Be Careful with those "Assists"

Tracking "assists" is a sloppy and potentially dangerous mechanism for handling attribution. The reason is that many "attribution systems" apply no rigor to defining an assist, and as we all know: assistance comes in all different shapes and sizes...and values. "The Great One" (aka Wayne Gretzky) had more "points" in his career than any other player in NHL history...by a long, long way. 2,857 points, comprised of 894 goals and 1,963 assists. Interestingly, in hockey an assist is considered just as valuable as a goal for the purposes of individual statistics. In the judgment of an official, if a pass was instrumental in making the goal possible, the passer should get just as much credit as the guy who sticks it in the net. Two facts are worth mentioning: first, while the player gets a point for his stat sheet, the team only gets one goal; second, there is judgment involved here, and not every pass preceding a goal is credited with an assist. Rudimentary attribution systems are guilty of 4 grievous sins:
  1. Double-counting. Assists are often treated as some type of a win in addition to the actual sales driven. Let's say all online marketing channels combined to drive 2,000 orders yesterday (or last week or last month or in the last hour). Now attribution is turned on and shows that these ads also had 1,000 assists. Great, but there are still only 2,000 orders. If we assign a real value to an assist without simultaneously reducing the value of the other touches on the order we will be guilty of double-counting -- exactly what attribution management seeks to avoid;
  2. Self-assists. Particularly egregious attribution systems credit self-assists! We know that the paid search buying cycle argument is largely hooey, but what we do see in paid search fairly regularly is people clicking multiple times on the same ad prior to placing an order. The ad becomes a navigation aid. The person remembers how they found the site that had the cool product they wanted and repeats that behavior. Crediting an ad for both driving the order AND assisting the sale is ridiculous. Even Gretzky didn't get credited for assisting himself.
  3. Equivalency. All preceding touches are treated as equal regardless of order or timing. Even worse, ad impressions and actual visits to the site are treated as equally valuable, which is absurd; and
  4. Channel agnosticism. Different marketing channels behave...um...differently. A last touch on a competitive non-brand search term is fundamentally different than a last touch on an affiliate coupon site, and the statistics bear this out. Given the same preceding touches the paid search ad should get more credit than the affiliate ad on average because of the behaviors these touch-paths describe. This is also true of the distinction between brand search and non-brand search (paid or organic). The behaviors that lead to exposure to ads from different marketing channels mean that those channels cannot all be treated the same way.
All assists are not created equally. For direct marketers, fractional allocation of credit is required to fully understand the value of different marketing channels. Controlled testing of what can be tested (display ads, direct mail, email) is also essential. For brick and mortar chains the picture is less clear, but there is no reason not to measure carefully the effects that can be measured. We're working with folks on some very interesting tests to at least get a sense of the online impact of TV and circulars and the offline impact of online marketing.
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