Attribution challenges for online and offline marketers

This week, we’ve been looking at the differences between online and offline direct marketing and how the specialists from these two different worlds can talk to each other.

This difference may be no more stark than it is for attribution.

With online attribution, you can follow a Web visitors journey through your site.  You can (and should) follow them through the site and say that someone we attract to the home page is worth X; if we get them to take an advocacy alert, they are worth Y; if they download a white paper, they are worth Z.  These steps toward donation each have their place in the donor journey firmament online.

With offline, attribution is usually applied with a sledgehammer — they donated to X mail piece, so X gets the credit.

Having run a quasi-membership program, I’ve seen the absurd joy of watching donations spike to last year’s membership pieces the moment this year’s come out.  (OK, “spike” is a bit dramatic; “hill” perhaps?  They go up by a little for a time, then back down.)  People almost certainly set them aside and then, reminded by the latest piece, send in whatever reply device they have at hand.

This is one minor example of how offline attribution is often done, but simplified to the point of absurdity.  One is put in mind of the old physicists’ joke about milk production:

Ever lower milk prices were driving a dairy farmer to desperate measures, so he consulted with  a theoretical physicist. The physicist listened to his problem, asked a few questions, and then said he’d take the assignment, and that it would take only a few hours to solve the problem. A few weeks later, the physicist phoned the farmer, “I’ve got the answer. The solution turned out to be a bit more complicated than I thought and I’m presenting it at this afternoon’s seminar.”  As the talk begins the physicist approaches the blackboard and draws a big circle. “First, we assume a spherical cow of uniform density…” (here’s the origin joke, which I simplified

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So I guess was the only one who thought of that joke with oversimplification?  Sorry ‘bout that…

Anyway, this way of looking at attribution has several program-damaging faults:

  • It can cause people to cut cultivation communications.  These communications that help retain donors, learn about them, and bring them ever closer to the mission but don’t directly convert can have a big impact on eventual conversion.  In essence, you may end up cutting the wrong thing.
  • It can cause overcommunication.  If you add a communication and it nets positive, you may think it is the power of that communication, when it’s really about the the last communication but there wasn’t enough space between communications to differentiate.
  • It puts you in a mindset where you are thinking about the individual communications, not the individual donors.  This puts you in real trouble.  It’s natural to look at a mail piece or an email and think about how it “generated” the gift (when some research indicates that the last piece is about 16% responsible for a gift, leaving the vast majority to other causes).  In reality, the donor generated the gift.  How do you want to treat that donor going forward.

While sacrilegious to some, offline direct marketers would do well to take a bit of the humility from online attribution models (if not the models themselves) — there is only so much the proximate communication is responsible for.

Attribution challenges for online and offline marketers

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