunately, we make these reports every week and can definitely help. We just need to do a bit of discovery, some process development, and have the budget to do it.”

He was stoked – until I gave him a budget range.

He still doesn’t have the reporting.

Not because it isn’t possible, but because attribution reporting is [censored] hard. It takes experience, planning, process, and time. (all code words for a lot of allocated budget)

So What Do You Do If You Can’t Hire the Pros?

First, you have to divorce yourself from the notion that reporting is easy. There aren’t any buttons you click and have magic attribution reporting.

Oh! Your marketing app said that they have an attribution reporting feature?

Cool – it doesn’t change anything.

Your ability to create attribution reporting has nothing to do with technology. The technology is solved. You need four things to create attribution reporting in-house.

  1. Clearly Defined Lead Management Frameworks
  2. Effective Data Collection Processes
  3. Clearly Defined Attribution Rules
  4. Effective Data Analyst Skills

Let’s break these down a bit.

Clearly Defined Lead Management Frameworks

In my opinion, this is where most inquiries to Attribution Reporting end.

If I want to report on progress through a funnel, I have to have a funnel. If marketing blasts to everyone and sales call whoever they feel like, whenever they feel like, then you don’t need attribution reporting.

Attribution reporting measures progress through a serial process to a designated outcome.

If you do not have a serial process defined with clearly measured outcomes, you are not ever getting attribution reporting.

You have to define:



Desired Outcomes

Sales Handoffs

Sales Engagements

Sales Outcomes

If you take a disorganized approach to the marketing and sales process, you don’t get organized reporting without hiring a forensic data science team.

Effective Data Collection Processes

This one is my favorite.

Assume we have overcome hurdle 1 and have a defined process.

Data Analysts analyze data. They don’t create it. If you are not tracking progress, you cannot report on progress.

If I want to know how an individual came to my website, I have to record how the individual came to my website at the time they came to my website. The fact this data may exist somewhere doesn’t make it accessible in your reporting tools. Google Analytics knows everyone who comes to your site, but you can’t correlate that data to individuals.

When you are designing attribution reporting, a key component is making sure that each individual metric you want to be reported is recorded in an authoritative, consolidated database. When everything from the first web visit to the closed/won opportunity is recorded in a database, then you can compare, correlate, and create reports on the activity.

Clearly Defined Attribution Rules

This brings us to the next challenge to solve! What does “attribution” mean to you?

Be careful with this one because the more you ask for here, the more difficult the last step becomes. Attribution rules are the specific criteria on which revenue or opportunities will be associated with marketing touch points.

There are many attribution models, some common, others not. For simplicity, we’ll look at the most basic attribution model, “First Touch Revenue Attribution”, often referred to as “Lead Source Reporting”, and some associated complexities which must be solved before you can have accurate reporting.

First Touch Revenue Attribution

Define the first marketing touch point which occurred, ending with the revenue transaction.

Essentially, “We have just closed this opportunity. What marketing channel/campaign did it come from?”


Revenue transactions are typically associated with companies (accounts). Companies are comprised of multiple persons involved in the research and buying process.
The person who made the inquiry may not be the person who conducted the initial research, and neither may be present during the sales process.

With this in mind, are you looking for the first individual marketing touch point that ever occurred for any person at the company?
What if the initial touch point is 10 years ago by a person no longer with the company?

The Questions Don’t Stop There

  • What if this is the second transaction or a returning customer?
  • Are you still looking for the original touch point or the first touch point clearly associated with this transaction?
  • What do we do if there are duplicate records in the data (there always are)?
  • What do we do if the duplicates have contradictions?

Here we really begin to see why it’s so [censored] hard. Who’s job is it to decide these things?

The executives didn’t think about this when they asked for the report; the marketer is just trying to satisfy their expectations.

Clearly defining the rules is required before you build the data structures, which are completely dependent on your collected data, subject to data cleanliness, and often unclear at all levels of the company.

Effective Data Analyst Skills

This is the one that is easiest to solve.

We will now assume that you have clean, consistent, well-managed data in a database captured at every step of the process; you will now use it to create reports following the explicit reporting objectives defined by your attribution rules…

I’ll pause for you to stop laughing…

Ok, so all that is true, now what do we do?

Leverage your internal developer to feed this data in a correct table format so it can be grouped by rows, columns, and values on an X/Y axis and visualized in your BI tool.

And this is where my blog stops being helpful- If you are a data analyst, you can do that. If you aren’t, you can’t. It’s an entire field/industry with a specialized skill set.

What the [censored], Phil? I thought you were going to help me!

I promise I did. 🙂

The blog is called Why Is Attribution Reporting So [censored] Hard?”.

I have tried to answer the why and some of the how. I hope that my answer has been helpful to you and that you feel equipped to have productive conversations with your internal stakeholders. I understand that finding the right reporting solution can be frustrating, but by setting proper expectations and focusing on achievable objectives, you can make progress toward your goals. Remember, success is not just about finding the perfect solution but also about making incremental improvements along the way. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors and hope you can achieve your desired outcomes.

Maybe you’ve done all this and need some help – as always, feel free to contact us. We love helping.

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