Analytics Strategist

May 17, 2012

Attribution Model vs Attribution Modeling

Attribution is a difficult topic, growing into a mess of tangled threads.

I hope this post, and subsequent ones, will help to untangle the messy threads.  I like to start with simple stuff, be meticulous with the use of words and concepts and be patient; after all, haste makes waste.

When an advertiser records a conversion or purchase, some times there are multiple campaigns in the touch point history of the conversion; how do we decide what campaign(s) responsible for the conversion and how should the conversion be credited to each of these campaigns?  This is the attribution problem; a practical issue first raised in digital advertising but in itself a general analytical challenges.  It is applicable to many marketing/advertising contexts, cross channels or within a particular channel for example.

Micro vs Macro

Notice that Attribution is a “micro” level problem: it dealt with each individual conversion event.  In contrast, Marketing Mix Model (or Media Mix Model) deals with “macro” level problem: crediting conversion volume to each channel/campaigns in aggregate.  There are similarity between the two when viewed from the business side; they are quite different analytic problems, different in all major aspects of the analytic process: from data to methodology to application.

Attribution Model vs Attribution Modeling

Advertisers implement business rule(s) to handle this “attribution”, or credit distribution, process.  These rules are generally called “attribution rule” or “attribution model”; examples of it are Last Click Model, First Click Model, Fractional Attribution Model etc..  Rules and models are interchangeable in this regard, they serve as instruction set for the execution of attribution process.

There are no shortage of attribution rules or models being discussed. Anyone can come up with a new one, as long as it does partitioning credit .  The challenge is finding the right one, to choose from too many of them.  In other words, it is the lack of justification for the approach, process and methodology of Attribution Rules/Models that is a problem.

Now comes the Attribution Modeling – a statistical model-based approach to quantify the impact of each campaigns on each individual’s conversion behavior.  It is a data-driven algorithmic approach; it is hot and cool, with an aura of objectivity around.  It is often treated as the secret sauce to unlock attribution and optimization and covered with a proprietary blackbox.

Let me slow down a bit.  I have discussed two important concepts here: Attribution Model and Attribution Modeling. The former refers to the attribution rules; the later refers to the process of generating/justifying the rules. I understand that everyone do not agree with my use of the words, or the distinction between the two; but I think this is a critical distinction, for untangling the threads in attribution discussion.

Domain Expert vs Data Scientist

There are generally two camps when it comes to the generation/justification of attribution model.  The first is the “domain experts” and the second the “data scientists”.  Domain experts take issues with attribution models by pointing out the good and bad, arguing on behalf of common sense, experience and intuition; it is qualitative, insightful and at times interesting but generally pessimistic and fall short when it comes to build a rigorous data-driven solutions. The general principle for justifying attribution is one of two: the influence and the fairness.  The influence principle attributes credit based on the influence of the campaign on conversion, whereas the fairness is often stated generally.

The fairness principle is not a concern for the data scientists camp; in fact, it is all about modeling/quantifying the impact or influence. After all, if you can do the attribution based on precise measurements of influences of each touch points, what other principle do you need? Of course, the problem is often about the promise and less about the principle.  In contrast to the domain experts, the data scientists approach is quantitative, rigorous and data driven. You can argue with the choice of a specific modeling methodology, but the resulting model itself does not require common sense or past experience to justify.

Principle of Attribution:  Influence, Fairness, Optimality

A third principle in picking the right attribution model is optimality, for lack of better word.  Do right attribution models lead to optimal campaign management?  Some argue yes.  Does the reverse statement true? Can optimality be a principle in choosing or justifying attribution model?  These are some of things I will discuss and debate about in my next writeup.

Thanks for reading!

February 25, 2009

micro and macro attribution

What is attribution analytics? I was thinking of quoting a definition from Wikipedia but could not find it. So here’s my version of it:

Attribution analytics is a set of data analytics techniques used to determine the proportional contribution of marketing campaigns to conversions.  

There are two general types of attribution problem:  micro attribution focus on attribution of individual level conversion to marketing campaign touch points; macro attribution focus on attribution of aggregated level sale/conversion to marketing campaigns activities. Both types of attribution are trying to answer the question of how much credit each marketing campaigns should get; the data analytics behind them are in fact very different.

Marketing Mix Modeling (MMM) is one type of macro attribution analytics.  

The data used for macro attribution are commonly time-series data:  sale volume over time and marketing campaign spend data over the same time periods (may also include a few periods prior to that).  MMM is typically statistical/econometric model that use marketing spend data, and others, to predict the sale volume. The estimated relationship will then applied back to the data to figure out the proportional contribution of each marketing campaigns to total sale (or total incremental sale). MMM is a well developed analytics technique that has been around and practiced for decades. Its pros and cons are also well understood.

Macro attribution is mostly used for the purpose of evaluating the effectiveness of marketing/advertising channels, budget allocation and optimization.

Micro attribution on the other hand, uses individual level event data.  When individual is exposed to multiple marketing events (touch points), which events should get credit and how much? The explosive growth of individual level event data and cross channel matching methodology/technology is perhaps the major factor behind the rapidly growing interest in micro attribution. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding regarding to what the right analytics framework for this, and what are appropriate analytics tools for it. Some think that it is all about coming up with smart business rules and protocols while others believe that more rigorous statistical modeling is needed.

Micro attribution is mainly used for tactical campaign optimization.  However, when multiple channels/media events are involved (such as email, banner, ppc and seo etc..) its implication on macro level budget allocation is inevitable. Hence the organizational complications come with it as well. 

Individual event level data is clearly a better source for attribution – even if the interest is only at the aggregate level.  Multichannel marketers have been wrestling with attribution problem for a long time.  Many of the innovation are in the data capturing area, such as custom 1-800 numbers and custom URL etc.. Those are important measurement processes, designed to capture micro event level data to avoid having to do the less precision and less effective macro attribution.  However, in most cases only the last touch point is recorded – because it often happens at the same time as conversion event.  It is a situation that fit neither the micro nor the macro attribution problem above.  From the micro attribution perspective, because it has only one (last) touch point, it is simply a dummy LAST touch point attribution rule.  From the macro attribution perspective, because we know which touch point a sale/conversion was attributed, there is no need for any modeling at all.  Hence the popularity of the use of these types of attribution measurement devices.

The calling for using micro attribution is due to its optimization potential for business operation.  If attribution for the purpose of attribution, i.e. to satisfy political or procedural reporting need, then the last touch point attribution is a perfect solution.  However, it fails mainly because of its inability to capture and understand today’s consumer experience – that is multi-channel, multi-touch in nature.  One touch point analytics paradigm is outdated for understanding today’s consumers. The future is multi-touch, the future is micro attribution.  Hence it is extremely important to understand the right analytics framework for micro attribution.

Please come back to read the next post: micro attribution analytics is conversion modeling.

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